In The Audience and This House, those are politicians on stage, but not as I knew them

Peter Morgan's The Audience and This House at The National are two great plays about politics. Unless, of course, you're familiar with the real-life characters portrayed

Share

There are two excellent political plays on in London at the moment. In the West End, Helen Mirren plays the Queen in The Audience, Peter Morgan's account of the monarch's weekly meetings with her Prime Ministers, from Churchill to Cameron.

Less celebrated but just as compelling is James Graham's This House at the National Theatre, a torrid dramatisation of life in the Whips' offices of both main political parties of the minority Labour government of the 1970s.

I thoroughly enjoyed both plays, but with both I had the same problem. I had known a little of some of the characters – OK, not the Queen – or met them fleetingly, or seen them perform in the House of Commons, or watched them on television. My problem was that they were a bit, a significant bit, different from the characters on stage.

It isn't just that Peter Morgan gets the occasional Prime Minister wrong, though he does. Harold Wilson was never the bolshie lefty you see in The Audience. He was an urbane, witty, ironic Oxford don.

With This House too I had the odd problem, because I had a passing acquaintance with some of the characters portrayed. The Labour chief whip, the late Michael Cocks, I had dealings with when I was a cub reporter, and I recall an authoritative, almost military figure, not the slightly bumbling fellow with a touch of Captain Mainwaring about him that is on stage.

Junior whip Ann Taylor is meek and put upon in the play. When I saw the real thing perform in Parliament she was anything but.

But the playwright needed these characters to be right for his dramatic take on events, just as it suited Peter Morgan for Harold Wilson to give the Queen an improbable lesson in socialism.

Nevertheless, it worries me. A good play – and these are both very good plays – lasts a long time and will have revivals in decades to come. The figures on stage will, for future generations, and for some watching now, be taken as true-to-life portrayals.

That they are not quite may not matter. They are plays, not documentaries. The performers are actors, not impressionists.

But from my seat in the stalls I felt unsure whether to view these two productions as superb creative works, or flawed re-creations of recent history.

Highly enjoyable, yes. But personal knowledge, even vicarious knowledge, of the characters can get in the way of total enjoyment of a work of art. I'm glad I never met Antony or Cleopatra.

 

How Andrew Neil created a key prop

One of the key scenes in The Audience is a confrontation between the Queen and Mrs Thatcher over a front-page story in The Sunday Times suggesting that there were tensions at their regular meetings.

Indeed, in the scene, an angry Mrs Thatcher enters waving a copy of The Sunday Times front page. I can throw a little light on the real events behind this, as I was on The Sunday Times at the time and was in the editorial conference that discussed the story.

In fact, a features editor presenting the list for the Review section offered a nice feature about tensions between the Queen and Mrs Thatcher at the weekly audiences. The then editor, Andrew Neil, said immediately: "That's the splash." So, had Mr Neil, with his journalistic instincts, not been present, it would not have been an agenda-setting "splash" at all. And a key prop for The Audience would have looked rather less impressive.

Does Hilary Mantel really need affirmative action?

The Orange Prize for Fiction, now known as The Women's Prize for Fiction, was set up to bring into the limelight female novelists who were not, it was thought, getting their deserved attention.

I have argued more than once in recent years that the bestsellers list these days actually tends to have more women than men, and it's unclear why such a prize is still needed. How much better it would be to have a prize for, say, women film directors, where there really is a need for affirmative action.

This week the Women's Prize for Fiction published its 2013 longlist, and there on it was that wannabe Hilary Mantel. Yep, she's sure neglected, overlooked and kept off the book-prize podium by overbearing male writers. Good to see her get a helping hand.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey/ South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey / South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Recruitment Consultant / Account Manager - Surrey / SW London

£40000 per annum + realistic targets: Ashdown Group: A thriving recruitment co...

Ashdown Group: Part-time Payroll Officer - Yorkshire - Professional Services

£25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful professional services firm is lo...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Nicola Sturgeon could have considerable influence over David Cameron in a hung parliament  

General Election 2015: What if Cameron were to end up in hock to the SNP?

Steve Richards
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before