On YouTube until 4 June 2020
Seeing This House again, after several years, on a thoroughly absorbing broadcast of the National Theatre’s mid-2010s production, it is immediately clear how prescient it was. The chaos of national politics in the mid-1970s seemed light years away in 2014, but how arrogant that assumption seems now. The events of 2016-19, including bitter national division, two elections in quick succession, a minority government, MPs swapping parties, MPs not fit to attend being dragged to the Commons to vote, a grabbing of the ceremonial mace, were remarkably familiar to those who had watched James Graham’s play, or lived through the real thing.
Graham charts the course of the two 1974 elections and their aftermath – a hung parliament and then a wafer-thin Labour majority – from inside the Government and Opposition Whip’s Offices in Parliament. There, the men (and one woman) charged with keeping first Wilson and then Callaghan in power, vote by agonising vote, play out an intense, personally costly drama.
Graham is clearly fascinated by the unseen individuals at the heart of the machine, and by how quickly they were forgotten. He specialises in taking apparently obscure historical episodes, well within living memory, and showing us why we are wrong to have let them fade into the past. The drama he generates from the actions of obscure MPs who few could name without him is remarkable. Jeremy Herrin’s production was a big hit at the time, and stands up to rewatching very well indeed. The theatre of the Commons chamber is translated brilliantly to the vast Olivier stage, having opened in the small Dorfman Theatre (then called the Cottesloe), with the opposing benches filled with both actors and audience.
Some excellent performances drive the show – from Reece Dinsdale as master Labour operator Walter Harrison, Phil Daniels as Chief Whip Bob Mellish, Julian Wadham as his hilariously snooty opposite number, Lauren O’Neill as ‘token girl’ Ann Taylor (in real life, to become the first female Chief Whip and Graham’s main source), and Charles Edwards at Tory deputy Jack Weatherill (later to become famous as Speaker). Graham masterfully crams in arcane procedure and forgotten events, while making every moment seems essential and leaving room for a great deal of humour. But the drama is intense. Labour whips fight to save the country from a future they dreaded under Margaret Thatcher, their struggles made all the more poignant by our hindsight. Graham celebrates the role of those who sacrifice themselves for the greater good – there are several deaths in the course of the play just as there were in reality – and contrasts it with the individualism of those who think they are more important than the party, whether they are the Militants then infiltrating Labour or the thwarted MPs they unseat. The play ends with a moment of the highest historical , an event in which Walter Harrison shows himself to be entirely selfless – something that was apparently unknown until uncovered by Graham. The drama of his writing is supercharged by the knowledge that this is no fiction
The public tends to see Parliament as a combination of archaic, divorced from reality and irrelevant – then, as now. They also sort of love it, and show no inclination to vote in favour of changing a strange system that relies on a version of honour amongst men that makes little sense, and doesn’t reflect the role of women much better now than 40 years ago. This House is a fine piece of writing – satisfying to the political geek, but also much more important than that, showing us how little we have changed and how much we still have to do.