Tuesday, 18 September 2012
To the National to see a preview of This House, the new play by up and coming playwright James Graham. James came to attention a couple of years ago when his National Youth Theatre commissioned play Tory Boyz, which explored homosexuality in the modern Conservative Party, raised eyebrows at the Soho.
The new work, set during the turbulent parliament of 1974, takes a broader chronological sweep and looks at the tribal loyalties of both the Labour and Tory party, through the ever seeing eyes of their respective whips offices.
Labour are in power... just! But this is a period where hanging onto power proved far more important than creating and enacting policy. As their narrow majority dwindles with bi-election defeats and dying members, the whips resort to ever more drastic tactics to keep the government from falling.
Whilst the big beasts Heath and Thatcher, Wilson and Callaghan roam and posture in the chamber upstairs, down here, in the grubby engine room, a very different, less dignified, game is being played.
It's all great good fun. Philip Glenister, who has form as seventies rule breaking maverick DCI Gene Hunt in Life on Mars, plays the little known, but highly effective deputy chief whip Walter Harrision with suitable untouchable intelligence. He has excellent support from the spritely Phil Daniels as his boss Chief Whip Bob Mellish. Whilst on the Tory side Julian Wadham and Jack Edwards provide impeccable dramatic balance as the frustrated Humphrey Atkin and Jack Wetherall who, always a half step behind, complain bitterly about the Socialists' spoiling tactics.
Wetherall and Harrison, in particular, had a grudging respect for each other. On the night of the crucial 1979 vote of confidence, which did finally bring down the government, Harrison, realising that MP Alfred 'Doc' Broughton was on his deathbed and too ill to travel down form Leeds for the division, went to see Wetherall to invoke the gentleman's pairing agreement that if a sick MP from one side of the house couldn't make a vote then one member of the other side would abstain to compensate. Wetherall initially refused, saying the vote was too important for the agreement to stand and that any Tory abstaining would, even if the government fell, spend the rest of their political career in the wilderness. Harrison understood the position and made to leave, at which Wetherall, seeing his old sparring partner in despair, offered to abstain himself because he felt not to do so would be dishonourable. Harrison was so moved by the offer, that he refused to except. The government fell by one vote, Thatcher won the subsequent election and the rest, as they say, is history. Wetherall himself went on to become a very popular and unsurprisingly trusted speaker of the house, during the eighties. Harrison remained an opposition MP for a further two terms before retiring, in 1987, into relative obscurity
The gentleman's agreement scene is poignantly acted out at the climax of the play and as with so much of this work suggests that more unites politicians, even in the pre-PR days of class focused presentation, than divides them. In one lovely moment Harrison is caught by fellow whip, and future Blairite Ann Taylor, listening to opera, whilst Atkin walks in on Wetherall engrossed in an episode of Coronation Street. Both deputies are surprised by what they discover.
Graham doesn't just give us a satiric farce on the lengths and limits of parliamentary democracy but also suggests that the seeds of a different kind of political class were already being sown in the confused chaos and narrow margins of the mid-seventies.