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The bugger, bugged

After a chance meeting with a former News of the World executive who told him his phone had been hacked, Hugh Grant couldn’t resist going back to him – with a hidden tape recorder – to find out if there was more to the story. . .

When I broke down in my midlife crisis car in remotest Kent just before Christmas, a battered white van pulled up on the far carriageway. To help, I thought. But when the driver got out he started taking pictures with a long-lens camera. He came closer to get better shots and I swore at him. Then he offered me a lift the last few miles to my destination. I suspected his motives and swore at him some more. (I'm not entirely sympathetic towards paparazzi.) Then I realised I couldn't get a taxi and was late. So I had to accept the lift.

He turned out to be an ex-News of the World investigative journalist and paparazzo, now running a pub in Dover. He still kept his camera in the car's glove box for just this kind of happy accident.

More than that, he was Paul McMullan, one of two ex-NoW hacks who had blown the whistle (in the Guardian and on Channel 4's Dispatches) on the full extent of phone-hacking at the paper, particularly under its former editor Andy Coulson. This was interesting, as I had been a victim - a fact he confirmed as we drove along. He also had an unusual defence of the practice: that phone-hacking was a price you had to pay for living in a free society. I asked how that worked exactly, but we ran out of time, and next thing we had arrived and he was asking me if I would pose for a photo with him, "not for publication, just for the wall of the pub".

I agreed and the picture duly appeared in the Mail on Sunday that weekend with his creative version of the encounter. He had asked me to drop into his pub some time. So when, some months later, Jemima asked me to write a piece for this paper, it occurred to me it might be interesting to take him up on his invitation.

I wanted to hear more about phone-hacking and the whole business of tabloid journalism. It occurred to me just to interview him straight, as he has, after all, been a whistleblower. But then I thought I might possibly get more, and it might be more fun, if I secretly taped him, The bugger bugged, as it were. Here are some excerpts from our conversation.

Me So, how's the whistleblowing going?
Him I'm trying to get a book published. I sent it off to a publisher who immediately accepted it and then it got legal and they said, "This is never going to get published."
Me Why? Because it accuses too many people of crime?
Him Yes, as I said to the parliamentary commission, Coulson knew all about it and regularly ordered it . . . He [Coulson] rose quickly to the top; he wanted to cover his tracks all the time. So he wouldn't just write a story about a celeb who'd done something. He'd want to make sure they could never sue, so he wanted us to hear the celeb like you on tape saying, "Hello, darling, we had lovely sex last night." So that's on tape - OK, we've got that and so we can publish . . . Historically, the way it went was, in the early days of mobiles, we all had analogue mobiles and that was an absolute joy. You know, you just . . . sat outside Buckingham Palace with a £59 scanner you bought at Argos and get Prince Charles and everything he said.
Me Is that how the Squidgy tapes [of Diana's phone conversations] came out? Which was put down to radio hams, but was in fact . . .
Him Paps in the back of a van, yes . . . I mean, politicians were dropping like flies in the Nineties because it was so easy to get stuff on them. And, obviously, less easy to justify is celebrities. But yes.
Me And . . . it wasn't just the News of the World. It was , you know - the Mail?
Him Oh absolutely, yeah. When I went freelance in 2004 the biggest payers - you'd have thought it would be the NoW, but actually it was the Daily Mail. If I take a good picture, the first person I go to is - such as in your case - the Mail on Sunday. Did you see that story? The picture of you, breaking down . . . I ought to thank you for that. I got £3,000. Whooo!
Me But would they [the Mail] buy a phone-hacked story?
Him For about four or five years they've absolutely been cleaner than clean. And before that they weren't. They were as dirty as anyone . . . They had the most money.
Me So everyone knew? I mean, would Rebekah Wade have known all this stuff was going on?
Him Good question. You're not taping, are you?
Me [slightly shrill voice] No.
Him Well, yeah. Clearly she . . . took over the job of [a journalist] who had a scanner who was trying to sell it to members of his own department. But it wasn't a big crime. [NB: Rebekah Brooks has always denied any knowledge of phone-hacking. The current police investigation is into events that took place after her editorship of the News of the World.]
It started off as fun - you know, it wasn't against the law, so why wouldn't you? And it was only because the MPs who were fiddling their expenses and being generally corrupt kept getting caught so much they changed the law in 2001 to make it illegal to buy and sell a digital scanner. So all we were left with was - you know - finding a blag to get your mobile [records] out of someone at Vodafone. Or, when someone's got it, other people swap things for it.
Me So they all knew? Wade probably knew all about it all?
Him [...] Cameron must have known - that's the bigger scandal. He had to jump into bed with Murdoch as everyone had, starting with Thatcher in the Seventies . . . Tony Blair . . . [tape is hard to hear here] Maggie openly courted Murdoch, saying, you know, "Please support me." So when Cameron, when it came his turn to go to Murdoch via Rebekah Wade . . . Cameron went horse riding regularly with Rebekah. I know, because as well as doorstepping celebrities, I've also doorstepped my ex-boss by hiding in the bushes, waiting for her to come past with Cameron on a horse . . . before the election to show that - you know - Murdoch was backing Cameron.
Me What happened to that story?
Him The Guardian paid for me to do it and I stepped in it and missed them, basically. They'd gone past - not as good as having a picture.
Me Do you think Murdoch knew about phone-hacking?
Him Errr, possibly not. He's a funny bloke given that he owns the Sun and the Screws . . . quite puritanical. Sorry to talk about Divine Brown, but when that came out . . . Murdoch was furious: "What are you putting that on our front page for? You're bringing down the tone of our papers." [Indicating himself] That's what we do over here.
Me Well, it's also because it was his film I was about to come out in.
Him Oh. I see.
Me Yeah. It was a Fox film.
[A pause here while we chat to other customers, and then - ]
Him So anyway, let me finish my story.
Me Murdoch, yes . . .
Him So I was sent to do a feature on Moulin Rouge! at Cannes, which was a great send anyway. Basically my brief was to see who Nicole Kidman was shagging - what she was doing, poking through her bins and get some stuff on her. So Murdoch's paying her five million quid to big up the French and at the same time paying me £5.50 to fuck her up . . . So all hail the master. We're just pawns in his game. How perverse is that?
Me Wow. You reckon he never knew about it?
Him [pause] I don't even think he really worried himself too much about it.
Me What's his son called?
Him James. They're all mates together. They all go horse riding. You've got Jeremy Clarkson lives here [in Oxfordshire]. Cameron lives here, and Rebekah Wade is married to Brooks's son [the former racehorse trainer Charlie Brooks]. Cameron gets dressed up as the Stig to go to Clarkson's 50th birthday party [NB: it was actually to record a video message for the party]. Is that demeaning for a prime minister? It should be the other way round, shouldn't it? So basically, Cameron is very much in debt to Rebekah Wade for helping him not quite win the election . . . So that was my submission to parliament - that Cameron's either a liar or an idiot.
Me But don't you think that all these prime ministers deliberately try to get the police to drag their feet about investigating the whole [phone-hacking] thing because they don't want to upset Murdoch?
Him Yeah. There's that . . . You also work a lot with policemen as well . . . One of the early stories was [and here he names a much-loved TV actress in her sixties] used to be a street walker - whether or not she was, but that's the tip.
Me and Chum MLTVA?!
Me I can't believe it. Oh no!
Chum Really??
Him Yeah. Well, not now . . .
Chum Oh, it'd be so much better if it was now.
Him So I asked a copper to get his hands on the phone files, but because it's only a caution it's not there any more. So that's the tip . . . it's a policeman ringing up a tabloid reporter and asking him for ten grand because this girl had been cautioned right at the start of his career. And then I ask another policemen to go and check the records . . . So that's happening regularly. So the police don't particularly want to investigate.
Me But do you think they're going to have to now?
Him I mean - 20 per cent of the Met has taken backhanders from tabloid hacks. So why would they want to open up that can of worms? . . . And what's wrong with that, anyway? It doesn't hurt anyone particularly. I mean, it could hurt someone's career - but isn't that the dance with the devil you have to play?
Me Well, I suppose the fact that they're dragging their feet while investigating a mass of phone-hacking - which is a crime - some people would think is a bit depressing about the police.
Him But then - should it be a crime? I mean, scanning never used to be a crime. Why should it be? You're transmitting your thoughts and your voice over the airwaves. How can you not expect someone to just stick up an aerial and listen in?
Me So if someone was on a landline and you had a way of tapping in . . .
Him Much harder to do.
Me But if you could, would you think that was illegal? Do you think that should be illegal?
Him I'd have to say quite possibly, yeah. I'd say that should be illegal.
Me But a mobile phone - a digital phone . . . you'd say it'd be all right to tap that?
Him I'm not sure about that. So we went from a point where anyone could listen in to anything. Like you, me, journalists could listen in to corrupt politicians, and this is why we have a reasonably fair society and a not particularly corrupt or criminal prime minister, whereas other countries have Gaddafi. Do you think it's right the only person with a decent digital scanner these days is the government? Whereas 20 years ago we all had a go? Are you comfortable that the only people who can listen in to you now are - is it MI5 or MI6?
Me I'd rather no one listened in, to be honest. And I might not be alone there. You probably wouldn't want people listening to your conversations.
Him I'm not interesting enough for anyone to want to listen in.
Me Ah . . . I think that was one of the questions asked last week at one of the parliamentary committees. They asked Yates [John Yates, acting deputy commissioner of the Metropolitan Police] if it was true that he thought that the NoW had been hacking the phones of friends and family of those girls who were murdered . . . the Soham murder and the Milly girl [Milly Dowler].
Him Yeah. Yeah. It's more than likely. Yeah . . . It was quite routine. Yeah - friends and family is something that's not as easy to justify as the other things.
Me But celebrities you would justify because they're rich?
Him Yeah. I mean, if you don't like it, you've just got to get off the stage. It'll do wonders.
Me So I should have given up acting?
Him If you live off your image, you can't really complain about someone . . .
Me I live off my acting. Which is different to living off your image.
Him Yeah, but you're still presenting yourself to the public. And if the public didn't know you -
Me They don't give a shit. I got arrested with a hooker and they still came to my films. They don't give a fuck about your public image. They just care about whether you're in an entertaining film or not.
Him That's true . . . I have terrible difficulty with him [points to pap shot of Johnny Depp]. He's really difficult. You know, I was in Venice and he was a nightmare to do because he walks around looking like Michael Jackson. And the punchline was . . . after leading everyone a merry dance the film was shot on an open balcony - I mean, it was like - he was standing there in public.
Me And you don't see the difference between the two situations?
Chum He was actually working at this time? As opposed to having his own private time?
Him You can't hide all the time.
Me So you're saying, if you're Johnny Depp or me, you don't deserve to have a private life?
Him You make so much more money. You know, most people in Dover take home about £200 and struggle.
Me So how much do you think the families of the Milly and Soham girls make?
Him OK, so there are examples that are poor and you can't justify - and that's clearly one of them.
Me I tell you the thing I still don't get - if you think it was all right to do all that stuff, why blow the whistle on it?
Him Errm . . . Right. That's interesting. I actually blew the whistle when a friend of mine at the Guardian kept hassling me for an interview. I said, "Well if you put the name of the Castle [his pub] on the front page of the Guardian, I'll do anything you like." So that's how it started.
Me So, have you been leant on by the NoW, News International, since you blew the whistle?
Him No, they've kept their distance. I mean, there's people who have much better records - my records are non-existent. There are people who actually have tapes and transcripts they did for Andy Coulson.
Me And where are these tapes and transcripts? Do you think they've been destroyed?
Him No, I'm sure they're saving them till they retire.
Me So did you personally ever listen to my voice messages?
Him No, I didn't personally ever listen to your voice messages. I did quite a lot of stories on you, though. You were a very good earner at times.

Those are the highlights. As I drove home past the white cliffs, I thought it was interesting - apart from the fact that Paul hates people like me, and I hate people like him, we got on quite well. And, absurdly, I felt a bit guilty for recording him.

And he does have a very nice pub. The Castle Inn, Dover, for the record. There are rooms available, too. He asked me if I'd like to sample the honeymoon suite some time: "I can guarantee your privacy."

-- Listen to the audio now --

This article first appeared in the 11 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Jemima Khan guest edit

James Graham. Photo: MIKE MCGREGOR/Guardian
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Love, Labour and loss: how James Graham became the king of political theatre

He captured the spirit of the Commons at the end of the Seventies in This House. Now, he’s turned his attention to the Labour Party.

London, 8 June 2017, 10.01pm

The minute the exit poll was announced, James Graham knew he had a problem. His latest play, Labour of Love, had been announced on 19 May when the opposition was polling a dozen points behind the Conservatives. The initial press coverage had mentioned plans to tweak the script right up until its opening night in September to chart “Labour’s changing fortunes – and any potential new leader of the party after the election”.

All that was swept away when David Dimbleby announced that the Conservatives had lost their Commons majority. Graham was having a party with friends, but he knew instantly that his script would need a significant rewrite. “I didn’t expect that election to happen, like everyone else. And I didn’t expect that result, like everyone else,” he told me one Friday afternoon in August, in a white-walled office above Wyndham’s Theatre in Soho. “So the questions the play is posing about the Labour Party and the direction of travel are not the ones I wrote in the drafts that the actors signed up to months ago.”

Luckily, Graham, who is 35, is used to working at a frantic pace – he writes early in the morning, before the emails start, and late at night. He hates starting to write, loving the possibility offered by a blank page and loathing the thought of muddying it with an inevitably imperfect script. But once he has begun, he charges through scenes, “so that when one character is responding to another, it’s instinctive and visceral. I don’t over-think it.”

That’s just as well, as there is a heavy weight of expectation hanging over Labour of Love. Not only does it have a starry cast – Sherlock’s Martin Freeman, playing a Labour MP, and Tamsin Greig of Black Books, playing his constituency agent – but there is a tingling anticipation that Graham, finally, might be the one to make some sense of our absurd, improbable, exciting, terrifying political moment. That’s because he writes “political theatre” with as much attention to the second word of that phrase as to the first. You will leave one of his plays bursting with knowledge about pairing MPs, or Einstein’s regrets over Hiroshima, or the Byzantine division of labour demanded by print unions in the 1960s. But you will also have watched an enjoyable play. It seems like that shouldn’t be too much to ask and yet, quite often, it is.

Graham’s breakthrough came with This House in 2012, a big, energetic piece about the whips’ offices in the House of Commons during the last years of the Callaghan government. In its climactic moment, Big Ben falls silent, suggesting that politics might offer the appearance of tumult but is too often grindingly cyclical. His previous work includes The Vote, set in a polling station during the last 90 minutes of an election day; Privacy, which grappled with the fallout from Edward Snowden’s revelations about NSA surveillance; and The Angry Brigade, about 1970s anarchists and the police sent to catch them. He has written small plays – The Man has just one character, Albert’s Boy has two – and huge, sprawling ones for the National Youth Theatre, with a cast list extending into the dozens.

Labour of Love is set in a single place – a constituency office in the Midlands – but spans 27 years of the party’s fortunes, from the dog days of late Thatcherism, through the pomp of New Labour, and right up to the present. Like all Graham’s plays, it is meticulously researched. The jargon is technically correct, and the references are contemporary: Tamsin Greig’s agent looks forward, if Labour loses the seat, to leaving the party’s WhatsApp group.

Kate Wasserberg of the theatre company Out of Joint, who directed several of Graham’s earlier plays, compares him to Hilary Mantel in his ability to see “how the follies of the human heart lead to seismic events”. He has, she says, “the soul of a playwright and the brain of a historian”. Harry Davies, his researcher, tells me that the pair conducted 50 interviews for Privacy.

In person, though, James Graham is remarkably unremarkable: average height, brown hair, neatly dressed, good-looking more through the absence of flaws rather than any particularly striking feature. If he mugged you and the case rested on identifying him later, he would get away with it.

Except that wouldn’t happen, because James Graham is nice. He has more than a thousand Facebook friends. He sends thoughtful emails and apologises for not being sufficiently interesting. Everyone in the theatre world likes him; more than that, they feel happy for his success. It’s profoundly disconcerting. (This is partly down to a recognition that he has paid his dues: he must have felt as if he had spent the first decade of his career living inside a perpetual three-star Michael Billington review.) When I ran into him at a bar in the course of writing this profile, he gallantly offered to buy me a drink, despite my only conversation-starter being that I had spent all week trying to get his friends to gossip about him.

Graham is a people-pleaser, something that leads him to accept too many commissions – “He’s always got three more projects on the go than he should,” says the BuzzFeed writer James Ball, who appears as a character in Privacy. As a result, Graham occasionally says yes when he should say no. In 2013, he signed up to rewrite the book for the musical Finding Neverland, a vanity project of the Hollywood über-producer Harvey Weinstein. “The reviews were hideous but it survived because it starred Matthew Morrison from Glee, and it had an advertising budget the size of Venezuela,” says David Benedict, a former London critic for Variety. “A show on Broadway may take a million dollars a week, and if you’re on a percentage, you’re quite happy. I can’t imagine someone as shrewd as him got into bed without knowing.”

Not that money seems to be much of a motivating factor in Graham’s life. Neverland provided him with the deposit for a house in Kennington, but there is a general agreement that by choosing to keep writing for theatres rather than taking a Netflix or film deal, Graham is losing out financially.

“It’s humility,” says Neil McPherson, the artistic director of west London’s Finborough Theatre, of both Graham’s personal civility and his inability to say no to commissions. “It’s possibly a class thing. I have a nightmare with my job with Oxford graduates who would kill their grandmother to run the National [Theatre] a year earlier. But James is humble before the work.”

Annesley, Nottinghamshire, 9 April 1992

It’s the day of the general election and there’s only one way this part of Nottinghamshire will go – Labour. But the nine-year-old James Graham is dimly aware that his parents, who separated when he was four but still live on the same street, are voting different ways. This is one of his first political memories – apart from seeing posters during the 1990 Conservative leadership election and deciding that Michael Heseltine was his guy, based solely on his hair. “That mane,” he says now. “It was purely on looks.” (When Heseltine came to see This House, he was reportedly unhappy with the wig used by the actor playing him. “He came about five times so he can’t have been that offended by any of it,” notes Graham drily.)

The playwright also remembers the closure of the mineheads in Annesley, the village where he grew up. Deindustrialisation hit the community hard, but it was already riven by the ideological disputes of the late 1970s and 1980s. Soon after Graham returned from university, there was a murder in Annesley: a miner who left the hard-line NUM during the strikes killed another who had not. It felt to him like an echo of the village’s deep divides. “I remember watching the mineheads come down, and the physical geography of my town changing,” he says. “I probably didn’t associate that with politics at the time.”

He is the youngest of three children, with an elder brother and a twin sister. After their parents separated, his brother lived with their father; he and his sister with their mother. The twins were the first in their family to go to university; he went to Hull to study drama and discovered a swath of northern playwrights: Willy Russell, John Godber, Jim Cartwright. At the Hull Truck Theatre, “It was like going to a working men’s club… You’d get a pint and go sit at a table and people would do you a play.” To the community there, watching a performance was an equal choice to the pub, bowling or bingo. “It was part of their experience. That will sound romantic or sentimental, but it just was.”

Accordingly, a fifth of the seats for Labour of Love cost just £10, something Graham calls “almost a socialist experiment”, as the discount is paid for by hiking the price of prime real estate in the stalls. “You can’t kid yourself that what you’re doing is engaging in a national conversation about the direction of the left, or of a party whose roots are in working-class trade unionism, if you’re going to fill your Victorian theatre with people who can afford expensive tickets,” he says, “and have already had the conversation with themselves anyway.”

It bothers him that it’s now harder to find working-class voices and experiences represented on television: his formative influences included Cracker, GBH and Auf Wiedersehen, Pet. The ITV regional producing bodies have been whittled away, the new English Baccalaureate curriculum discourages subjects such as drama and, Graham says, “With local authority cuts, the first thing that goes is funding to theatres and libraries. So you have to travel to London to see a new show.”

Graham is part of a generation of younger writers and directors who are fighting back against this trend. He gave evidence at a Commons inquiry into working-class participation in the arts, noting that he supported himself through his early days writing for the Finborough Theatre with bar and call-centre work; in his school years, he would go out window-cleaning with his stepdad. When he first moved to London, he sometimes had to walk home from meetings because he couldn’t afford the Tube fare. “Without being a wanker, he’s stayed in touch with his roots,” Neil McPherson says. “A lot of new writers are very middle class. It’s surprising how many haven’t had Saturday jobs.”

When This House was shown at cinemas across the country as part of National Theatre Live, people told Graham that audiences would cheer when their constituency was mentioned: “It’s a tribal thing, I guess, but you don’t expect to hear the name of your shitty town.” When his mum came to see the play, the crowd, knowing where its writer was from, went wild at the mention of the member for Mansfield. “I was so proud,” he says. “No one has ever cheered the word ‘Mansfield’ in a West End theatre.”

At the same time, the more you read of Graham’s work, the more you realise the pain and dislocation inherent in our model of social mobility. Working-class success is often measured by leaving. It’s an idea that crops up in other contemporary writers at the intersection between politics and comedy. Caitlin Moran confesses that she was thrilled to get a job on the Times at 18, as her options in Wolverhampton would have been “literally cheese counter or prostitute”. In How Not to Be a Boy, Robert Webb – a grammar school pupil from Lincolnshire – writes of his guilt at arriving at Cambridge University with his father and brother. “We find my room at Robinson College and Mark and Dad nearly piss themselves when they see a note on the bed, reading ‘YOUR BEDMAKER’S NAME IS ALISON’. Finally, Little Lord Fauntleroy has staff.”

In her 2016 book Respectable, Lynsey Hanley tackles this idea head-on. “It might be argued that another primary aspect of working-class experience, a feeling which most defines a certain way of being in the world, is loss.” That means the loss of jobs, the loss of a sense of place as a local factory or works closes down, and the loss of the environment that formed you when you have to leave it as an adult. “In doing so, you risk creating another disjuncture, another source of loss, in the history of your family. The place you came from, so this new story goes, wasn’t good enough for you.”

Several of Graham’s early plays are haunted by this idea. In Sons of York, three generations of men from the same family struggle through the winter of discontent of 1978-9. Mark, the youngest, likes the subversive comedian Kenny Everett and remarks on how much Eric Morecambe looks like Philip Larkin; his father, Jim, and grandfather (“Dad”) have no idea what he’s on about. His mother, Brenda, has to do all the emotional labour of the family and most of the practical stuff, too; when Mam dies, the three men struggle to make small talk, let alone share their grief. Dad wants to know who the union rep is at Mark’s work; neither Mark nor his father can bring themselves to tell Dad that he has stayed on for sixth form instead of following the family tradition and becoming a van driver.

Jim wants to be proud, but experiences his son’s social mobility as rejection:

Jim: D’yer’ark at him, eh? Smug little… gi’in it all working-class solidarity.

Brenda: You what?

Jim: When tomorrow he’ll have his nose back in a bloody textbook.

“I feel like there’s stuff in there that’s the best stuff,” Kate Wasserberg says of Sons of York. “It’s not the majestic flying buttresses of This House in terms of ability, but were he to put pain in…” She trails off. “James’s parents are clearly very proud of him but it was always interesting to me that I never got to know his siblings. Their lives are totally different. How many James Graham plays can you think of with brothers and sisters?”

For the record, there are a few. In one, The Man, the narrator even has a twin. His brother has a fatal degenerative disease, which causes injured muscle to grow back as bone. The narrator is racked by survivor’s guilt; haunted by the twist of fate that gave him one destiny and his twin another.

Finborough Theatre, London, 2005

Articles about political theatre have two settings. At any time that we are not fretting about the “death of political theatre”, we are apparently living through a golden age of it. The Iraq War produced the last great flowering, and Brexit now seems to be doing the same. Both are great engines of creativity because they are outrages perpetrated by the political class on the playwright and playgoer class: times when artists and writers have looked at politicians and felt, with a sensation like that sudden falling jerk when you’re nearly asleep, hang on, these people are not on our side.

In the summer of 2005, as hubristic US generals predicted a “fairly substantial” withdrawal of British and American troops from Iraq within a year, a new play opened at the tiny Finborough Theatre. Its author was a 22-year-old who was working as a doorkeeper at the Nottingham Playhouse, 11 miles from where he grew up.

When the script first arrived, unsolicited and unaccompanied by any agent’s recommendation, the theatre’s artistic director, Neil McPherson, was tempted to weigh it. “It was 250 or 300 pages long,” he says now. “He’d basically put in every single historical character you can imagine: Hitler, Napoleon, Pol Pot.” But it was funny – “he can write a zinging one-liner” – and it was ambitious, ending with Hiroshima live onstage. “I said: go away and write the Napoleon play or the Einstein play. He wrote the Einstein play.”

Albert’s Boy was recently revived at the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond, and although Graham found watching it tough – “It was like watching your younger self trying to flirt or seduce somebody, and not getting it right” – it stands up better than other plays that engaged more directly with war and WMD. “I didn’t want to write the Basra play,” is how Graham describes it now.

Set in a single room (to allow it to be produced as cheaply as possible), it has two characters: Albert Einstein and Peter Bucky, the son of a family friend, who has just returned from the Korean War. Bucky, whose nerves are shot from his experiences as a prisoner, has little time for the older man’s recriminations over his involvement in the Manhattan Project. Is it really any worse, he says, to burn instantly in a nuclear fireball than to be bayoneted and left to die in the snow?

There are perhaps too many jokes about how a genius can be terrible at housekeeping (“Maybe the key to unifying your theory is unifying your socks!”) but there is also a light touch with pathos. Einstein’s cat disappears, and his fretting is ended only when he finds the creature’s body in the vegetable patch. It’s both a subtle echo of Stalin’s line about a single death being a tragedy and a reminder of the true danger and temptation of nuclear war: it renders the act of killing distant and bloodless. Death should be messy, never clinical, to stop us getting a taste for it.

Graham wonders if his first produced play accidentally set the course of his career, and whether, “had my first play been a relationship drama in a flat in Leeds… they would all have been that kind of stuff”. But that wasn’t to be. On the first night of Albert’s Boy, Neil McPherson brought in all his books about Anthony Eden. “I plonked them in front of [Graham] and said: get on with it.” The result was Eden’s Empire, which drew muted parallels between the Suez Crisis and the Iraq War. After that, Graham and McPherson spent three hours in a café in Smithfield, “and I talked him into the Margaret Thatcher play” – Little Madam, which dealt with the Conservative leader’s childhood in Grantham. “I didn’t need to give him any ideas after that,” McPherson says. “He had his own.”

Although Graham has since become famous for his big, public plays – and his television work, such as a Channel 4 dramatisation of the coalition negotiations – that doesn’t do justice to the range of his output. Many of his earlier plays are smaller, human dramas. The Whisky Taster, for example, tells the story of a pair of colleagues at an advertising agency trying to win a pitch for a new brand, while struggling to articulate their feelings for each other. A History of Falling Things shows a boy and a girl, both terrified to leave their houses because of their phobia of satellites crashing from the sky, who meet on an internet forum and communicate through webcams. Their bedrooms occupy opposite ends of the stage, with a gulf forever between them.

If you look at these plays, a different Graham emerges from the grand chronicler of political events. “There’s an ongoing theme in his work that is always quite cleverly obscured,” Kate Wasserberg says, “to do with people who cannot form intimacies for various reasons. For someone who everybody loves so passionately, there’s a loneliness… I feel like I’m being indiscreet but it’s all in the work.” (In interviews, Graham will not be drawn on his private life, instead saying things like, “I am not a monk.” He tells me that writing plays is an odd mix of solitude and bursts of public interaction: “I enjoy being by myself, probably a little too much. I have a few friends who live nearby who, if I don’t WhatsApp for while, risk banging on my door to bully me out.”)

Paul Roseby of the National Youth Theatre describes a similar experience when they worked together on Tory Boyz. The play juxtaposes Ted Heath’s relationship with his childhood friend Kay – who loves him but marries someone else when she realises her love cannot be reciprocated – with the macho, bullying world of young, gay Conservative parliamentary staffers.

Roseby admits that he worked on a political play with Graham for months without ever knowing what “his true political persuasion was”. (It seems unlikely to be Ukip, however; his friends include the Guardian writer Owen Jones.) When he saw The Whisky Taster, which ends with the colleagues failing to acknowledge their relationship, Roseby decided: “The thing is with James, he just needs to go out and shag more. I may have said that to him. Why aren’t these people sealing the deal? They don’t commit. It’s very tentative. But that creates a very interesting tension. Still, I didn’t pry too much. We were too busy trying to put a bloody play on.”

Like other friends, Roseby describes Graham as essentially “private”, adding: “I love that about him. In our world, we are so ready to spill everything, but drama is about secrets and lies. He has some secrets and I’m sure he’s told some lies.”

Almeida Theatre, London, 28 June 2017

It’s the press night of Ink, Graham’s play about Rupert Murdoch’s capture of the Sun newspaper, and as usual he has stationed himself at the back of the auditorium to drink in the mood of the audience. He is worried, because the play is showing just a few weeks after the Grenfell Tower fire tragedy. As journalists tried to report on the aftermath, they were shouted and sworn at. There’s an amorphous anger in the air, London’s version of the anti-establishment feeling that led other parts of the country – including Graham’s home town, Mansfield – to vote to leave the EU. “Walking out of that press night, I thought… people will accuse it of being completely toothless and being too kind to him [Rupert Murdoch],” he tells me.

The script of Ink had already been heavily rewritten from the first day of rehearsals. “When I brought the script in… I had one of those moments I thought I had got used to, which was the difficult read-through where it’s not quite there yet and you feel vulnerable and exposed,” he says. “It felt like a series of disconnected events – the thing I always hate and warn myself off when doing history, that it just becomes an episode tick list. This happened, this happened, in this order. But it doesn’t seem to amount to anything.”

He left the rehearsal room that night and stayed away for a week, rewriting the whole second act and most of the first. “I had thought the story was so amazing, the world was so vivid, that it would be great. Actually, I had to go back and do some proper play-writing.”

I was at that press night, and two things struck me. The first was the hilarious starriness of the audience, at least in journalistic terms: Kath Viner, the editor of the Guardian, to the right of me; Tony Gallagher, the Sun editor, in the row behind. Journalists love any art about journalism, no matter how brutal or condemnatory: it makes us feel that what we do might echo down the ages, instead of disappearing into chip-wrapping. The second was a feeling of surprise at the interval: hang on, this is Rupert Murdoch, portrayed on a stage in Islington, north London, and he’s… not the Devil?

Graham’s Murdoch is a bundle of contradictions, unsure of himself, still the Australian immigrant stung by being called a “sheep farmer” and on a mission to liberate the working class from what he sees as pointless self-improvement foisted on them by a paternalistic establishment. His key line comes when he marches into the Mirror Group’s boardroom, ready to buy its worst-performing title, and gets tired of the pleasantries: “That’s enough foreplay. Can we get down to the fucking?”

On the surface, it reads like a yahoo deliberately outraging the standards of people he doesn’t respect. But Graham’s portrait of Murdoch suggests another reading: a socially awkward man making sure that everyone else feels uncomfortable, too. “I hope it’s the latter,” Graham says. “And the way that Bertie [Carvel] performed it was the latter.” (I tell Graham it reminded me of my old editor Paul Dacre. I recently discovered a diary entry from 2008, when I wrote about nearly running into the Daily Mail supremo in the newsroom after emerging from behind a pillar into his path. “He looked tortured and mumbled apologies without making eye contact, before moving on. Five minutes later he was calling my boss a c***.”)

During his research, Graham discovered that the Sun’s first editor, Larry Lamb, had hidden the launch of Page Three from Murdoch. “Whether it’s true or not, books like Stick It Up Your Punter! and Larry’s memoirs suggest he was furious… And you think: my god, what did Rupert Murdoch learn about his anger and piousness about Page Three that he had to unlearn to become the most successful newspaper magnate in the world?”

During the interval, a friend suggested that Ink would inevitably be compared with David Hare and Howard Brenton’s Pravda, a savage satire of the press from 1985, in which the South African tycoon Lambert La Roux buys a newspaper from a bumbling old aristocrat who wants the money to buy a share in a racehorse. That play is far less interested in the motivations of its Murdoch figure. The last line, spoken by La Roux, is: “Welcome to the foundry of lies.” This is not something you could imagine one of James Graham’s characters saying.

Hare sees the even-handedness of Graham’s characterisation as a response to the prevailing political climate – just as Pravda was ahead of its time. “I remember Howard turning to me at the first preview when the audience started to laugh and [saying]: but they haven’t said anything funny yet. I said: no, but I think they want this play.”

Hare tells me that he thinks Pravda was a rare example of one of his plays “sailing downwind”. “By and large, if you write political drama, you’re sailing upwind – trying to persuade people of something that they don’t necessarily want to be persuaded of.” (Hare’s Iraq play Stuff Happens was written, he says, when supporting the war was still seen as a patriotic duty.)

Ink, which is just about to transfer from the Almeida to the larger Duke of York’s Theatre in the West End, sails defiantly upwind by depicting Rupert Murdoch as an iconoclast disrupting a self-satisfied elite, and showing why working-class Britons were so eager to buy the Sun. The most captivating scene is one in which members of the new editorial team interrogate what they really want in a newspaper: free stuff, gossip, football, sex and the weather. The discussion kicks off with Larry Lamb’s confession, delivered in a broad Yorkshire accent: “I don’t like brass bands. There.”

Hare also declares himself to be a great admirer of the way Graham shows “process” – deepening his audience’s understanding of a situation rather than trying to win it over to a cause. “The easiest kind of play to write is the left-wing play which takes an obvious injustice and stirs up feeling against it,” he tells me. Graham, on the other hand, “writes about the real world, not piety”.

None of this matters, though, unless we accept that theatre – and, by extension, any art – can have political consequences. Graham believes that it can, citing the way Tony Kushner’s Angels in America humanised the victims of the Aids outbreak in the 1980s. “Nothing I’ve done ranks on that scale in terms of influence,” he says. “Some people may tell me they had no idea parliament worked like that, say, or that that’s how the Sun newspaper began, and it has made them see things in a new light, perhaps. Oh, and when I did The Whisky Taster at the Bush in 2010, sales of whisky in the O’Neill’s downstairs went up around 200 per cent. So playwrights are good bootleggers, if nothing else.”

National Theatre, London, 2010

As soon as it became clear that there would be a hung parliament, James Graham decided to pitch a play about politics to the National Theatre. He had little hope of success – he assumed that one of the grand eminences would have bagged the subject – but came away with the commission from Nicholas Hytner for This House.

As ever, the research consumed him. He wanted to turn away from the Great Man version of history and show politics as an engine room. To that end, he placed the action in the whips’ office, as Labour and Conservative whips cajoled and sweet-talked their backbenchers into voting with the party line against a backdrop of recession.

“I was very reluctant at the beginning to talk to James or anyone else,” says Ann Taylor, a former Labour whip who now sits in the Lords. Whips traditionally never speak about their work: Gyles Brandreth, a former Tory whip in the Major government, recalls getting a literal black spot in the post when his memoirs were first published in 1999. But something about Graham’s approach persuaded Taylor: “He filled me with confidence that he was doing it for the right reasons – to portray the period.”

This House is a play without an obvious antagonist. The villain, if there is one, is the system, the great shuddering machine of parliamentary democracy, which gives everyone a little bit of what they want but always at a cost. Between the two sets of whips, the class divide is obvious, but the Labour side has what Graham’s other dislocated, upwardly mobile protagonists never have: comradeship. They swear defensively, talk about “birds” and football and regard themselves as a band of barbarians attacking a citadel, using amendments and points of order as their weapons.

Like Ink, This House sails upwind. It was written two years after Laura Wade’s Posh (filmed as The Riot Club) stormed the Royal Court, showing a Bullingdon Club mob trashing a restaurant and getting its thickest member to take the rap with the promise of a parliamentary seat. But in Graham’s vision, the Tories are not the villains, nor are they universally privileged. The central relationship is between the Labour deputy whip Walter Harrison and his Tory opposite number, Jack Weatherill, who left school at 17 to train as a tailor and always carried a thimble to remind him of his background. Jeremy Herrin, who directed This House, says its core is the idea that “dignity and honour are possible in politics… Like the man, [Graham’s] work is generous and humane.”

Once the whips had decided to talk to Graham, they couldn’t stop. The former Labour whip Ann Taylor even suggested toughening up a line of hers, when the team is discussing the recall of Alfred Broughton, a Labour MP who is at home dying of heart failure, because without his vote the government will fall:

Taylor: I don’t understand, we’re one man down, and the Doc wants to come.

Harrison: Ann, it’ll kill him!

Taylor: He’ll die happy.

“It came out in conversation,” Taylor says now. “I said – it’s reality. It was how a few of us felt at the time.” She has been to see This House four times and tells me how on the last day of its revival at the Garrick Theatre, Walter Harrison’s grandson came to the matinee and was so touched that he left one of his grandfather’s lapel badges for the actor playing him that evening. “Labour whips have been to see it, Tory whips have been to see it, and neither felt it was unfair,” Taylor says. “Maybe it’s because he’s so young, he’s so open-minded. I don’t understand how he understood so much.”

Graham attributes his desire to be even-handed partly to his background – “I’m sure the political divides, the split identity between northern and Midlands, the historical fault lines that ruptured through the towns in the 1980s and 1990s, have contributed to my desire to step back, to take in all sides, yes” – and to his natural temperament. “My family often – and not always as a compliment – refer to me as the diplomatic one in arguments,” he says. “There’s a risk, of course, and I’m not unaware of it, that you’re simply not picking a side.”

Among James Graham’s peers in the theatre, there is a general acknowledgement that This House is, technically, his masterpiece. But they want more. “I wonder if there will be a moment when he will come up against a subject that’s fully worthy of all his skill, that challenges him and is painful, and that will pull something out of him,” says Kate Wasserberg. Paul Roseby’s hopes are simpler: “There has to be more to life than plays. I hope it doesn’t pass him by, the emotional stuff.”

David Hare worries that Labour of Love will feel too reactive because it is tied so closely to current events. “That’s what I call ‘chasing the dustcart’,” he says.

Annesley, 8 June 2017, 10.01pm

It’s the day of the general election and there’s only one way this part of Nottinghamshire will go – Labour. And particularly on this night, surely, when the exit poll predicts Jeremy Corbyn making unexpected gains across the country. In Graham’s home constituency of Ashfield, Gloria De Piero hangs on with a majority of just 441. In next-door Mansfield, everyone expects Sir Alan Meale, the area’s Labour MP since 1987, to be returned to parliament.

But something is wrong. Since Tony Blair’s 1997 landslide, when Meale’s majority swelled to more than 20,000, Labour’s tide has gone out as old class loyalties have crumbled. By 2015, Ukip was in third place.

Still, no one expects it to go blue. At 4.10am, the returning officer Jacqueline Collins duly announces Alan Meale’s re-election. A few muted cheers, and then a dreadful pause. “I’m so sorry,” she starts again. “I declare that Benjamin David Bradley has been elected and I do apologise.” Mansfield has its first ever Conservative MP.

How did this happen, I ask Graham over email. He says that he knows miners and their children who voted Conservative, some of whom are ashamed to tell their families. For some, the motivation was Brexit; for others, it was a sense that “Corbyn’s Labour Party is not their Labour Party”. He adds: “I’m not saying they can’t be won over – and in fact, maybe [Corbyn’s] performance in the final weeks and post-election has helped. But Mansfield, since the blood spilled in the 1980s, has long had a suspicion, a dislike, of ‘the mob’. That militant side to the left, what they view as fanatics, hero-worshipping, political radicalism.”

He also attributes the Conservative win to a “bigger middle class, moving into estates on the outskirts” – and also to Labour’s fundamental problem in its former northern heartlands, as “young voters leave for education and then as graduates they don’t come back”. In other words, it’s partly down to voters like him, who might once have stayed and prospered in a village like Annesley but now find themselves at the back of an auditorium in London, trying to recreate a home from which they have been severed.

“Ink” runs at the Duke of York’s Theatre, London, from 9 September. “Labour of Love” runs at the Noël Coward Theatre from 27 September. “This House” tours Britain next year

James Graham’s selected work

Albert’s Boy (2005)

Graham’s first produced play featured Albert Einstein and a family friend debating the ethics of nuclear war.

Tory Boyz (2008)

In this sprawling epic, the story of young, gay Tory parliamentary researchers is juxtaposed with that of Ted Heath.

The Man (2010)

In this one-man show (sometimes performed by Graham), a man tells the story of his life through the receipts he has collected for his tax return.

This House (2012)

Graham’s breakthrough play followed the whips’ offices in the late 1970s, culminating in the fall of James Callaghan’s Labour government in 1979.

Privacy (2014)

Riffing on the revelations of Edward Snowden about NSA surveillance, this was rewritten for Broadway and starred Daniel Radcliffe as “the writer”.

The Vote (2015)

Broadcast live on election night from the Donmar Warehouse in real time, this followed 90 minutes in a polling station.

X+Y (2015)

Graham’s film debut followed an autistic prodigy (Asa Butterfield) competing in a maths Olympiad.

Quiz (2017)

This play about Who Wants to Be a Millionaire’s “coughing major” opens in Chichester in November this year.

The Culture (2018)

This commission was written in response to Hull (where Graham attended university) being the 2017 City of Culture. It is a farce in the style of the BBC’s W1A

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Jemima Khan guest edit