“No Lib Dem leader has ever had this kind of exposure and opportunity”
James Graham definitely seems to be having a moment – the noted playwright has been branching out into film and TV and with some serendipitous timing, is showcasing his talent in all three avenues. The Vote will soon be hitting the Donmar, X&Y is in cinemas as we speak, and his television film Coalition aired on Channel 4 last night. I’ve yet to catch X&Y but if Coalition is anything to go by, then there’s absolutely no fear that he is overstretching himself as it was a cracking bit of telly.
One of the reasons it worked so well for me was its basis in more-or-less contemporary events. His play This House was a sterling piece of political theatre but for someone who had no knowledge of the 1970s politicking it portrayed, there was always a sense of catch-up whereas the more august members of the audience could enjoy the nuances of Graham’s skilful writing and observations without the niggle of also trying to work out just what was going on.
And “based on real events and extensive research and interviews with key people who were there” as it was, it felt a thoroughly authentic piece of drama, with the added bonus of Graham’s gift for complex but compassionate characterisation. So the scale of the challenge Nick Clegg faced in negotiating the Lib Dems’ place in government is seen anew, and Bertie Carvel’s immense subtlety made it a hugely compelling dilemma to watch, especially played against Donald Sumpter’s Paddy Ashdown, ever-present as the ghost of Lib Dems past.
If not quite finding sympathy for Cameron, Mark Dexter gave us an appreciation of the frustration of finishing first in an election but not winning it. And as Gordon Brown, Ian Grieve played some of the most touching moments of the piece exquisitely, the desperate hope that came with the rekindling of possibility, the enormous dignity in finally accepting the time to step down, guided by Mandelson’s gentle but firm hand (Mark Gatiss in fine saturnine form).
There was also deftly comedic touches with some of the supporting players – Deborah Findlay’s exasperated pragmatism as Harriet Harman trying to smooth Brown’s rough edges, Nicholas Burns nailing the bullishness of Ed Balls’ body language, Sebastian Armesto’s oleaginous George Osbourne so eminently punchable, vivid work from Nick Holder as tough Tory Patrick McLoughlin too. It is always pleasing to see such a talented ensemble get their moments to shine, it just felt a shame that each of the leader’s wives were featured but wordlessly.
But there’s no mistaking just how talented a writer Graham is. His gift for translating exposition into believable dialogue is second to none – especially in the tighter time constraints here than the stage would afford – and the attention to detail is just delicious, as in the different ways in which the politicians deliver their scripted phone calls or the contrast in how the leaders speak to their party faithful. It’s enough to almost make you feel sorry for Nick Clegg, almost…but it’s definitely worth catching on 4OD if you haven’t done so already.