With his ground-breaking comedy-drama “This House”, James Graham demonstrated a number of hitherto unsuspected truths.
First and foremost, that there is a vast and largely unsatisfied appetite in this country for political theatre.
Secondly, that such theatre lives or dies, stands or falls, not according to how serious, “worthy” or “meaningful” it is, but by how enjoyable it is – which requires a certain craft and lightness of touch, and, above all else, humour.
Thirdly, he demonstrated that a successful play can as well be set in the engine room as on the bridge. Hardly any of the leading players in “This House” were public figures, even at the height of their careers – household names, perhaps, but only in their own houses.
There’s an old saying that no man is a hero to his valet, but valets can be doggedly loyal and also insightful, regardless of whether or not they are appreciated; and their privileged, first-hand recollections can contain elements of pure gold dust.
There have, of course, been several “below stairs” memoirs – by which I mean the recollections of those who worked for prominent individuals, but never achieved comparable prominence themselves. In the sphere of British politics, probably the most prominent was the publication of the diaries of Jock Colville – Sir John Colville CB CVO – covering his time working for Sir Winston Churchill.
More recently, Caroline Slocock, one of the last members of the No.10 Private Office during Margaret Thatcher’s time as Prime Minister, has contributed significantly to our understanding of her declining time in office. I have even made my own contribution to the oeuvre, collecting reminiscences of the late Sir Edward Heath from those who knew him best, adding my own, and then weaving them together into a volume marking the centenary of his birth (A Singular Life, 2016).
Of course, Ted Heath’s proudest achievement was negotiating UK entry into what was then the European Economic Community (latterly the European Union), but he is surely remembered, at least as vividly, for the protracted and self-destructive feud he vigorously pursued with his successor as Tory leader. Sometimes a side show, sometimes centre stage, the Heath-Thatcher split was one of the premier shows in town for years – decades even – and it was pure theatre.
Everyone who lived through those times has his or her own theory about how and why that public feud happened, and how it might have been avoided – but no one has ever explored the matter on a theatrical stage, with the avowed intention of allowing (and indeed informing and enabling) members of the audience to make their own judgements.
Until now, that is.
Both “Maggie” and “Ted” have been portrayed as “Marmite” figures, for simple and obvious reasons: as the years wore on, the split between them focused increasingly on their growing disagreement over the UK-Europe relationship. As that schism has come into ever sharper focus, from the bitter days of Maastricht, through the Lisbon Treaty and latterly the 2016 referendum campaign and its aftermath, “Maggie” has inevitably become a posthumous symbol of the “52”, while “Ted” in some degree embodies the hopes and fears of the “48”.
I worked for both of them for a time and, personally, I have never perceived either of them as being “Marmite”. They were both extraordinary human beings – you have to be, to become Prime Minister – but they were also both contingent, flawed, each with their particular strengths and weaknesses and also with their all-too-obvious blind spots.
Heath could be rude, insensitive, socially awkward; Thatcher could be blinkered, stubborn and even harsh. I do sincerely believe, however, that, for all their flaws, they were both patriots who had the best interests of this nation at heart. They just had different visions.
Capturing all that in a piece of theatre requires certain technical skills; it also requires a suitable venue, a good director and fine actors. It is not for me to comment on my own technical skills, but I have certainly been extremely fortunate in my colleagues in this enterprise. This is my second play at the White Bear Theatre in Kennington, but my first experience of working with Michael Kingsbury as Director.
It’s a joy – as it also is to have the wonderful Hugh Fraser, best known as Captain Hastings to David Suchet’s Poirot, sublimely playing Ted Heath. Alongside Hugh are five other actors of subtlety, distinction and profound intelligence – a classic blend of experience and youthful potential.
In essence, we are setting out to demonstrate, I hope with that suitable lightness of touch, just how profoundly individuals – and their disagreements – can affect the destiny of a nation. Margaret Thatcher was much the more effective politician of the two, and also the luckier, the more flexible and the more memorable.
We should not, however, underestimate Heath and his legacy. Had he not, by a mighty effort of will, succeeded in taking Britain into the EEC back in 1973 – and then persuaded the electorate to back that decision by a margin of two to one in 1975 – we would all be in a very different position today. Love them, loathe them or consider them dispassionately, “Maggie and Ted” both made our modern history – and I hope you’ll be tempted to come and hear their stories played out live on stage.
Maggie and Ted is playing at the White Bear Theatre from today, October 22, to October 26.