Playwright James Graham on his West End play Best of Enemies and the ‘crisis of goodness’ in our politics

James Graham  (Matt Writtle)
James Graham (Matt Writtle)

The problem for writers chronicling recent history, especially on divisive issues, is they might have to meet their subjects. Fortunately for James Graham, famously the nicest man in British showbusiness, he hasn’t had anyone swing for him yet, not even irascible media baron Rupert Murdoch, the subject of his play Ink.

Murdoch saw the play twice, once in London – it started at the Almeida in 2017 before transferring to the West End – and then when it made its way to Broadway. They met after the London visit. So how did it go?

“Um… yeah,” Graham smiles. “He didn’t say much… But he didn’t throw me out the window or take my house away in a libel suit!” He adds, “It’s always a strange feeling when you meet the subject of your play. You feel like you’ve lived in their head for so long and then there they are in flesh and blood.”

If Murdoch didn’t say much, Dominic Cummings, the focus of Graham’s 2019 TV drama Brexit: The Uncivil War, was even less forthcoming. “He’s never spoken to me about it. We were in touch quite a lot during research and I met him a few times. But he hasn’t expressed a view on what he thinks.”

Graham doesn’t have to worry about meeting the protagonists of his new West End show Best of Enemies – transferring from the Young Vic, where it opened last December. Both conservative commentator William F Buckley and liberal writer Gore Vidal died over a decade ago. But their story remains extraordinarily relevant to today.

David Harewood and Zachary Quinto in rehearsal for Best of Enemies (Johan Persson)
David Harewood and Zachary Quinto in rehearsal for Best of Enemies (Johan Persson)

Best of Enemies focuses on the birth of the televised TV political debate-as-combat. In 1968, a year of protest that divided America, Buckley went head-to-head with Vidal over the course of several televised debates around the Democratic convention.

The play, in which the two debaters start the evenings with high-minded ideals and end up screaming at each other, looks at the seeds of today’s increasingly bad-tempered political discourse. “In microcosm, over the course of two hours, it shows the collapse of best intentions and the descent of well-meaning discourse into political toxicity.”

Is this about sowing the seeds of today’s culture war? “Definitely. I consider it an origin story for that stuff. 1968 is very much a parallel to now in terms of that spirit of protest, the desire for radical change among a whole section of society, the schism between a younger and older generation, the racial tensions, the cultural tensions…

“What Buckley and Vidal identified and represent is that quite sudden shift, in 1968, of politics being about identity,” he continues. “‘What’s my sexuality, my gender, my race? Am I northern or southern?’ Gore weaponised that and said, ‘Whose America do you want, his or mine?’ and then it becomes like a sport. It’s like football, you celebrate everything on your team and you hate the other team no matter what they do. I don’t think that’s healthy and it’s only become worse since 1968.”

Graham likes to play with audience expectations (his Murdoch, initially at least, was an iconoclast who broke up the closed newspaper networks of 1950s Fleet Street), and he does the same with Buckley. While a liberal London audience would more likely side with Vidal, he has the lefty character needling and provoking, with Buckley often attempting to elevate the discourse. “I enjoy the audience being forced to go, ‘Do you know what, I’m sometimes on Team Buckley.’”

James Graham in rehearsal for Best of Enemies (Johan Persson)
James Graham in rehearsal for Best of Enemies (Johan Persson)

The casting of David Harewood, who returns to the production as Buckley opposite Zachary Quinto – Mr Spock in the more recent Star Trek films – who takes over from Charles Edwards as Vidal, is also a game changer: a black actor playing “a patriarchal, elitist, well-spoken, problematic” white conservative.

“It’s like being unplugged from the Matrix and going, ‘What is this in and of itself, regardless of my other prejudice; what is he actually saying and why?’” says Graham.

The playwright sometimes worries about his approach to writing less-loved figures. “I hope it’s not a careless, mischievous idea, to just give the devil the best tunes and to provoke by making the villains humane and the heroes less humane.” But that’s what Best of Enemies is about, he says. “How do you listen to your opponents and really understand them?”

There was nothing wrong in the idea of having figures from the left and right debate ideas, he says. “That wasn’t flawed, what’s flawed is human beings and they f***ing dropped the ball; they screwed it. They wanted to engage on substance, talk about great philosophical ideas; about what is America and ‘who are we and where are we going?’ But because they’re human beings, cut to – they’re just screaming at each other and calling each other names like children, and I think that’s what’s equivalent to Twitter and any other social media platform.”

He is still on Twitter and when we talk he says he isn’t planning on leaving, despite the takeover by Elon Musk, though “I’m worried. It’s going to become another battlefield in the culture wars, isn’t it?”

Graham has himself engaged in adversarial TV debate, by appearing on Question Time during the pandemic, although he says “it was the soft version… there was no audience, and I really enjoyed that I didn’t have to give everything towards an applause.” He was praised for his staunch defence of the arts, and their significance to Britain.

He remains a champion of the arts and talks with passion about the existential threat facing arts education. “The trend for the past five years of losing arts and drama from state schools is horrifying,” he says. “Given that our last remaining success story as a global nation is culture, and the assumption that will just continue and you don’t have to feed it… We’ll discover the consequences quite soon, if we haven’t already.”

He’s clearly furious. “We’re so f***ing good at it, and it’s just about the last thing the world still admires us for. It’s so stupid. It should be absolutely top of the educational agenda.”

As well as Best of Enemies, Graham’s first musical, Tammy Faye, written with Elton John and Jake Shears on music and lyrics, is also currently running in London, at the Almeida theatre. It’s about the hugely successful televangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker; Jim was eventually jailed for fraud. In the show, Tammy Faye is presented as a rather naive heroine.

“We definitely went hard on joy, unapologetically, especially for the times we’re living in, post-pandemic, asking ‘what is theatre’,” says Graham. He loves musicals, having appeared in Oliver! and Grease at school, and remembers coming to the West End from Mansfield to see Les Misérables.

Andrew Rannells and Katie Brayben as Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker at the Almeida (Marc Brenner)
Andrew Rannells and Katie Brayben as Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker at the Almeida (Marc Brenner)

“Pre discovering you’re supposed to have snobbery towards musicals – low art instead of high art – I just accepted it for what it was, which is just brilliant. They are the highest form of theatricality in terms of inventiveness.”

Graham has always written, though didn’t start writing plays until his A-levels. “As a kid I remember loving writing short stories, and my mum bought me an electric typewriter, which was the best thing anyone had ever given me. I was four years old.”

He studied drama at Hull University and after being cast in a new play as a student, he fell in love with new writing. He took a show to Edinburgh and had several productions at the Finborough Theatre. His breakthrough was This House, which opened at the National Theatre in 2012 before transferring to the West End and going on tour.

Following two sets of whips in the House of Commons during a crucial vote of no confidence in the James Callaghan government of 1979, it was perhaps not an obvious hit West End show. Political plays can get bogged down “but the way you translate that to an audience that is through stories. Stories, stories, stories.”

Graham is obsessed by politics and right now is not impressed with what he sees. “Just when you think it can’t get more chaotic, you get surprised and plumb new depths of low standards in public life, which is incredibly disappointing.”

While he aims not to be didactic or spoon-feed his audience, current events are making things difficult. “Particularly, the unforgivable collapse in standards exhibited by Boris Johnson, and the habit increasingly of breaking standards and norms for the sake of it, because of carelessness, because of short term benefit – or the horror we’re witnessing from our current home secretary. How she’s just breaking those taboos of language recklessly. I feel so upset and angry about that and I feel increasingly that does bleed into the work a bit,” he says.

“I think we’re in an existential crisis of goodness in our politics, which I’ve never ever believed [before],” he goes on. I’ve always been – and sometimes [am] rightly criticised for being – naively optimistic about our politicians and our systems of government, and believing in their power to do good.”

That belief “is being so tested. It is definitely a dark time, it’s the darkest I’ve lived through in 40 years. It’s really upsetting.”

There has been much recent controversy over dramatists portraying real life events – though Graham has avoided too much opprobrium – especially with the fifth series of The Crown, which landed on Netflix last week.

Some have called for disclaimers at the beginning of episodes to clarify that some scenes are fictional. Graham worked on an episode in the show’s third series, and has firm views.

“I think the disclaimers thing is bullshit,” he says. “It’s patronising to an audience; they won’t think Imelda Staunton is the queen or that Peter Morgan was in those rooms and those meetings. They know the game. If you have to put a disclaimer on saying, ‘This is fiction’ then that’s really embarrassing.

“That doesn’t mean as writers and artists we don’t have a responsibility to not wilfully misrepresent what happened,” he continues. “There’s a difference between the truth of art and the truth of history. It’s like in life, my rule is: don’t be a dick, and in this case, don’t be a dick to history. Don’t bend the facts to suit a political agenda.”

James Graham: “my rule is: don’t be a dick” (Matt Writtle)
James Graham: “my rule is: don’t be a dick” (Matt Writtle)

Graham may be the busiest stage and screen writer around, except perhaps for Jack Thorne. I run through all the projects he’s been linked with: a play about John Major? “I’m still doing that, it’s more about the Maastricht rebels though. John Major would be in it as I find him fascinating.”

An unnamed Michael Sheen drama set in Port Talbot? “Yes that’s going ahead I think. It is a three-part drama that we hope to start shooting in spring.” An adaptation of Boys from the Blackstuff for Liverpool’s Royal Court? “Yep that’s happening next autumn. It’s written.” The screenplay for the Ink movie? “I’m trying to finish that, yep.”

Then there’s the second series of Sherwood, which garnered rave reviews and big audiences when it aired on BBC One this summer. “I wasn’t necessarily planning on revisiting it. But in making it I had such a satisfying time that I feel you can insert new stories in the world.”

There’s a song in Tammy Faye in which the titular character sings, “I’m 39 and in my prime.” Having just turned 40, does Graham feel that way? He laughs. “I feel so f***ing tired, I don’t feel very primey. But I feel so happy with the work I get to do,” he says.

“I’m not unrealistic about how short those windows can be, when you get to go, ‘I want to talk about post-industrial legacy in mining towns in Nottinghamshire’ and someone says yes. I know that will eventually stop, and it took a long time to get to the point they’d say yes. However long this window lasts I should try and enjoy it more than I do.”

Best of Enemies runs at the Noel Coward Theatre from November 28; Tammy Faye is at the Almeida Theatre until December 3