James Graham interview: meet the writer bringing drama to this year's election race

The political playwright is putting himself in poll position with Coalition, a Channel 4 drama about the present coalition government, and The Vote, a "real-time play for theatre and television" set in a polling station

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The Independent Culture

If you’ve never heard of James Graham before, you certainly will have by the end of this spring. Over the next couple of months, the playwright and screenwriter has a total of five major projects launching.

Let’s put them in chronological order, I suggest, and Graham concurs with a smile. Thus we have his script for the sensitive British film X + Y, out next week and starring Sally Hawkins and Rafe Spall; the book for Broadway musical Finding Neverland, also beginning previews next week; Coalition, a one-off drama for Channel 4 about the formation of the present coalition government; The Vote, a “real-time play for theatre and television” for the Donmar Warehouse and Channel 4, set in a polling station on election day; and a revival of his 2014 success The Angry Brigade, about radical protest in the 1970s.

Just in case this isn’t enough to keep him occupied, he is also writing a screenplay for Finding Neverland producer and legendary movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, “an imagined scenario about what would happen one day if the Queen went a bit rogue”. We’re less than five minutes into our interview and already I feel exhausted.

Most interesting, perhaps, are the two election dramas Coalition and The Vote: in the run up to 7 May, they are set to cement Graham’s position as his generation’s foremost political dramatist.

He first came to attention in 2012 with This House, an exquisitely detailed and humorous examination of fractious Labour minority governments that was a much-lauded hit for the National Theatre. He learnt his political craft, however, at Earls Court’s tiny Finborough Theatre, with some admirably (over-) ambitious plays about Anthony Eden and Margaret Thatcher.

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Asa Butterfield and Jo Yang in X+Y

I saw all of Graham’s early work and the scope of his talent was indisputable. What, I ask this affable, softly-spoken 32-year-old, was your earliest political conviction? “I grew up in a mining town in Nottinghamshire,” he says. “I don’t have memories of the [miners’] strike, but I do remember that all the pits around me closed in the early 1990s. I was very aware that politics wasn’t this weird, abstract thing that came from London. It was very much something that I saw people have an emotional response to.”

Graham is a remarkably even-handed writer – he treated left and right with equal courtesy and curiosity in This House, for example – and he credits his background with this sense of balance. “In Nottinghamshire, there was huge ideological conflict [involving the breakaway miners’ union that went back to work] so I suppose I enjoyed my own confusion about that. It was something about living in the grey and seeing how complicated things were. I enjoy playing devil’s advocate and seeing the other side.”

Nonetheless, Graham brims with conviction on a personal level. He says, wryly: “Too often after a couple of whiskies in a political conversation in a pub I get a bit too passionate and the morning after I’ll have to ring everyone up and apologise.”

Coalition promises to be a compelling examination of the power-play that occurred in the wake of the 2010 election, with Olivier Award-winning actor Bertie Carvel leading the cast as Nick Clegg. Graham “wanted to try to get it first-hand” and thus spoke to the likes of George Osborne, Paddy Ashdown and Danny Alexander for research. “It was amazing how candid they were,” Graham says of all his interviewees.

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Mark Dexter (as David Cameron), Bertie Carvel (Nick Clegg) and Ian Grieve (Gordon Brown) in Channel 4’s drama Coalition (Rory Mulvey/Channel 4)

“I could only assume that, as the government uncoupling happens, they were all starting to mark out their territory, who got one over on whom. There was some quite enjoyable peacocking and they all had a sort of weird twinkle in their eye, like they wanted to be a bit naughty. That was fun.” Was it hard to get a purchase on figures such as Clegg and David Cameron, who are constantly being reshaped by the media? “I think you treat them like any other fictitious character,” he says. “You have to liberate yourself from making it a documentary. All you can ever do is capture the essence of a person.”

Meanwhile, The Vote will be at the thick of this election’s action when it is televised live from the Donmar by More4 on the very night, at the precise time at which the play is set. “I always had this curiosity about why, when it comes to these big national events, we just assume that journalism will cover it. I think, where’s storytelling and drama in assessing this? I still think story is the best vehicle to understanding anything. So I was really excited about the idea of chipping in and people sitting at home watching a story on election night rather than just the swingometer.”

Not that Graham wants to overshadow the drama of the election itself, “the Shakespearean nature of the rise and fall of leaders”: “I’d feel really responsible if they stayed at home watching my play instead of voting! I’d have destroyed democracy!”

Is he ever, I wonder, tempted to write a three-handed-relationship drama that has nothing to do with politics? His answer is decisive. “Even if it was three people in a flat, I couldn’t imagine that I wouldn’t want it to speak to current social/economic/political anxieties. Everything has to be political, because it’s about status and power and wants and needs.”

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This House at the National Theatre

National politics are one thing, but the politics of a big Broadway show are quite another and when we meet, Graham is about to fly to New York for rehearsals of Finding Neverland, the film-turned-big-budget-musical about J M Barrie, for the notoriously volatile Weinstein. It’s been a learning curve, he admits.

“You have to remove your ego entirely. In book-writing a musical, essentially you write a scene up to the point where it gets really dramatic and then you hand it over to the music writer and they turn that high point into a song.”

The music writer in this instance is none other than Gary Barlow. “Gary had never done a musical before either and so we got together in a studio and looked at each other hoping the other one would know what to do!” And how is Weinstein? “He’s passionate.” Is “passionate” a euphemism? “No,” says Graham with a twinkle.

In the midst of this avalanche of work and opportunities, anyone would be forgiven for putting their personal life on the back-burner. Graham, who is currently single, admits early on in our time together that: “I’m not very good at all those w**ky phrases like ‘self-care’ [or] eating and sleeping and staying warm. I’m going to New York tomorrow and I don’t have any of the things a person needs [the weather there being sub-zero snowstorms]. It doesn’t occur to me to close my laptop and go and get a warm coat! I’m trying to get better at that stuff. I really admire those people who are awesome at life.”

 

Surely he’ll finally get a chance for some self-care come 8 May? “I won’t be able to, because we almost certainly won’t have a government and that will go on for days and weeks and I’ll be too invested in that story.” With that, James Graham smiles and prepares to take his political convictions to the razzmatazz of Broadway.

‘X + Y’ opens on 13 March; ‘Coalition’ will be broadcast in late March; ‘The Vote’ is at the Donmar Warehouse, WC2, 24 April to 7 May (donmarwarehouse.com) and will be televised live on 7 May; ‘The Angry Brigade’ is at the Bush Theatre, W12, 30 April to 13 June (bushtheatre.co.uk)

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