In Britain today, politics isn’t just news: it’s becoming art. Britain, more than any other country, is fictionalising its public and political life for the entertainment of the cultural elite.
Britain has always been to the fore in staging political drama, from the history plays of Shakespeare onwards. But it’s only from the 1960s that the urge to dramatise contemporary politics became embedded in modern drama - the most powerful single influence being the politically committed theatre, produced by writers who are still active and even dominant in the theatrical world, or have been so until recently. These include Howard Brenton, David Edgar, Trevor Griffiths, David Hare, John McGrath and, in television, David Mercer and Dennis Potter (the last three now dead).
These were all leftwing writers with a mordant vision of their country. David Hare, the most prominent and publicly visible of them, said in a 1996 lecture in Austin, Texas, that those “who entered the theatre in the late 1960s... were clear-eyed. To us, the theatre existed for mainly political purposes, to try to dramatise, more tellingly than any piece of reportage, what we took to be the irrevocable decline of our culture.” As David Edgar says, writers for the stage who began to rise to prominence in the late 1960s “wanted to write about contemporary Britain. By the early 1970s, television had run out of a lot of its early creative steam. So the theatre bore the burden of engagement with what was happening.”
The characters they created spoke in the cadences of contemporary life, caught in situations that were recognisably “real”. The stage characters and situations were designed to elicit parallels with real ones: the newspaper owner in Hare and Brenton’s collaborative piece, Pravda, in 1985, was clearly based on Rupert Murdoch, head of News Corporation and of all the world’s media moguls the most distasteful to the left. In Destiny, in 1976, Edgar addresses the fear (still around) that the far right would become popular. These playwrights believed in socialism - a socialism that was never wholly defined but was certainly not available from the Labour party or elsewhere.
The plays of the 1970s and 1980s were of course “of their times” - and in that time socialism fell from grace, even among the intelligentsia, and New Labour took its place. That has had a profound cultural effect on drama. The theatre seems to have sublimated its yearning for socialism in the future to a sharper critique of the inadequacies, sins and crimes of the political class of the present. It links with themes expressed in the media, but sees journalism as inadequate to the task of describing contemporary society. In a 2002 talk to the Solus Club, a dining club for senior media executives, Hare said: “It is my impression that when as artists we fail, as we often do, it is because we have imagined insufficiently. But my impression of great swathes of modern journalism is that it is not even trying.”
Thus theatre tries to give a greater truth than journalism does. In Hare’s 2003 play The Permanent Way, he draws a portrait of a railway system that had been privatised and - the implication was clear - that had become more dangerous because it had been privatised. Its force was in the indictment of private greed and public danger. Yet railway accidents have actually reduced in number since the railways were privatised in the 1990s: a play that blamed more deaths on nationalised railways would, in an abstract sense, be more “accurate”. But what’s the drama in that? And where the indictment? And, of course, there is no evidence that accidents have decreased because the railways have been privatised - there can’t be.
Running until last month at the National Theatre was Edgar’s Playing with Fire, a tale of an old, grossly under-performing Labour council “up north”. A New Labour minister commands its reform and sends a New Labour consultant to ensure that happens. It does - but Edgar shows that reform is shallow, punitive and ultimately tragic, because it has been a forced, non-organic change. Meant to address racial inequity, instead it stimulates racial riot; designed to bring on a new generation of (largely Asian) leaders, it hands the victor’s palm to a retired white headmaster who leaves Labour’s benches to adopt a populist localism.
The message of Edgar’s play - and the 1960s playwrights insist on a message - is that liberalism must be earned and that condemning racism in the abstract is worse than an uneasy, fitful, doubting accommodation with other cultures in reality. Edgar, who makes a point of mentioning to me that he lived in a largely Asian street in Birmingham, uses a striking, even extreme, analogy, comparing the imposition of liberal policies to the action against Serb forces in Kosovo in 1998. “It’s bombing at 15,000ft, without casualties, refusing to engage on the ground.” He also compares his play with Shakespeare’s Richard II - just finishing its run in London at The Old Vic, with Kevin Spacey in the lead role directed by Trevor Nunn. “In Richard II,” says Edgar, “you see a drama in which overturning the anointed king is clearly seen as wrong, yet you also see very clearly that Richard is a very bad king. Drama lives in that tension: it is always on the horn of a dilemma.” It’s a kind of staged essay - admitting of complexity yet still proposing a form of communal solution, away from the realities of political and social clash.
Hare’s Stuff Happens, which ran last year at the National and was put on in the US this year, is a bridge from the social realism of the 1960s to a new, harder-edged drama. It spends some time on the horns of a dilemma - but not much. Stuff Happens is about the US-British preparations for the war in Iraq. It does have a minor character in it, a journalist, who puts forward a strong, coherent case for intervention (he is based on discussions Hare and his actors had with pro-Iraq invasion journalists, including me). But much of the play is a series of pastiches - of Bush, whom he paints as shrewd rather than stupid; of Blair, who is given the now conventional treatment of a harassed poodle; of Condoleezza Rice, Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney and others. With this play, Hare moved into a new arena: that of the artistic manipulation of real people, saying real things, dealing with real situations. It constrains the art; but it broadens and sharpens the polemical effect.
As Edgar, Hare and others strive to greater and greater realism, another genre takes a slice of reality itself and dramatises it. These tribunal plays are based wholly on the great public, open inquiries that have been a feature of the past 20 years, whose antecedents lie in such tribunals as the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals. The director Nicholas Kent has pioneered this dramatic form. From 1984 when he took over the small Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn, London, Kent has dramatised the issues of these vast inquiries by presenting the verbatim words of the witnesses, tightly edited down by the Guardian journalist Richard Norton-Taylor into two-to-three hour dramas.
Since 1994 the Tricycle has staged Half the Picture on the Scott inquiry into arms to Iraq; The Colour of Justice on the Macpherson inquiry into the murder of the black teenager Stephen Lawrence; Justifying War on the Hutton inquiry into the death of Dr David Kelly; and, more recently, Bloody Sunday on the ongoing Saville inquiry into the shooting by paratroopers of a number of civilians on a civil rights march in the Northern Ireland city of Londonderry in January 1972. It has also done two foreign tribunals - Nuremberg itself, and Srebrenica, about the UN hearings into the massacre of the inhabitants of that Bosnian town in 1995. Most of these have had, or still have, a life after the 240-seat Tricycle, transferring to London’s West End, or to television, or abroad.
The events of Bloody Sunday are more than 30 years old, but it is as hot an issue as the Tricycle has staged. There was an inquiry in 1972 into the killing of 13 and wounding of 14 civilians in Londonderry by units of the 1st Battalion, Parachute Regiment in the course of the civil rights march. Chaired by Lord Widgery, it found no evidence that any of the civilians killed had borne arms - but concluded that “there would have been no deaths in Londonderry on January 30 if those who had organised the illegal march had not thereby created a highly dangerous situation in which a clash between demonstrators and the security forces was almost inevitable.”
One of the great merits of Bloody Sunday is to demonstrate what a difference 33 years make. Widgery, a wartime officer himself, seemed unable to imagine official cover-up, mendacity and closing of ranks round a horror. The ongoing Saville inquiry - on the evidence of the extracts that have been looped together to form the play - is an ultra-detailed rummage through every scrap of memory, every “I thought he had a gun”, every “we thought we were under fire” that Widgery had let go. What emerges is a situation that admits little doubt that the soldiers and their officers - at best - preferred not to inquire into the truth of what they did, and more likely were tutored by the Military Police into giving a version of events that satisfied Widgery but which seems to be unravelling in Lord Saville’s court. It is the difference between a governing and military class that saw loyalty to its men (and to itself) as a prime virtue, and the present one, which does not, or cannot, take that view.
The play achieves its effect, in part, by what seems like a caricature of the senior British officers. All of them, especially General Sir Robert Ford, who was commander, Land Forces, Northern Ireland, at the time, were blimpish, rigid and unhelpful. The audience found Ford in particular a figure of fun. Both Kent and Norton-Taylor say that the real figure was even more exaggeratedly “blimpish” than he was played. Yet the upper-class accents, the clipped military style and the desire to protect reputations and one’s “chaps” are not risible in principle - they are now seen as such, but 30 years ago or more they were not. Then, the stereotyping was more likely to be of the Irish, seen by many non-Irish British as sly and a bit thick, and likely to be played as such.
There is no question that these plays are compelling. Kent says he was himself surprised by their success; when he began the series, his colleagues told him he would play to “two men and a dog”. The dramatic effect of the tribunal plays is achieved by the adroitness of the editing. From the usually contradictory and sometimes shapeless mass of evidence with which inquiries deal, Kent and Norton-Taylor construct dramas composed of little stories built around each witness.
This kind of drama is conceived with a purpose, and often achieves it. The audience, avid for revelation, provides the emotion and acts as a jury: it strikes a deep dramatic lode. As Kent and Norton-Taylor say, it is a medium of education: heuristic, but compelling. But it limits itself. Kent wants to play his part in charting what Hare called “the irrevocable decline of our culture”. He wants exposure. He says he was disappointed with the Hutton inquiry, because it “came to the wrong conclusions” in blaming the BBC for faulty coverage, rather than the government for faulty decisions. Kent says he won’t do the same for the trial of Saddam Hussein because it is being televised and a drama about it “wouldn’t lead anywhere”. (When I put the same question to Norton-Taylor, he expressed strong enthusiasm for doing it.) I felt Kent lacked interest because it wouldn’t shine a light on the government’s failures. A radical innovator in dramatic terms, he conforms to the prevailing wisdom of the theatre in the choice of target: that the real enemy is within.
While such forms of political theatre continue to flourish, there’s a new generation of writers, often from recent immigrant communities, for whom the class struggle holds fewer attractions than ethnic ones - and who use the social realist style of the 1960s dramatists to grapple with themes that are often stereotyped or treated with embarrassed distance elsewhere. Gurpreet Bhatti’s play Behzti (”Dishonour”) was so realistic - it showed a rape inside a Sikh temple - that the play had to be taken off when crowds of angry Sikhs demonstrated outside the Birmingham Repertory Theatre last year. Shan Khan’s play Prayer Room, staged at this year’s Edinburgh Festival, portrayed the ultimately tragic spiral of misunderstandings between Christian, Jewish and Muslim students sharing the same college room for their devotions. Like Edgar, these plays don’t do character well, but they do argument and tension enthrallingly. The questions of faith and integration in modern British society are approached by both these writers with a strong sense of the issues’ intricacies, full of drama and meaning, able to engross audiences in teasing out their overt and implicit messages. You have a sense that dramatic minds are shuttling between the private and the public worlds in a creative way, whereas in the new political drama of television, you are left with the dull residue of a joke in bad taste.
The ugly mutant of this tradition is the new “theatre” of political revelation. This is largely on television and the apotheosis of the genre is the drama A Very Social Secretary, about the Blunkett affair, which was the prize offering of a new TV channel, More 4, launched last month. The drama was popular, much discussed and has already been repeated twice. It is in the line of other TV dramas, such as The Government Inspector and The Deal - the first dealing with the death of David Kelly and the second circling around the supposed agreement between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown over the leadership of the Labour party. Such programmes are also close to The Deputy, a drama in which the fictional deputy prime minister is a thinly disguised characterisation of John Prescott, the real thing.
A Very Social Secretary pushes the genre further in several ways. It is shockingly intimate: the central character, David Blunkett, then home secretary, is shown in bed with his mistress, the married Kimberley Fortier, publisher of The Spectator. He performs badly; she performs fellatio on him. The actor Bernard Hill catches accurately Blunkett’s blind-man head-rolling and irritation. The characterisation of the inmates of Downing Street is also pushed further than in other dramas: Alastair Campbell, former director of communications, is played as a sinister thug; Cherie Blair, the prime minister’s wife, as a materialistic harridan; and Blair himself as a dithering opportunist, batted this way by his wife and that way by Campbell. All of them, especially Blunkett, are portrayed as cynical careerists, willing to sacrifice any principle - in his case, those of civil and human rights - for power.
I asked the programme’s director, Jon Jones, how he saw the purpose of the drama. “I suppose I understand why there is so much of this drama about,” he says. “It’s because it’s a way of accessing the political arena. As we discussed A Very Social Secretary, we saw in Blunkett’s career great parallels with the progress of the Labour party. While advancing - occasionally - socialist principles, they live in a very luxurious manner, and in the case of Blunkett’s changes to the law, he can do anything he likes. That’s the reason for the play.”
I asked him why he fashioned the Blair character into one of such shallowness. “Well, you have to take a view on who the prime minister is. Of course, on the screen it’s much more simple than in real life. Actually, the more I work with politicians the more I respect them. But that’s the problem: you have to simplify.” And was the characterisation of Blair appropriate? “I haven’t really decided yet if it was justified.”
As Jones makes clear, the ostensible impulse for doing such dramas is similar to that of the 1960s writers - a way of exposing hypocrisy and betrayal of ideals. Yet the result is tawdry: the pastiche-isation of leading politicians is crude, harsh, even cruel. The issues with which the politicians deal aren’t shown; their actions are merely denounced as those of hollow men and women. Above all, the creators of the drama would seem to have invested nothing in their work - except a desire to shock and awe by the scale of the “revelations” of the depths to which politicians will go. In these dramas there is no real tension, no proper dilemmas, merely a smug desire to indulge in the joy of others’ humiliation. For all the overdone polemics of the 1960s dramatists, they were and are serious about their ideas and ideals. Their epigones are in it for the fun: a theatre of easy cruelty.
John Lloyd is the FT Magazine’s contributing editor.