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


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.

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