Saturday, April 27, 2013

It’s a funny way to run a Government–“This House” a celebration of British eccentricity

Years ago I took an American friend to Lord’s Cricket Ground. He sat for a while, nodding occasionally as  I tried to explain to him the finer points of the game. Eventually he turned to me and said “You mean you can play this stuff for five days and at the end it can still be a tie (sic)”?

We are an odd lot in these islands and nothing shows this more than our politics. We are the cradle of democracy but at the 2010 election one Party got 23% of the vote and 9% of the seats in the House of Commons.   Another Party got 29% of the vote and secured 40% of the seats. Were the wishes of the electorate reflected in Parliament? Of course not. And then again we have an Upper House which isn't voted for at all. And Bishops sit there voting on proposed Acts of Parliament. I could go on. But summing it up – we are pretty bonkers really.

And that is where the National Theatre's brilliant new play “This House” comes in. If it was pure fiction people would say “Ho Ho. Very funny. Couldn't happen of course…” But actually far from being pure fiction its actually pretty much pure fact. The remarkable author, James Graham, says in the programme that it is not a “historical record” and that the conversations are “imagined”. Indeed so. But this portrayal of the political events of the period 1974-1979 in Britain seen through the filter of the Whips’ offices in the House of Commons is as authentic as its possible to be. The characters ring true. The invented dialogue rings true. And the madness of it all rings true as well.

For those not around at the time (I was) the 1970s were characterised by unparalleled political turbulence. Some of it (most of it) was a peculiarly British problem. Some of it (the quadrupling of Oil prices in 1973) was caused by global events. In 1974 the Prime Minister, Edward Heath, “went to the Country” with the question “Who Governs Britain?” He was told in two elections that he didn't. This brought the wily old Labour PM Harold Wilson back to Number 10. Heath then lost another contest – that for leadership of the Conservative Party to a “stalking horse” candidate – a little known woman called Margaret Thatcher. “This House” suggests that sufficient Tory MPs voted for Thatcher just to wake the Party up so that a more suitable alternative to Heath would emerge. But there were so many of them doing this that they actually voted “The Lady” in by mistake! Only in Britain!

We get the stories told through the (invented) words of the inhabitants of the the Whips offices and their visitors . Thatcher’s election on the Tory side of the stage and, then, Harold Wilson’s resignation on the Labour side. The characters are all real – Bob Mellish (wonderfully played by Phil Daniels) for Labour and Humphrey Atkins equally well portrayed by Julian Wadham for the Conservatives. The banter between the two sides is at the heart of the play  - as is the very real class divide between the two Parties of those times. In our more classless society it is not possible to guess (if you didn't know) from the background or physical appearance of an MP whether he or she is Labour or Tory. Here there is no such confusion. The Conservative Whip John Weatherill not only looks like a tailor’s dummy he actually was a Tailor by trade – albeit a fairly superior one. This prompted a pompous fellow Tory MP to say that “even my tailor can get elected to this place now.” But in the main the Tories are Toffs and the Labour men Proles. That’s how it was. There is a hilarious portrayal of the unbelievably camp Norman St John Stevas by Helena Lymbury who shows her versatility by also being the firebrand Labour member for Coventry South West Audrey Wise.

This is a play full of jokes a-plenty but around the humour a quite serious drama is unfolding. Can Labour, under James Callaghan, with a slim majority and in the face of difficult political problems, hold on to power? To do this they must win votes in the House – made all the more difficult because their MPs keep dying off! Some of the elderly members are too sick to be active but they are still wheeled into the Commons (literally so). In one case there is speculation as to whether the vote of a member who might actually be dead would count!   Gradually the working majority dwindles and a minority Government emerges. Then the Tories provoked by what they saw as a stich up over “Pairing” decide to cancel the pairing arrangements entirely. The Whips then have to persuade, bribe and cajole the MPs of the smaller parties to support them – a task made all the more crucial when there are deserters from their own side - not least the Minister Reg Prentice who actually crosses the floor of the house and becomes a Conservative. This is rich material for the farceur and James Graham creates some hilarious scenes  - including one where Frank Maguire, the drunken Irish Republican from Fermanagh, is locked in a cupboard to make him available, and sober enough, to vote!  

Rather like my American friend at the cricket we are here witnessing events and scenes which on the face of it make no sort of sense. Surely there are better ways to run Government than this series of improbable charades? Well in his play the Author is not judgemental and he also, to his credit, is not making any sort of Party political points. The two sides are equally admirable at times and despicable at others. They are equally burdened by their class backgrounds and their prejudices. They are equally detached, at times, from understanding what they are really supposed to be doing. Governing the Country! The game is everything and to win is all, and to lose a disaster. It is these things that the two sides have in common that makes the play so interesting as well as entertaining. The world outside the Whips’ offices may be the real world. But when you spend twelve hours a day (or more) obsessed with keeping your Party’s MPs sweet this becomes all that matters. They are all players in an abstruse and at times deeply silly game. Just like cricket really!