Photo: National Theatre
Last week the National Theatre streamed James Graham’s 2012 play This House on YouTube. It tells the story of the British Parliament in the 1970s: close election results, bitterly fought contests between the whips’ offices, dying MPs wheeled in to vote as pairing agreements break down in a sea of distrust. Remarkably, it all really happened. If politics is your thing, then you’re almost certain to love it.
It’s super slick, the performances are painfully believable, the drama fascinating. It’s a history lesson too, though famous faces are kept out. There’s no Thatcher, no Heath, no Wilson, a clever move on Graham’s part, as we already know their stories. What most of us don’t know much about at all is whips and whipping, the grubby machinations that keep the whole thing on the road. It’s a wonderfully intense depiction of the lives these men – and it was mostly men – led, the sheer stress of it all.
More than anything though, it’s a celebration. Not an over-the-top, red-faced, pomp and circumstance type of celebration, but rather something much more subtle and, to my mind, truthful. British democracy was and is flawed, horribly in places, and Graham knows it, but he also knows and shows in This House that Winston Churchill wasn’t far wrong when he observed that, ‘democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time’.
After all, most of the people in the story are good people, acting ruthlessly only because that’s how they had to act. The end goal was passing (or preventing) laws, so as to improve the lives of voters (as they saw it) via a hectic but crucially peaceful rules-based system.
Graham’s characters are louder and more brash versions of the politicians involved, but this is to be expected. What shines through the thrilling histrionics though is the essential realness of the people. They care about things, like real people do, they have goals, objectives, most of them ultimately rather noble and connected to their own deeply held beliefs about the Britain they knew, its strengths, its weaknesses. They weren’t ideological – you simply can’t be an ideological whip, there’s too much at stake – but they care about the country, you can smell it on them, they all want it to improve in their own conflicting ways.
So they are characters, but they’re also very real people. Which leads us to Boris Johnson. Because he’s a real person, absolutely, but he’s a character too. And by that I don’t mean that he’s the life and soul of the party I’m afraid, but rather he’s a television personality, a grinning mask. A phony. Isn’t it obvious? If it wasn’t already before this past week, surely the staying put of Cummings in spite of his breaking of the lockdown rules has made it plainer than ever.
Cummings is not to Johnson what Alastair Campbell was to Tony Blair. This comparison is lazy. Campbell was a communications man, an effective and perhaps nasty one at times, but Cummings is different. He’s into ‘ideas’. Read the blogs. Campbell has spoken about how he was always tribally Labour and how he’d do what was needed to help them win – he wouldn’t have been out of place in the era of This House – but he never drove policy. Johnson needs Cummings so badly because he himself is devoid of ideas. They just don’t interest or excite him, he isn’t the type. But ideas matter, he knows it, which is why it’s so imperative from his perspective that Cummings remains in post.
Without him Johnson is exposed, a puppet without his master. Perhaps you’ll think that overstates it. I’m not so sure. Why else would he allow last week’s damaging story to drag on and on, the minds of many who voted for him last December changing in real time as the advisor spoke from the Downing Street garden?
At the end of This House one of the characters makes a deeply honourable decision in order to save the career of his opposite number, despite the fact that he knows it will lead to defeat for his own party. It is a fundamentally good act. It is a happy ending, of sorts, imperfect souls pushed to the limits, but caring and decent to the last. Nobody knows how today’s story will end, but the signs aren’t too good. The drama might be fascinating but that’s where the similarities end.
You can watch This House on YouTube from 7pm UK time on Thursday 28 May until 7pm UK time on Thursday 4 June 2020.