Show of strength

Hugo Chávez says he wants to bring peace to the warring factions in Colombia's cocaine wars but his

Squinting into the glare of the late-afternoon Caribbean sun, hundreds of pleated khaki-dressed soldiers and military dignitaries form orderly rows facing their chief of staff and head of state, Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez.

Positioned on stage and flanked by a few lines of tanks and helicopters in a military training ground in the provincial city of Valencia, western Venezuela, President Chávez waits for the roaring fighter jets to pass overhead before addressing the assembly.

"From Colombia, Venezuela is threatened," Chávez says, dismissing as "inventions" widespread allegations that his government has colluded with drug trafficking and arms sales to Colombian guerrillas.

The speech is being delivered to mark the 16th anniversary of the attempted coup led by the then-young Lieutenant Colonel Chávez on 4 February 1992. Although it ended in failure and Chávez and his cohorts were imprisoned, many believe the event - now commonly referred to as 4F - paved the way for his eventual democratic election to the presidency in 1998.

But while the Venezuelan president was commemorating his failed putsch, over a million protesters took to the streets in neighbouring Colombia and in cities across the world to voice their opposition to Chávez's hostage-taking rebel allies, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc).

In an almost implausible coincidence, anti-Farc campaigners chose 4 February to mobilise a global protest against the Marxist insurgents. They maintain that the event was entirely apolitical and directed only at the rebel fighters, but in a statement on their website they denounce Chávez's "interventions in the internal matters of Colombia and, particularly, his declarations which seek to justify the Farc as a representation of the Colombian people".

Chávez's inflammatory comments about the threat from Colombia came two days after he declared that the Venezuelan armed forces were "on alert" against possible aggressions from the neighbouring country. In a televised broadcast, the president had warned: "We don't know how far it could go. We don't want to hurt anybody, but no one should make a mistake with us."

He added: "One day things will change in Colombia," referring to the cocaine-fuelled civil war that has raged across the border for almost 60 years. "Theirs is a war in which we cannot participate except as peacemakers."

His words have further aggravated the deepening diplomatic crisis with Bogotá. After successfully negotiating the release of two hostages held by the Farc, he requested that these narco-rebels be removed from lists of international terrorist organisations and expressed an ideological affinity with their insurgent cause.

"The Farc and [National Liberation Army] ELN are not terrorist bodies. They are real armies that occupy space in Colombia. That must be recognised. They are insurgent forces with a Bolivarian political project, which here we respect," Chávez said in his yearly address to the National Assembly on 11 January.

As the anti-Farc movement gathered global momentum through social networking sites such as Facebook, it was quickly seized upon by the Colombian government. On the day of protest, Colombian president Álvaro Uribe even delivered a message of thanks to marchers in the city of Valledupar. "Our gratitude goes to all Colombians who today expressed with dignity and strength their rejection of kidnapping and kidnappers," Reuters reported him as saying.

Back at the Valencia barracks, Venezuelan officials reacted truculently. Jesús González, the strat egic commander of the armed forces, rejected it as a "political ploy to try to identify 4 February with opposition to the Farc".

President Chávez reminded his army and onlookers of the history behind the day's cele brations. "The events of 4 February [1992] swept Venezuela into the 21st century. It was when the Bolivarian revolution truly began," he declared.

In recent years, the flamboyant Venezuelan president has used 4F to demonstrate his increasing regional influence and to launch stinging verbal attacks on his enemies.

While critics maintain that it is hypocritical for a democratic country to celebrate a coup, albeit a failed one, Chávez's supporters see it as the day that planted the seeds for Venezuela's ongoing socialist transformation. Chavistas call it the "Dawn of Hope" and regard it as a stepping-stone to true democracy for the poverty-stricken masses.

"It was the lightning bolt that illuminated the darkness," Chávez said in an interview with the Chilean author Marta Harnecker in 2005.

Continuing his speech to the military, the president maintains that 4F is not finished. "It reminds us we need to be even more revolutionary. My government is a child of 4F," he says.

After two years in prison, Chávez and his allies were released by presidential pardon in 1994 and began a new effort to take over the government, this time through democratic means.

"We realised that another military insurrection would have been crazy," Chávez said in 2005. "A large part of the population did not want violence, but rather they expected that we would organise a political movement structured to take the country on the right path." He came to believe, he has said, that the Bolivarian revolution had to be a peaceful one.

However, some scholars consider the Venez uelan government's decision to actively celebrate 4F a rewriting of history intended to indoctrinate the population.

Néstor Luis Luengo, a professor of sociology and head of research at the Andrés Bello Catholic University in south-west Caracas, believes commemorating the failed coup is a key element in Chávez's broader socialist agenda. "There is an ideological battle taking place in this country. If [the government is] going to push for more reforms, they have to change the ideology of the country and the historical events celebrated." It is in their interests, he says, to make 4 February a patriotic day.

Opposition leaders also criticise Chávez for using the commemoration of the failed coup as an attempt to politicise the military. "For us, the important thing is to have an armed force that is apolitical, modern and at the service of the Venezuelan people, and one that does not become a political party," said Julio Borges, leader of the opposition party Primero Justicia.

Other Chávez opponents are concerned at the militarism: "This government prefers to celebrate a day of violence. They should instead be celebrating the day he was democratically elected president," said Armando Briquet, secretary general of Primero Justicia.

A violent act

Chávez's supporters obviously disagree. Cruz Elena Peligrón, a civilian participant in the 1992 coup and friend and neighbour of Chávez in the 1990s, says: "We have always celebrated our independence day and that was a violent act. The US military commemorates wars like Vietnam and the Second World War. They say you have to fight for peace and unfortunately that's true."

Since Chávez took office in 1999, he has survived an attempted coup, oil strikes and referendums on his presidency. Last December, a package of proposed reforms to the constitution, which would have allowed him to stand for indefinite re-election, was defeated at the polls - his first political loss in nine years.

With Chávez's opponents invigorated by their poll success, this year's 4F festivities were notably restrained, taking place in a small pro vincial barracks instead of the grand military base at Fuerte Tiuna.

Venezuela's ambassador to the UN and former coup plotter, Francisco Javier Arias Cárdenas, said political priorities have changed: "We are no longer going to support unconditionally any segment of the Colombian military that has the objective of destroying either the Farc or the peace process in Colombia. Venezuela is just a third party in the civil war."

He concluded: "Of course we don't support guerrilla warfare, kidnapping or drug trafficking. But to end the war you don't necessarily need to end the Farc - just end the poverty, misery and violence that occur in Colombia every day. Both sides should go to the table and talk peace."

President Uribe maintains an unwavering zero-tolerance stance against the Marxist rebels and has shown much support for paramilitary forces that have been responsible for a catalogue of human rights abuses throughout Colombia's intractable civil war.

Meanwhile, Chávez's flamboyant militarism and allegiances with the Farc make dialogue between Colombia's warring factions seem less and less likely.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Now it gets really dirty

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 February 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Now it gets really dirty