fri 19/07/2019

Imagine James Graham, BBC One review - deft analysis of a working life | reviews, news & interviews

Imagine... James Graham, BBC One review - deft analysis of a working life

Imagine... James Graham, BBC One review - deft analysis of a working life

The playwright of UK politics on catching the cliff-edge moments of history

Alan Yentob, James Graham

How does an unassuming 36-year-old with a terrifyingly sensible haircut and a mildly flamboyant taste in jumpers become the political playwright par excellence of his generation? That’s the question that Alan Yentob sought to dissect in this first episode of a new series of Imagine, subtitled "In the Room Where It Happens", which deftly anatomised James Graham’s off-the-Richter-scale success in repeatedly making the political both profoundly and compellingly personal.

Graham most recently made watercooler conversation sizzle with his Brexit: The Uncivil War, broadcast on Channel 4 earlier this month. Earlier TV scripts have included Coalition (a Royal Television Society-award-winning drama about Cameron and Clegg), with theatrical hits like This House (which rivetingly recreated tensions in British parliament in the 1970s) and Ink, his provocative portrayal of Murdoch’s rise.

Given that most playwrights would happily strike a Faustian bargain for just one of his successes, what is it that gives Graham’s writing its zeitgeist-grabbing edge? To the sound of thousands of wannabe writers tapping or scribbling notes across the country, Yentob spent much of the initial part of the film analysing the dynamic first of Brexit: The Uncivil War, then of This House.

It’s always intriguing to see how a work starts in that initial notepad

“I treat these stories as if they’re origin stories to explain who we are and where we are now,” Graham declared. In interview clips interspersed with scenes of a folically-challenged Benedict Cumberbatch as Dominic Cummings (pictured below), he talked of the importance of tracing current anxieties back to where the “faultlines” began – generally “in a room” with people closing the door.

Which is interesting enough, but it’s not enough on its own to explain what makes Graham’s work compelling. What became transparent as the documentary progressed was that it’s his ability to show the tipping backwards and forwards of the balance at these critical moments behind closed doors that gives his work its bite. Take the showdown between Cummings and the Tory MPs on the Leave campaign’s board (where Cummings is nearly dismissed but turns the tables) or the poignant scene in This House where a Tory politician almost sacrifices his career for honour. History, we see vividly, teeters on a cliff-edge, and it’s the fact that we never know exactly what will maintain the status quo or send things flying that makes it simultaneously terrifying and fascinating.

For writing nerds it’s always intriguing to see how a work starts in that initial notepad, and Graham was happy to show us the books in which his scribbled raw ideas take on a life of their own. We discovered that he stumbled upon the subject matter for This House when he was trying to make sense of the Tory-Lib Dem coalition in 2010; similarly Brexit: The Uncivil War initially focused on David Cameron and his circle. The ease and fluidity of a Graham script belie the forensic detail with which he conducts his research ­– and several talking heads, not least Peter Mandelson and Ann Taylor, the first female Labour Whip, testified to his disarming interviewing technique. Though he is never in any doubt about the primary purpose of his work: “I don’t think you can make sense of the world unless you’re entertaining people.”Brexit: The Uncivil WarGraham, of course, has his own origin story, and in the last part Yentob looked at how he has been shaped by growing up in Kirkby-in-Ashfield in Nottinghamshire when the community was ravaged by the miners’ strike. His parents divorced – partly, we are told, because of their political differences – and Graham’s two siblings went to live with his father in the same road where he lived with his mother. In one of the most surprising moments, his mother related how Graham was once a promising figure-skater who, at the age of 11, turned heads with his on-ice performance as "the stripping vicar". This certainly accounts for his instinct to entertain, though journalist Nick Robinson was more struck by the fact that having one parent voting for John Major and the other for Neil Kinnock is “key” to Graham’s ability to see both sides.

In one of the programme's most telling moments, Graham talked about how choosing what he writes is like “reversing into big and intimidating subject matters through very strange side doors”. Yentob’s own approach to this quietly extraordinary talent was rather more conventional. Right at the end we discovered that Graham might have a problem with being a workaholic, but that's hardly earth-shattering news when talking about a young man who’s phenomenally successful. What’s perhaps most interesting about Graham’s low-key genius is how difficult it is to find a narrative that entirely ties it down – though this Imagine dug up more than enough fascinating clues to encourage us to continue the search.

The ease and fluidity of a Graham script belie the forensic detail with which he conducts his research

rating

Editor Rating: 
4
Average: 4 (1 vote)

Share this article

Add comment

Subscribe to theartsdesk.com

Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 10,000 pieces, we're asking for £3.95 per month or £30 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take an annual subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?

newsletter

Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters