Rupert Murdoch was missing at the opening night of Ink, the play about his first year as the owner of the Sun. But there are rumours that Jerry Hall wants to see this account of how her octogenarian husband became the UK’s most powerful press baron. “That’d be fun,” says playwright James Graham. “Weird and fun.”
Set in 1969, Graham’s play charts the Sun’s battle to become more “popular” – both in sales and as the legitimate voice of the working classes – than its more successful rival, the Daily Mirror. The production, directed by Rupert Goold at the Almeida theatre in north London, has received glowing write-ups from a newspaper industry cheered by its depiction of a hot metal world fuelled by scotch and cigarettes. Kelvin Mackenzie has compared Ink to a documentary while another former editor of the Sun, David Yelland, tells me it is “joyful – the best presentation I’ve ever seen of what popular journalism is about: ideas, creativity, madness, sex, sports, glamour, news and fun”.
Graham is unusual in writing about media and political figures without being overtly polemic, focusing instead on the absurdities of their behaviour when faced with some of the biggest issues of the day. With his 2012 hit This House he depicted ailing MPs being wheeled in to vote during the minority government of the 1970s; in Ink, there are stories of hopping races down Fleet Street and rivalries so intense that they regularly descend into fights. And yet the play charts the origins of a world in which the influence of the popular press, its standards, and the rise of fake news is more worrying than ever.
Cutting a slight and unassuming figure in the bar of the Almeida, Graham says he recognised the relevance of Ink during the run-up to last year’s EU referendum. “What was happening to the national conversation in the press and beyond gave me a sense of urgency to get this play on,” he says. “Not to get too dramatic – although that is my job! – but I think we’re reaching crisis levels when it comes to the low quality of our political and national discourse.”
There is a telling moment in Ink in which the crusading but, in this version, slightly pompous Mirror editor Hugh Cudlipp issues a warning to the Sun’s new editor, Larry Lamb: “Pander to and promote the most base instincts of people all you like, fine, create an appetite, but I warn you. You’ll have to keep feeding it.”
Shouting louder and louder in a bid to offer more of what people want – sex, scandal, gossip – has reached its apogee not just in fake news but also in the reporting of tragedy. The play’s most uncomfortable moments are those involving the real-life kidnap and eventual murder of Muriel McKay, the wife of the Sun’s deputy chairman. “The only people responsible for that are the people who took her,” begins Graham, “but that case naturally raises the question: how do you ethically and morally report on these difficult stories, whether the kidnap of a woman, or a missing child in the case of Madeleine McCann, or a teenager in the case of Milly Dowler, or, of course, Hillsborough.”
Unspoken in the play is the awful irony that although Lamb made much of his northern roots and desire to speak for the ordinary man, the Sun would later turn on the football fans rather than the authorities for failings in safety at Hillsborough. “There are reprehensible moments in our recent past and the way the press have reported them,” says Graham.
And yet there is little or no anger in Graham’s play. In particular, Murdoch, portrayed pungently by Bertie Carvel, is neither the devil nor press saviour of popular legend but a nuanced individual who is uneasy about page 3 and upset about an anonymous letter that blames the Sun’s peddling of “filth” for creating a world in which his friend’s wife can be kidnapped and her corpse eventually fed to pigs. Murdoch at the age of 38 is “an interesting bag of contradictions” according to Graham. “I was fascinated to hear that he did have a negative reaction to page 3, until of course he saw the sales figures. There is a prudishness to him and a shyness.”
His focus on the man, not the monster, is apparent when Graham discusses Murdoch’s friendship with the US president. “I can see why he connects with Donald Trump because I think there’s a weird kind of loneliness to both men. They struggle to get really close to people.” He is unapologetic about finding the humanity in a man accused of dragging the British media into the gutter. “I know political writers out there will think my plays are toothless, that what we need desperately is to be loud and aggressive and hold people to account. And people should write those plays, they are just never going to be my plays. I’m more interested in trying to understand people I don’t necessarily agree with, try to understand their motivations and why they feel what they do.”
Graham says we are living in a world “where there’s a huge amount to be angry about and I am frequently angry, but I try to protect my plays from that because I don’t want to lecture an audience. I want to ask the question and have them answer it themselves.” He is softly spoken but the words tumble out when asked whether he pulls his punches. “I feel very lucky and very grateful at the moment to be given opportunities by theatres to get to talk about things that really interest me and to find an audience for those things. But I don’t want to be some kind of political playwright-laureate.”
He is certainly busier than ever. This House was recently revived in the West End and will tour the UK next year. In November, Chichester’s Minerva theatre will stage Quiz, his play about the conviction of Charles Ingram for cheating on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? And Graham is also busy reworking another new play, Labour of Love, which opens in the West End in September with Martin Freeman and Sarah Lancashire in the lead roles. It focuses on the “broken link” between the working classes and Labour. Graham wrote it when the party looked to be heading for electoral catastrophe and is now changing some of the focus in light of Corbyn’s recent resurgence.
Graham sat at the back of the audience on Ink’s opening night with his mother, a former school secretary, and his stepfather, a former window cleaner. Born in 1982, he grew up in the Nottinghamshire mining town of Mansfield. It was one of just six seats that switched from Labour to Conservative in this year’s election and 70% of the area (“including some of my own family”) voted to leave the EU. Mansfield is also the setting for Graham’s five-minute film Burn, one of the Guardian’s series of online Brexit Shorts. It stars Joanna Scanlan as an internet troll who, in the aftermath of the referendum, provokes a far-right extremist on social media with violent consequences. “I don’t think anyone, even the people who won, could pretend that [the referendum] wasn’t a really toxic, even violently fatal, conversation and if we can’t have these debates without descending into that, someone actually losing their life…” he trails off.
The closest he gets to blaming the press for poisoning the debate at a time when an MP could be murdered by a rightwing extremist is when he says: “There is still an unattractive xenophobic strand that has been fuelled unforgivably by the tabloid press that means it wasn’t a reasoned, rational debate.” In addition, he talks of how, as a society, we form “echo chambers and enclaves whereby we don’t let alternative views in … I think that can only end negatively and dangerously. I look at the way we conduct elections, conduct ourselves, conversations in the press and online. I feel like we’re losing our identity as rational and reasonable people.”
Describing himself as being “unapologetically populist” a year ago, he now frets that that word has become corrupted. As though in direct response to Lamb’s line in the play, Graham says: “You can’t just keep giving people what they want.”