Both British political drama and political comedy has struggled to depict politicians as being anything other than fools, as in Yes, Minister and The Thick of It, or villains, as in House of Cards. Where there is an alternative portrayal, as in Chris Mullin’s A Very British Coup, they are a lone voice of honest idealism set against a sea of cynicism or corruption.
‘To govern is to choose’ was the famous aphorism of French premier Pierre Mendes-France, but the reality is that politics, where fallible, usually well-intentioned human beings, are forced to choose between shades of grey – between the unpalatable and the less palatable, is rarely portrayed with the success that has been achieved in American television’s West Wing.
This House, James Graham’s sell-out new play about the hung parliaments of 1974-9 is not the West Wing, but it is, in its smaller, British, way, all the more brilliant. For it takes that part of politics most vilified and most cynical, that part which most horrifies the idealists, and puts it not just at the centre of the drama: it is the drama.
This House, a whip’s-eye view of parliamentary politics, portrays the sheer indispensability of the horse trading machine-politics so reviled by democracy’s critics. It shows the hollowness of the rhetoric of ‘New Politics’, because the ‘old politics’ is so bound up with the fallibilities of humanity, and those are not going to change.
Graham manages to combine dramatic impact with painstakingly researched historical authenticity. In West Wing terms, This House is more LBJ than JFK, and Robert Caro himself would be impressed at the efforts the author has made to understand the people and events which he portrays. Indeed, not only has the theatre seating been constructed to replicate the House of Commons, with the audience sitting on government and opposition benches and the action taking place betwixt and between, but the pull of the play has ensured a substantial number of MPs and journalists from the era attending performances, often sitting in the very places they once occupied 40 years ago.
The casting is a work of genius. At the heart of the play is the relationship between the Labour and Conservative deputy chief whips (Walter Harrison and Bernard Weatherill) and the system of ‘pairing’ MPs. Philip Glenister, to the undoubted delight of many audiences, plays Walter Harrison as Gene Hunt, and though there were some differences between the real Harrison and the fictional Hunt (according to those who know Harrison, he was the tougher of the two), Glenister has apparently impressed those who knew the ‘real deal’. Just as important to the drama is the rapport between Harrison and Labour chief whip Bob Mellish, played by former Quadrophenia star Phil Daniels with more than a nod to Bob Hoskins’ portrayal of Harold Shand in Bermondsey gangster epic The Long Good Friday. Mellish, more sentimental, according to the Guardian’s Michael White, than he is portrayed here, would have been touched. Pitting Gene Hunt and Harold Shand against the ‘aristo-twats’ (as Shand/Mellish dubs the Conservative whips) was always going to make a watchable play. Mark Twain observed that ‘Truth is stranger than fiction… because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t’. The real events of 1974-79, concertina’d as they are into a few hours of theatre, make for gripping and poignant drama. This House is a triumph. And its return in February on a larger stage should be eagerly anticipated by those unable to get tickets this time around.
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