Brexit: Shake­speare was right – the play’s the thing

The Guardian - Journal - - Front Page - Sarah Helm,

The play­wright James Gra­ham has drawn flak from some com­men­ta­tors for med­dling in real events as they are un­fold­ing. In his TV drama Brexit: The Un­civil war, which aired this week, Gra­ham uses the real world as his set but gets his facts about the real world wrong, say some crit­ics. Bet­ter per­haps for a play­wright to avoid such im­broglios by draw­ing ma­te­rial from deep in the past. Know­ing the de­tails of his ma­te­rial had long since been for­got­ten, Shake­speare was free to shape a char­ac­ter or a plot at will to re­veal univer­sal truths more en­dur­ing than mere facts. And he knew bet­ter than any­one the role of fic­tion in ex­pos­ing facts. Didn’t Ham­let say “the play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the con­science of the king”? But can a play re­ally be wrong? Bad, for sure. But a play is by its very na­ture fic­tion pre­sented by ac­tors. As a jour­nal­ist I have of­ten cringed when drama tries too hard to in­ter­est au­di­ences in cur­rent events. Bankers danc­ing on desks dur­ing the West End play En­ron was ex­cru­ci­at­ing.

But some years back, when Tony Blair was in power, the great­est jour­nal­is­tic story of my life fell into my lap, and I be­gan to see things dif­fer­ently. At that time my hus­band was the prime min­is­ter’s chief of staff; it was the run-up to the Iraq war, and the in­side story of that po­lit­i­cal earth­quake spilled into our fam­ily home at ev­ery hour of the day and night.

The voices of Bush and Blair and other lead­ers crack­led over an­ti­quated “se­cure” phones strung up in our bed­room, pa­pers spilled from red boxes and, along with din­ners at No 10, I gained ex­tra­or­di­nary in­sights into what was tak­ing place in­side Blair’s “cara­pace”, as he called his ca­bal of loyal aides.

But, pre­cisely be­cause I was in­side the cara­pace, I couldn’t write news­pa­per ar­ti­cles about what I was wit­ness­ing with­out end­ing up at both the Old Bai­ley and the di­vorce court. Then I re­alised that the story I was gath­er­ing was in any case bet­ter told as a play. The truth about why Blair made the dis­as­trous de­ci­sion to go to war lay as much in char­ac­ter as in er­rors of in­tel­li­gence or pol­icy, and char­ac­ter was best shown in dia­logue set-up in scenes played by ac­tors, not laid out in text.

And this was real-life drama. No jour­nal­ism could cap­ture the mo­ment when Bush’s voice crack­led out in the bed­room, telling Blair he was ready to “kick ass” in Iraq and urg­ing him to have “co­jones”. And only a drama could cap­ture the scene at a No 10 din­ner when, even as the Iraq Sur­vey Group was re­port­ing long af­ter the war that no weapons of mass de­struc­tion had been found, Blair’s most loyal in­tel­li­gence chiefs said they would still be “proved right”. That was the mo­ment to have staged my play to full ef­fect. But I had barely writ­ten a first draft.

Gra­ham, or his di­rec­tors and pro­duc­ers, were right to stage this Brexit drama when they did. Just as it was broad­cast, show­ing the leave cam­paign de­vis­ing its win­ning slo­gan – Take Back Con­trol – the po­lit­i­cal or­der col­lapsed fur­ther, our lead­ers never so out of con­trol as they headed to the cliff edge.

Nor has any piece of jour­nal­ism bet­tered Gra­ham’s fo­cus-group scene in por­tray­ing how the poi­son of Brexit has set or­di­nary peo­ple against each other, or ex­posed how eas­ily our fee­ble lead­ers were led by op­por­tunis­tic ap­pa­ratchiks.

Set­ting a play against a back­drop of real events de­mands per­fect pitch – au­then­tic­ity if not fac­tual ac­cu­racy – pre­cisely to avoid a dis­cor­dant clash with the real world. Cast­ing Bene­dict Cum­ber­batch as Do­minic Cum­mings, the man be­hind the leave cam­paign, has been crit­i­cised as a stunt to en­ter­tain, and cer­tainly risked shat­ter­ing that au­then­tic­ity by giv­ing Cum­mings a Sher­lock-like al­lure this back­room bully lacked.

The fail­ure of jour­nal­ists to present the truth about Europe and our re­la­tion­ship with it is much to blame for the mess we are in to­day. And Boris John­son can take the ac­co­lade of jour­nal­ist fic­tion-writer in chief, hav­ing honed his poi­sonous skills as the Tele­graph’s Brus­sels cor­re­spon­dent.

More power to the el­bow of any writer – drama­tist, jour­nal­ist, film-maker – who is pre­pared to try to bring this im­pos­si­ble story into fo­cus in time to make our lead­ers see sense. Sadly the mes­sage is that it’s al­ready too late be­cause the poi­son has taken hold of the body politic: fo­cus groups, ap­pa­ratchiks, Do­minic Cum­mings, Boris John­son, Sher­lock Holmes – the lot. Sarah Helm’s play Loy­alty was staged at the Hamp­stead theatre in 2011

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