James Graham at Oxford University - part I

James Graham at Oxford University – part I

The British playwright in conversation with Alan Rusbridger.

Graham, from Mansfield, wrote ‘Privacy’, ‘This House’ and ‘Ink’ for the stage, among others – as well as ‘Brexit: An Uncivil War’, starring Benedict Cumberbatch.

For part II, featuring an audience Q&A, click here:


Video by Dominik Osvald:

they kill for coming in tonight and thank you James hurt traveling down to to be with us and I first met James when he was writing a play loosely about Edward Snowden yes and I was subjected to his interview technique where he comes in and has no pen or notepad and just is a very sympathetic listener you tell him far more than you want to tell him and he wrote a play called privacy on on the back of that but I've watched his sort of stellar career ever since in which he's become one of the most in-demand playwrights in this country with a particular theme which is mind which is the playwright of politics or a political play right and so we'll discuss what that means but yeah I mean you you were born in Mansfield which there's a mining community in 1982 and and you have your first typewriter at the age of four yeah I learned how do you know that we there that sounds just like I do my research where did that come from where did this urge to record and to write emerge or did it I don't and you hear me is that on my ship I'm sorry I thought I was trying to look like a playwright and hey I think you do from definitely theater for me like probably a lot of you unfortunately just wasn't part of my growing up wasn't part of my life it was a working-class town and a working-class family but we had I was whatever reason obsessed by story and television dramas and films and books so I started thinking I was going to be a novelist at the age of four and just churning out these stories to give to my mum my dad to read and honestly it was school plays oh I had such a good we went to a comprehensive school in North Notting sure and they just had an incredible working theatre they were committed to the that kids from these kinds of backgrounds should do plays and there was a philosophy in the school you know they dragged in the footballers from off the field and said you're gonna be Romeo and you gonna do this and it's gonna be good and so from that I just really enjoyed it's an obvious thing to say but the lightness of theater the sense event the sense of community the connection with an audience and the chemistry that happens in it in a space in a physical space that you don't get in any other medium so I went after study drama at University and started writing plays and from there on in and what kind of plays were your early plays about I mean what was the subject matter yeah I think it's a complete accident that I born into becoming a political player I don't think I'm any more politicized than any normal person but I so I came from a mining town so the first play I tried to write was based on testimonies and interviews I did from people in my town about the strike I was only 2 years old when that happened so I wrote a pretty bad play about the miner strike that was framed entirely by the event it began when the miners strike began and it ended when the miner strike ended and in between I wrote stuff and bad jokes and and we took that to the Edinburgh Festival but I I guess either through that or that was that revealed a desire to try and use history as a way to interrogate often Britishness an obsession with this island and it is post-war history and I also just love history actually then actually my love of my lover politics mainly comes through that the first time I would have had the terms like capitalism or Marxism came through a study of it in the past and I loved historical films from George the third to UM Schindler's List I just I just enjoyed going on a narrative emotional journey to make sense of the past so I think the first time I sort of really clocked you was a play called dis house and which took to me the most unpromising subject you could possibly imagine which was the dying days of the Calahan government yeah and it's XA it's got stuff yeah but at the time you thought that was sort of you know rats in the streets and it was the sort of dying days of a form of Labour government that had been around for you know for whatever 15 years 18 years but but but what I learned about you is that you you often come into a subject very laterally right so I think you you were born three days there three three years after the events are so that you didn't live that so how on earth did that pique your interest that you thought that would be a good subject for a play cynically I said so this was a play that went to the National Theatre in London and in 2012 and then it's had a life ever since but it was very brutally there we had the hung parliament in 2010 and as you as we are all familiar that our democratic system isn't really designed to tolerate that it's made it's designed to produce a majority government to pursue a single policy program and I got really excited about trying to understand how about that particularly the House of Commons which is a building architectural II designed around government in opposition and not designed for cross-party collaboration how how how it's going to work so a few days after the did that 2010 election I went to the National Theatre and I imagined in my head a line of great playwrights and David Hare – Tom stop hard lining up – and to tackle it I just sort of wanted to throw my hat in the ring and I decided to try and approach it in the way that I had been doing quite a lot in smaller venues which was to find a past equivalent in order to make sense of the current and theaters that's not my idea that's what Shakespeare did and the Greeks did and I'm not saying I'm the only one after that they all but it's was three we're doing it and it's just it's just very helpful it's it's it's just very helpful to provide perspective on something that feels very close the greatest political play for me of all time is for that reason is the crucible by Arthur Miller Arthur Miller could have written a verbatim urgent piece about the McCarthy trials in the 1950s and it would have been it would have been damn close and sexy and dangerous but what he decided to do was to find a metaphorical eye Rakhal equivalent and there's a reason why the crucible is now performing for hundreds of years because of the broader universal themes that naturally come out of that process so it's a bit of a cheat you elevate your place accidentally to the heights of metaphor people go ahead sacrified and they'll go sort of not but but and I I just realized I suppose optimally that for those of you who don't know I wasn't alive so I didn't know that Parliament 74 to 79 which was previously the last time we'd had a hung parliament was the most traumatic and chaotic I think in in modern British history it was the age of because the majority had no majority there were they were just absolute scenes of madness whereby every single vote was maybe gonna be won or lost by one or two and that you might have heard of the system called pairing which is a gentlemen's agreement whereby if for example you can't make a crucial vote because you're a minister or business or something personal like somebody you know isn't very well there's an honor code whereby I say well I would have voted the different way from you so I'll just step out and I cancel out your absence by not voting and it's a very in an indecent world it's quite a decent thing to do it's currently been cancelled recently which suggests a lot about the decency levels of our current Parliament but but that collapsed in the 1970 as well so there were scenes of of ambulances having to turn up a new Palace yard with people who were sick and dying in hospital and one of the strange conventions in Parliament as well as this thing called nodding through were as long as you are on the palace grounds if for whatever reason you can't walk you can't pass your body by the teller to be counted you can be nodded through as long as two whips and other parties come and check that you're alive and and so when you read that you think well that's insane and you want to try and understand the conditions by which that has been allowed to to happen and there was the you know there was an example sometimes where when they would go out and they would go down the ambulances and the whips would have an argument about how alive somebody was and whether or not their vote could be could be counted so you think well that's a gift for a writer and as a writer who really wants to try and put our institutions on stage in order to examine their processes and make sense of them I just thought we have to look at that and and actually the truth is it started with me hearing a story about the vote of no-confidence in 1979 which was the vote that the last time we had a motion of confidence recently as you know against trees and maize government if the last time voting their confidence destroyed a government and forced them to go to a general election and it produced it destroyed Calahan and produced Margaret Thatcher so obviously it's a key moment in British history anyway they're turning from that to that but it was only I discovered it was only passed by one single vote and it's often attributed to a person an MP a Labour MP who was sick and dying in Leeds and he couldn't make it down and that was a single vote that meant history turned and Thatcher arrived and we you know we can agree or disagree that she would have got in anyway but I heard that and I heard the conversations that the the party were having about should we try and bring him down it's like he might die on the way is that a good look probably not and you go what kind of one generally speaking what kind of democratic system gets the point when you're going should we kill someone on the m1 to save the government and also what are the five years leading up to that moment that that meant that the survival of the government was so so dramatic it was all those things but it's fundamental to answer question in a long way it's a fundamental geeky desire I have to make sense a bigger broader subject matters by drilling down on process and rituals and systems to illuminate I think sort of wider truths so there are two interesting things about that play I mean one is which seems to be a feature of your work that the quite often it's it's not the main characters that interest you so it's not about and stature it's about what goes on the Whip's office which is you'd think even nerdier than then the subject matter and and the second is which again I'd like to just sort of begin by talking about is I mean you you could have written that story there are enough accounts in the public domain about that but to what extent are you were you interested in talking to and getting your own first-hand accounts in order to write something that was and I've got to put this word inverted commas real yes as so to what extent was that kind of research so that you get your version of it really important and actually there wasn't a huge amount of information about it before I started this start a new play there's a there's a process that happens that you go on Amazon try and see if there are only books available on the subject matter and your first instant when you see that there are no books about you go oh my god yes I found something and then you go there's no books about how am I going to write the play and so I had to go out and as and famously whips have a code of conduct again whereby they try not to they're not allowed to when they are whips they're not allowed to speak in the House of Commons not allowed to ask a question they're not allowed to give interviews so it's incredibly hard to know what goes on in these offices inside to patronize you for those who don't know what the whip to do they're members of parliament who either the government or the opposition is a dozen or so of them they work together in the bowels of parliament to and to put party business through the house and they tell their members of parliament which way to vote depending on the leadership's policy and if there are rebels they are the guys or girls who have to go and either use encouragement or intimidation to get to get people through and in this particular period it was very masculine and very brutal as said there were stories of whips throwing people up against the wall there was a moment when one whip half dangled Neil Kinnock over the balustrade and into the Thames and said you will vote this way it was very aggressive as the Jack Straw has a story about being squeezed in a certain region of his body until he agreed it's not so very little area and horrific that that's that's an obviously that would never happen now so the so so they don't generally talk about it and the first person to publish a basically memoir about whipping was Gerald's brandriss and he famously on the day publication I think he got a little card through the post with a little black spot on it which was all it was it was basically saying you're out you're done that's it so so when I knock on the door and say can you talk to me they weren't necessarily must have been inclined to do that and it took a long time it looked took a long time to build their trust in the first person I spoke to was Ann Taylor who was a whip which she was a 26 year old whip in this very male world and she had wished she could became the first female chief whip went to Tony Blair she evil whatever reason relented and then they started to sort of not kind of from there and I don't pretend I'm a journalist I I don't want to be a journalist ever and even though I just even though really really respect journalists right like I really do but it's but I don't see that as my job but actually some of the she'll get onto there some of the criticisms about doing the brexit Cumberbatch film were and how can it isn't that journalist journalism the job to expose that truth so I think it's a different thing so I but I do enjoy that process but I mean it in a praise of you there was a recent film about James on on the BBC with Alan Yentob and yeah and Taylor was there saying that she had told you far too much because you were so charming to her but then she said it was absolutely astonishing because there you were in this 30 year old playwright and you had exactly captured the atmosphere in the whips room of events at before you were even born so that was quotes real yes I don't think theatre necessarily has an obligation or a responsibility to be too real it is art and it has to function and satisfy on an on an artistic level and the language of theta is particularly different from the language of television as you know televisions is a more literal medium and there was a different level of responsibility I think to if you're if you're purporting towards naturalism in in TV drama you have a different responsibility to truth and realness in theater you know you can do whatever you you sort of like it's an expressionist ting medium and you're at there's some leeway there but just talk me through that because if we're writing about Bolingbroke and Henry the force and people you think well that's fine that will happen a long time ago but but you you were putting words into the mouths of people some of whom are still alive about events that were very recent so if I'm coming in to see this has what what am i what do you want me to think that I'm saying that this is a a fictionalization of an imaginary version I I mean yeah I don't want people to think they're saying definitely think I want them to think this the a version of this happened this was this is the truth there was a parliament that was home people behaved in this kind of way but also and you don't even like you have to I sort of though that lawyers forces to put at the beginning of our TV drama that says this is inspired by real events but some of the dialogue has been imagined in another do you think what an audience knows that you know that when you know that I you know that I wasn't there and in that meeting of the 1970s so you know that when researching a centime having to imagine them as much available research as possible what was said I suppose I just mean specifically for theatre there is a there was an abstraction there was a there was a theatrical 'ti that elevates it necessarily from naturalism and also the definition of being in the space you're in the space with the actor you know he that actor isn't really Michael Heseltine and so there is a different contract with an audience that allows you to find sorry to be pretentious but a different kind of truth and it was thing to say in the age of post truth but it different you're asking a different question the proposition is different I've never interviewed David Hare about this but but David Hare writes is in sort of similar kind of territory there there there plays about recent things he sometimes writes about the Labour Party but my impression of the way that he works is to actually going with the tape recorder get a transcript done up and then there what known as verbatim play yes yeah so that is a sort of different kind of truth from the truth that you're presenting it is and why I just made a policy decision very early on that when I would go and interview real people I wouldn't record them and again because I'm not a journalist because I'm not looking for quotes and it's what I'm looking for is to feel something about themselves as the essence of their character I may I'll make notes but it's but it's it's crudely as well as a tactic it was because people see that line going on your iPhone they see that every time they speak the things and something happens to them where they feel less able to be liberal with their thoughts whereas a you know with Ann Taylor and whips like that over the course of a couple of hours and possibly a couple of drinks you open up a different kind of conversation that is that is more reflective and general and I think yeah I just want them to trust me that I'm not trying to get a gotcha I'm not trying to trip them up and get them to say something that I can then quote out of context I'm just going to present it on there's a tiny bit because he used the word the truth yes which is a big word so what what kind of truth do you think you are able to tell in the theater that a journalist couldn't tell or a historian that couldn't help yeah it's a really good question I think well I'll get overly romantic about and slightly self-aggrandizing about I think the power of theater and storytelling but I think what you're asking what the way you're asking the audience to go through is a different thing to it to some someone reading a newspaper the responsibility of journalism is to hold power to account and to to as urgently as quickly as possible with lave flacks of facts to people and you know that happens on a daily basis and you constantly receive this information the proposition of a story is different in that you're asking people to to walk through the shoes of your characters and try and empathize and understand what may motivate and drive them and that's that's a different thing so when I put a whip onstage yeah I understand ultimately we have an empathy deficit in our in our politics and in our public discourse at the moment and theaters function might be to go sometimes against your your prejudices I did a play recently about Rupert Murdoch and I tried to humanize him and I was about apparently very controversial but I wanted to understand what drove him and motivated him and so despite I was very satisfied that an audience and this was this play was staged in Islington Lee I think it was I think was actually jeremy corbyn's constituency and not many people in the audience bought the son and they they came into the play quite excited because it's a play so it must be really left-wing and they were gonna they were really excited to draw blood for Murdoch and I didn't satisfy him on that level I didn't want to and actually in the interval the play so people coming out sort of gray and horrified but they were saying things like oh my god I think I like Rupert Murdoch and I think bar sales went up in the interval because people were just sort of new making it and I'm thrilled and thrilled with the mischievous owner of that because what I want them to do is find an empathy for a position opposite to theirs which isn't really answering your question about truth but it's it's it's that is the possibility power whatever drama that journalism question about how you arrive at truth and your next play well one of the Onyx players was another play about the Labour Party labor of love and again labour politicians were around at the time say this was a very accurate presentation of of what was going on and again and this this film about you Nick Robinson the BBC former political editor was was interviewed and you obviously know him and he was human he died yeah well he sort of put you on the psychiatrist character yes and he speculated that your parents split up when you were young that your parents had different political viewpoints and that from a young age you became accustomed to having two people in your life who you loved and respected who had different views and therefore it became part of your mentality to understand how people knew respect it could it could have – Veridian and so therefore in your writing it's often your approach is to try and understand every point of view did that ring true when Nick said that on the on the it was very we've told him not to say this no I I did ring – I'm very aware that I I might be the wrong political playwright for our times and I fully accept that because there is theory I do try I don't really have an agenda I don't use theatre as a form of activism I'm not looking for a specific change or to promote a specific agenda in the way that they even to prepare today but here he would say he often wants to celebrate an or promote a certain part of the political spectrum normally left-wing and I truthfully I just find it dramatically and politically inert to do that to say hits my point of view you probably agree here's why I'm gonna answer the question for you and I find it more exciting to make the proposition to put the question on stage but to try and leave it unanswered and I just find it's more dramatically interesting anyway and and it goes back to the empathy thing so even people who would have different politics to me it's I enjoy the exercise in playing devil's advocate with my prejudices and going what's the most generous version I can think of about why Rupert Murdoch does what he does and I happen to think especially in this reasonably toxic age that's quite a healthy exercise to do it also just happens to I think create more interesting characters three-dimensional characters with strengths and weaknesses and flaws and an audience can engage with you refer to the play of a Murdock which is called ink as a another origin story so yes I think in your telling you thought about populism today and then you thought well where did that start and then took you back to 1968 when Murdoch took bought a paper that was called the Sun which was a rather dull failing broadsheet yeah paper owned by IPC and and we in the space of year transformed it into did you want to just talk about why that moment was was the origin for you yeah it's become another accidental trick of mine but to try and not shake and being on myself but a a way of assessing the current political anxieties of the day whatever they may be and trying to sort of walk backwards through history to see one of the places where it might have started and that's why you know I refer to them as origin stories I think we like that we like that in cinema like that in film to go to prequels and go how did Darth Vader become Darth Vader here he is as a little boy and we enjoy the the dramatic irony that of knowing more than the characters know and knowing where we end up so these so during brexit and the Trump campaign like everyone I was really interested in how the rhetoric of political conversation and the news media felt like it was changing all had had anything for a while and wasn't manifesting itself or something very populist in quite aggressive and you have this you have this story of which I heard I don't know how you hear these stories but you sort of collect them and use them as weapons later on the the buying of the Sunda newspaper by Rupert Murdoch where he first arrived on Fleet Street in the 1960s and it's it's kind of a gift as well because you get to take people who you who you out you know are very powerful establishment figures and you present them as younger men or women when they're sort of outsiders and they have all the uncertainties and the doubts about themselves and it naturally just makes them more attractive because because because they've seemed very human and they haven't quite got to the place that you know they get to so to see to see Rupert Murdoch as a disrupter a young reckless disrupter wanted to come into a very old industry and shake it up in a pre Zucca Bergland kind of way I think naturally creates a sort of attraction but the the story itself of the first year of the Sun is is brilliantly neat and remarkable in that and I do really like about I like boundaries and settings so I loved this house because it was a five year contained Parliament enjoyed the brexit movie because it was the course of a campaign that begins and ends and you can some you can contain the ideas within that so this was the first year of the Sun and by habit dance to celebrate the first year anniversary of the Sun they they wear the sales figures had rocketed up they do they came up with the idea of we should celebrate it by getting a girl to take her clothes off and put her on page three and she's wearing her birthday suit to celebrate the birthday and out of that was born the phenomenon that is page three the the very strange bizarreness of naked women in in a family newspaper that seemed to be so on british in its and it's been his rawness so so you have there's the end point and you have the beginning point and you chart run chart that journey for a paper and a country and a culture that arrives at a point that used to be incredibly reverential indifferent and ends up with with with breasts on page three and between that you sort of chart the course of that and also there were incredible things they they there was there's an astonishing kidnap and murder story within the course of that year of the Chairman's wife of the the son where where they they there's some of the people who kidnapped her argued that the son was poisoning Britain with it and this new kind of populist tabloid and whether or not that was the reason for the decision to kidnap her or not but it's this son was faced with what in and from a writer's point of view is an incredible crisis a moral and emotional crisis in that how do they report that the story of one of their own being kidnapped and do and there were the police I'll get with them quite a lot to not give too much information away and so you have this huge moral quandary and they did publish quite a lot of it inside information and there was a there was a criticism from other papers and the police that they had exacerbated and the eventual murder and so as a dramatist you think all that's it again most like the ambulances in new palace yard you think this this incredible thing it works out of it out of a story and you just want to understand what conditions were set to mend some to mean something so extraordinary and unreal it happens as a result and because the young you've referred to how many people found the Murdock character surprisingly attractive and the sad figure in the story is Hugh cutlet yeah great figure of tabloid journalism old working-class labor man who had built a sort of honorable Daily Mirror and wanted to have an almost rician view of of stretching the working class and giving them something to feed their brains and and yet his son was a pallid thing compared with the version that Murdoch Crean and in your play cutlip his sort of out of touch bumbling at out of time yeah and just can't match this demonic figure that you create of Murdoch yeah we're so he's the oh he didn't realize the world was about to change but he was the old guard he believes that he'd say arethey n' style of journalism that was to educate and entertain the sales figures it was the most popular paper in the english-speaking world at the time and in comes this Ossie and these these guys and they they they change the culture of Fleet Street really quickly over 12 months to the point with which Hugh code have eventually lost his job and was replaced and his empire and worldview became something it became the past and so those like those though if you can always represent philosophically opposite forces in the form of a character relationship you know that's really exciting as well I hope I didn't make him too bumbling and ineffectual but it's just his contrast to murder us confidence and brashness which was was quite stark Rubin that up came to see it he did what did he make of it well it's a funny thing isn't it because you don't you as on a human level you have a genuine desire to not misrepresent him so you want him to like you to the point where you you think you've been fair on him but you also don't want you don't want him to like it too much you really don't because then you've not done your job so it's a funny thing but no I was I was I was very very nervous obviously he sent a lot of his people Rebecca Brooks Kelvin Mackenzie came people from his American papers all came to see it and sort of said it's okay this is this is probably as good as you're gonna get so you should probably go and enjoy it and he came on the sort of the second last night at the West End run when it transferred to the West End it was unfortunately well when I was waiting for I was waiting for him backstage sort of shaking I couldn't bear being in the theater watching it with him and I thought well at least no matter what happens even if he yells at you or sets the lawyers on to it's a great dinner party story or it's a great story to tell in a lecture hall the pub the problem is I was so scared and couldn't believe quite what's happening I can't remember almost anything he said I remember I remember he he asked me very specifically he sort of shook my hand and said well and then he he asked very specifically where I've got some information about the criticism of the courage coverage of that murder trial and very helpfully was a came from The Times which he now owned so I said we could go it's your story you can go and check it out and then he he asked he really enjoyed we had we had a sequence I really believe that theatre especially staged about politics which could not be very cerebral and dry should have a theatrical punch to it and we had an amazing set designer and we tried to recreate the incredible way in which a newspaper was made even only 40 years ago which is like something out of Lord of the Rings it's very industrial and it had hot metal so weak and you have to hit the bestowed with a hammer and the lava pours down and so we had all this stuff and he really enjoyed that he found that quite romantic and nostalgic that was I mean he was sort of really he was very sort of polite and and and he enjoyed meeting the cast enjoyed a meeting Bertie Carville who played him there was one there was one a little sting at the end of the meeting because I actually I just sort of tried to get in touch with him but not I didn't tried too hard I think it's fair to say because I didn't know if it would be helpful and it was so much public information in the public domain already about him and I wanted it to do well and then him or him to trust it first rather than me go and him get worried about it but an heaps fine but at the very end of being very polite I was leading him out the fire exit and he turned to me and said on by the way next time you write something about me and then just paused so I said ask you first and he just went yeah and got into his car and I said oh rooper the foot 29 minutes of that 30-minute meeting was lovely and then you can punch me in the butt but I think it was being mischievous but it was then and affirmed performance by Bertie Carville was magnificent I mean are you sometimes I imagine this happens a lot when when you write words they take on a completely different complexion and and read them as human actors can go sort of twenty percent beyond what you intended or ten percent to what extent are you involved in the production saying you know hold on a minute you know that's you're gonna be a bit carried away here dial it down a very little and in theatre because in this only in Britain the cultures that theatre is a writer's medium in Europe it's a director's medium and then you have film and television which is an active in a director's medium so you probably can't really say who wrote your favorite film but you can normally can your favorite play and your name is slightly above the door and the process is is the theatre production is often centered around you and the process of getting a fair version of your play made so you're in rehearsals all the time in four or five weeks and it's kind of glorious but I I it's a collaboration and you have to hand it over so I would never give a note directly to an actor that would be bad form but you speak to the director afterwards and it's the director's job to try and get a company people towards that and so yeah so sometimes of course you will watch someone act to interpret a part and go if I could say something now I would but but generally speaking in terms of the balance for every one moment I think that you think I don't think that's quite right there were there were six or seven that you would never have thought of and it's a real I feel great admiration for the skill of acting it's furiously always both technical and emotional it's very vulnerable you get to on opening night never turn up again and go off and start the next thing and they had to go night after night after night in front of the audience telling that story so I love it I love it for that reason I love the collaborative nature of the and it's why I could never give up theater for glossy TV and film because writing those is much more solitary and in a film you might not even turn up on set sometimes you might not meet the actors you email the script and to a lesser or greater extent I will then see it when you see it whereas the muscular process of building a play as accompanies just it's just really thrilling that's a good segue to move into brexit which was a film oh it was it was a TV thing and is different from the things we've talked about so far because it's it's still happening it's not history it's not three years before you're born and so tell us a bit about the origin of that and whether this dilemma of writing about something that was still you know as we speak we still don't know what's gonna happen what were the had it had it come about and did you have any qualms about plunging no I'm afraid that was quite naive about it I what ended up being or feeling quite controversial and quite noisy with the question continually sort of asked in the media or to me around the film was is it – is it too soon it's a completely valid question on a case-by-case basis when is it too soon to start representing these things in art I it didn't really occur to me at the time I started thinking about doing a film about the campaign a couple of weeks after the vote because coming from a playwriting and theatre background it will be in that you would be absorbing responsibility as a so-called political play right to not be tackling the biggest issue of a generation and actually theatres for that reason are given public money to to do that to try and find ways to make to engage with the world and get people together in a space to ask or to look at it and ask questions but I get that TV and it being a more populist medium and it reaching more people and being more mainstream that this felt more provocative and controversial than I admit I thought it was when I started doing it it came from a desire to understand that campaign just that I realized at the end of it I had not been paying attention to all the detail but as I didn't know are you in a referendum campaign in 20 and in the 21st century so and it came slightly from the moment when Joe Cox was murdered similarly to my analogy of the ambulances in new palace yard you look at it you look at the moment and the and how incomprehensible it was that there a member of parliament might might lose their life and because of a democratic exercise like a referendum the question presents itself in the in the world saying well what went wrong what went wrong for that that is a failure of something so I really wanted to get under the skin of the referendum and how and how and the legacy of what feels like an incredibly divided and polluted toxic unhappy nation mmm so yes that's doing it so again you're not short of great characters and a conventional way would have been to take one of those great characters you could have taken module Farraj or Boris or Michael Gove or Aaron banks I mean there's very prominent figures you could have dramatized instead of which you went for a blow most people had never heard of yeah so here Dominic Cummings and he ran the boat leave and campaign I'd managed and I pride myself on tech spent taking you know spending time following politics I I'd know by time it got to the vote and then winning I'd never heard of him pretty much either these are strategists behind the scenes who are making decisions but it's the public facing politicians who we hear we associate with those campaigns and those messages so for the for the exact same reason but I looked at the whips in the seventies rather than Ted Heath and Margaret Thatcher I find it satisfying to and surprise surprise and interesting for an audience to put people center stage who were less familiar with it also happens to I also happen to think it's true that that these people had greater influence on the nature of that kind it had bias Johnson or Michael Gove but I don't mean to diminish the impact or importance of members of parliament but it was Dominic Cummings who came up with the slogan take back control there was Dominic Cummings who came up with the 350 million pounds on the bus was Dominic Cummings in his team who decided how to target those messages on what platforms how much money you spend of the budget what the tone of the tambour of that campaign is that letter look also reflecting being reflected in the Donald Trump campaign so it feels right to me and you met him yep eventually he wasn't happy to meet you talk to us I was happy to meet me at first but he did you win his trust it came through it came quite late so it was about a year into the draft and we were already moving into production we'd already cast Benedict Cumberbatch in his part before I'd actually met him it was a mutual acquaintance that that was they had seen some of my plays and sort of thankfully believed that I was a writer who tried to be fair and reasonable and convinced him you might as well come and have a have a chat so what's remarkable and I take the responsibility this very seriously as he is somebody who for various reasons had to hadn't really given any interviews since the result he'd rejected most journalistic approaches to him bar one and very famously the House of Commons and a select committee had asked for him to come and testify before them and he'd be refused to do that his argument would be that he doesn't trust those instruments to get the truth out of him and it's all solved theater and it's all nonsense and we could agree with disagree so actually there are questions that he hadn't answered and he'd rejected normal forms of being held to account so I'm thrilled and grateful and honored and confused that he chose a playwright and again to your point about what is your responsibilities should you do it if for whatever reason it is the artists who get access to these people and when they're more reticent speak journalists then you have a responsibility to ask those questions and put that voice on onstage so we had a couple of meetings and again for some reason I'm very embarrassed about three met in a neutral space a friend's house and he brought some of his team the vote leave team there's about eight of the key people who ran that campaign in one space again they'd never collectively given an interview and answered these questions and we got some pizza and they gave me loads and loads of wine and we were talking till 3:00 in the morning and when I woke up the morning after with a hangover and my my my flawless system of not writing anything down and recording failed because I couldn't remember a single thing literally a single thing that they had said but I what I did remember was the feel of the group the dynamic how they spoke to each other the atmosphere the tone of their banter and his he particularly his his character in it in his manner so then thankfully he let me go back to his house later and then actually answer some questions and I introduced Benedict Cumberbatch to him and they had a meeting so he wasn't a consultant he we did he never got paid he never saw the script we never showed it to him he never asked and he never saw a screening of it before broadcast but he was happy to contribute his thoughts and how much did you rewrite the draft having met him and having had that conversation those conversations a huge amount and because we are I don't know if researchers to get a feel for it but CERN certain the way CERN expressed certain things and then the main issue was them was data and technology and he helped me understand at least his his interpretation of why the use of data in that campaign wasn't necessarily monstrous or controversial and and you know again people can disagree but his view on how he used this system he built to collate data and how he targeted messages was was helpful to gates perspective so we had in this space on Tuesday we had Carol Cadwallader and The Observer journalist who's been doing a lot of the work about that particular referendum oh yeah she was quite upset with some aspects of the play when she saw it yes one of the things she said is you know we live in a post truth society what we desperately need is facts yes and ye you come along right fiction and that's not helpful yes and obviously I politely disagree and I respect Carol enormous ly and we went a quite a journey together because it's very fair to say that she very worried for absolutely genuine reasons having spent and fought for years to get this information out at some personal cost and I could totally see why she then sees me better that cumberbatch coming along and and doing what probably felt like quite a cynical exercise an opportunist mystic one over something that is very dangerous and very delicate so I totally understand it I just I have to disagree I have to disagree that art exists in opposition to the truth it never has and it's just a different way of accessing information and I'm gonna get very pompous now obviously I care very strongly about this this has been happening for 2,000 years and actually probably to be very cheeky I might propose that it's in fact theater 2,000 years ago that created the conditions for which democracy and even journalism can exist it was a fest it was a theater festival theater in ancient Greece in 532 check that BC that for the first time ever got all the God these disparate tribes together into one space to look at a plays and tragedies and there was 40 years or so later that because of that because of the infrastructure in the systems that were created around getting warring tribes into a physical space that what we now recognize as democracy was invented so I pompous as that sounds I feel very keenly the responsibilities of theater and the right actually the right of theater and drama and storytelling a narrative to contribute something where it can to moments of national crisis and to invite an audience to read the newspaper go on Twitter by all means but also every now and again clock out of that and experience this in a different way an audience is intelligent enough to know that that not everything I'm saying is most necessary completely based on fact I will have conflated six meetings into one meeting I'm imagining what people say when they close the door but I don't think that means it's a lie or that it's fake news but it's really really important to bay and I'm glad that she raised it about the responsibilities and what is helpful and what is unhelpful in your method of presentation and so eventually despite some reasonably public hostility on Twitter between the two of us which I which we both regret why I invited to Co to come and see a screening before anybody else and before it was broadcast and I don't think she would mind me saying we had a quite an emotional meeting where we both felt the exhaustion of our foe war cold war online and tried to sort of reconcile and we will we will never necessarily completely agree about what what was right or wrong about the film and the choices I made about what to show fundamentally she wishes I'd shown certain things and not shown other things and and we can have that debate but the point is and what I find exciting about is that we have that debate and we actually had that debate in public so I invited her to come and basically sort of yell her anger at me and put it in print and say these are the list of things I think you've got wrong and why I think it's irresponsible and my responsibilities to sit there and take it and then offer my points of view put that up online and I was very happy to do that and I directed all of my audience members to follow her on the night so that she could live stream all the things she hated about my German because that's that's really really important and with again without promoting it too much I think what I am proud of and even Carol sort of admitted at the end after we made up and she said this probably is a helpful thing to do because it just reaches a wider audience for things that ultimately sometimes and invested it dense investigative pieces might not and I'm really proud and she was really she expressed gratitude that in the mainstream genre at nine o'clock on channel 4 that my mum and my auntie will watch but a millions of people with a Hollywood star in it that we got to say the words aggregate IQ several times throughout the night I think that's quite important and I hope quite impressive and the responsibility of the state broadcaster to do that also finally sorry I also don't think I also think is the responsibility of a playwright to sometimes be a bit irresponsible and to be a bit dangerous I'd my artist shouldn't always play it safe and if you get it wrong you'll be hit you have get out to account as I feel like I have been frequently over this and that's correct and that's right you should be scrutinized but I as well as going I think we should be nicer politicians and I think we should be nice to people murdered of I also have a responsibility to be a bit reckless and dangerous as art always has can you talk a bit about as we talk about the truth and the tent the tension that some people thought in that work between the highly research pit so you know you had your nose in Tim Shipman and reading Cummings's blog and then you go around and you just say you want to get all the facts exactly right about that strand of the story and yet you have a sort of carry on film happening at the same time which is these buffoons you know Farraj and banks and and Johnson who has played as sort of clowns so you've got sort of two types of film in one one one is highly researched and the other is caricature that word did that were you we conscious then you must have been conscious it slightly conscious a bit worried I'm not saying I necessarily got the representation of the partitions right some of its you know involves choices by actors and directors with there was a deliberate choice from all of it as a team to try and create something on apologetically entertaining and actually to try and reflect in the tone and the aesthetic of the film they're quite anarchic quite quite punchy and quite punky feel of that referendum which was I mean have you have you watched our own banks it's often very brash and broad and and bullish and we wanted to kind of reflect that I would argue my intellectual argument for it would be that well creatively I enjoyed the tension between the rillette the realism of the special advisers and the policy wonks and the strategists can contradict with the public facing MP because it makes this pimp seem more real I would also argue to an extent that nudge approach and Boris Johnson and Aran banks are themselves caricatures that they play they are characters that they've sort of invented and go out and ruffle the hair and all that and they they are sorted performing themselves and I would like to think it's possibly a comment on that slightly I also just think I wanted it to be fun and funny and I didn't want to write a really really really earnest worthy version of a very serious moment in Italian because I wanted to mainstream audience to be able to enjoy you


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