In this podcast Almeida Artistic Director Rupert Goold joins the writer of Ink James Graham to discuss the play's themes, writing about real life figures and creative process.
Rupert Goold: Good afternoon everyone. I am Rupert. I'm the Artistic Director here, Director of the play. This is James Graham, the writer of Ink. We're perching on the edge of the stage here because ... How many people have not seen Ink? Whoa. And how many of you are coming tonight? A few, ok. So we can't do spoilers then I guess? We're going to talk a little bit about writing plays and James' work. James, I guess, is best known for his legendary This House, which was a play about the coalition government of the early seventies. It was on initially at the National [Theatre], and then in the West End recently. For those who don't know about Ink, it's about the first year of The Sun newspaper in '69, going into '70, so not a million miles away in period.
Let's talk about Ink first, James, because it's in this theatre. Where did it begin? What was the first thought?
James Graham: It was the story, I think ... The reason why I love doing history plays is always, there's loads of benefits that you get to talk about your legacy as a nation, you get to talk about politics and social factors but for me, the most exciting thing about studying history has always been the narrative and the story and how decisions are made and what the consequences of those are.
I think, years and years ago, I came across, through another play, this... spoilers - A rivalry between the Mirror newspaper and The Sun newspaper that happened in the late 1960s. When Rupert Murdoch bought the paper in 1969, at the time it was a very high-minded, high-brow, broad-sheet newspaper, which is hard to believe now. It wasn't selling much money and they didn't have a huge readership and so Rupert Murdoch bought the paper and brought on board an editor called Larry Lamb and they transformed it into something that became hugely successful and hugely popular. I was very fascinated to hear lots of stories about the year in the life of that paper.
There was a great rivalry between the Mirror, which had a different approach to populous news, and The Sun. They had lots of stories about crazy fights in pubs and hopping races down Fleet streets and big games and sabotage between the two newspapers. I think it was that initial way in that felt very fun, in a good way, to ask questions about our news and that the conversation that was... For the past couple of years I've been aware, like you guys, probably, that we've been asking a lot of questions recently about what our news is, how it's been conducted, who it's being produced by, and who it should be for, so it felt like a useful, fun vehicle into asking some of those questions.
RG: We're you looking to write a play about the media do you think?
JG: Yes, yes, and also about that street and that industry. At the time, as you all know, Fleet Street was a self-contained community and it's now not that. It is a disparate mish-mash of papers and platforms, and people don't even often write in offices anymore. There's less a sense of a community. I was always, much like This House and Parliament; I was attracted by the idea of a self-contained world that is very vivid, very colourful, with big characters in it that I could have fun with.
But yes, I've been for a long time interested, worried, concerned, anxious about how we conduct our national discourse at the moment, in general elections or in referendums and politics and how that is changing. Largely because of technology, social media, but also because of us and the tone in which we speak to each other now and the tone in which we exchange news and ideas. I feel like it's changed. There is an absolute parallel to that in 1969 when these guys came in with a very new idea about how the news should look and sound.
RG: Are you more interested in the idea of writing plays about institutions or communities because they have lots of characters in them and the various thematic inquiries in them? Or were you more interested in writing about populism, I suppose, and obviously - I guess when we started talking about the play it was pre-Brexit, wasn't it I think and many of the ideas of populism as a force for good or change, or for bad for that matter, were maybe less immediately present than has been the case through the gestation of the play, but was it The Sun as a, I guess, a kind of mouthpiece for working class, popular voice or was it more Fleet Street?
JG: I think both those things, but you are right. When, in fact I remember having these conversations a lot with you as we developed the script together. Often with, I guess, a history play, you find worlds that excite you, characters and stories that excite you, but that is never going to be enough, it's never going to be more than the sum of its parts, unless it feels like you are either, in some way, going back in order to the current anxieties and the themes of the age now, or that it's asking bigger questions above and beyond, "This happened in this order and isn't that weird?"
Actually, I think it took a longer time to find that. I assembled a play, a first draft that we worked on, it was only later, I think, after the referendum and during Trump and the election over there that it started. The word "populism" started to have a bigger resonance in the play. That conversation was being had by journalists in 1969 and 1970. "What is the news? Should it be about what people need to hear, or should it be about what people want to hear. What's the balance of that?"
In the past couple of years as I was researching, I was very aware of the modern equivalent of that, which is click-bait news, where you ... How do you get people to click-through and then scroll down all the way to the bottom of the article? What writing techniques, journalistic techniques, can you apply to get people just to access the story? That was always present but a form of populist journalism, especially post the US election, a kind of, loud is the best word I can think of, loud kind of news that really cuts through the noise and really penetrates the national discourse. It felt like a good conversation to have.
RG: I guess you could have looked at The Sun and populism at other moments in its history, like when it got behind Thatcher, or its attitude to Hillsborough, or the Leveson Inquiry. Obviously, it has had many points during its life that have been controversial. Can you talk a bit more about what it is about, and I know you and I have discussed it, about this sort of period, I guess from the mid-sixties to the late-seventies that you're particularly... obviously This House isn't that territory but what is it about that moment that you're drawn to?
JG: I think it's just a gift for a playwright that time in British post-war history. I have to confess, I wasn't alive in 1969 and some of you maybe were, I'm not making any judgements... So it's all academic, it all has to be learned and I love that process of research anyway. I love going to meet people from the sixties, but for me, that moment in British history, I am not the first person to think this but it's something that excites me, is it's a crossroad in our national story so you have the post-war consensus that leads from the Second World War and now I am telling you things that you already know, but in my head I find it exciting, dramatically, that there was a consensus. There was a mix of private and public industry and the welfare state and everything that was built post-war. Then for me, I guess, the late sixties and the early seventies represent the loss of confidence in that. Some of those ideas started to be tested or started to fail, depending on your politics.
What the end of the seventies represent obviously is a clear choice to go, that something has to change and we can either go left or we can either go right, but this way or that way. That turning point in 1979, whatever your politics, it was obviously a big shift and we are living, almost, now at the end of that idea and at the end of that story. Like in any origin story, whether it's the Star Wars prequels or Batman Begins or anything, we find those things exciting, I think, because we know the end part of the story, so to analyse how it is we got there as a nation, as a people, as an industry, in the case of journalism or as a building in the case of Parliament, I think that feels exciting because an audience knows the end of the story, so you can surprise them by saying how we got there.
RG: Do you think though ... I suppose you can ... We have talked about both wars as being massive changes in British society, you could go back to Victorian era, the fact that you've picked ... One could talk about the post-digital age as a big change in British values in a different way. The fact that you have focused a lot on that particular era, is there anything beyond that? I guess, is it your parents’ generation?
JG: Not really, no. The brown suits are very cool and the music, David Bowie, big fan, but I mean it’s the start in the culture but no, I think it just presents, what it gives you as a playwright what it offers to you in a way ... I did a play at the National called This House, which was set in the Parliament from '74 to '79 and in a way that, it was a vacuum in a way. It was the end of one idea but the birth of a new idea hadn't yet happened.
I think within that space, when anything is possible, politically but also to look at characters who are also struggling with their story and their journey and their choices within that, it was epic and beautiful and exciting to me. I think that is the period that we're in now. I think we're, without overstating it, whatever, began in 1979 and has been slowly collapsing over the last couple of years economically and politically. It feels like we have let go of that branch but we have yet to cling onto another branch but within that period, that very brief period of time, when anything feels possible, like Donald Trump, that became possible because we were in this gap between ideas and models of society that, is it David Mamma that said, what's the quote, "All great dramas happen at the crossroads" or something like that. I think that that is why it's exciting, because your characters are making choices but your nation, your country, your society is making a choice as well.
RG: I am sure you get, I mean, I get a fair amount of it and I am not a writer, but I get lots of people saying, "Oh, this would make a great play, James" or "Have you thought about this for a play here", because they know that you write great plays and of course, there is sort of a great play in loads of things, of course there are lots of bad plays in great ideas as well. For those people who are thinking about writing or coming to dramatise real world events anyways, for you is the way in being that idea of an intellectual or ideological crossroads or has it been character or has it been one theme or has it been a personal thing that you've connected with or what is it you have learned when you have started sniffing around the Wikipedia entries and gone, "Oh, there is something in here and not in there"?
JG: I think it's, I really enjoyed the weird access points to it, so a lot of people will know the chaos of the whole Parliaments of '74 and '79, so for me it was about finding a slightly bizarre way into it so you don't just dramatise Ted Heath and Margaret Thatcher. We found this way in through the Whips office, who are the guys you have never heard of. They are not famous people but their job was to do the mundane, day to day, survival of the government and how you keep that building going and it leads to, naturally, very human and slightly absurd stories because you are looking at it on a micro-level rather than a macro-level.
I think that is what appealed about this play. It felt like it presented an opportunity to ask big questions about things that we feel familiar with, so the Sunday's paper, Rupert Murdoch, Fleet Street, but from a skewed, weird angle. For a start, the journey through the play is following The Sun's editor, Larry Lamb, who is someone you're maybe less familiar with, unlike Rupert Murdoch, and the surprising aspects of that story so that ... Oh, I am going to ruin it for you. Basically, you begin with a group of people who are underdogs, who no one believes can succeed. No one gives The Sun more than six months when Rupert Murdoch buys it.
Rupert Murdoch is considered very much an outsider, anti-establishment, he is not part of the group yet, so I think you begin with that level of curiosity. Something we feel like we know but actually it's very different to what we understood to be the case. People with no power, no expectation of success, no real chance of success and people who we know become powerful feeling powerless. That felt fun. I read lots of stories about the slightly ludicrous, I am definitely going to ruin it but I can't think of another way to clear it, about the slightly petty war that happened between the Sun and the Mirror and the way, lots of people who were there at the time maybe that was some of you here, admit to the stealing court that happened on Fleet Street.
They adopted the red banner that the Mirror had and they stole article ideas and it was the slightly farcical, ludicrous nature of it that I felt was a fun way to access it. I guess to articulate the answer to your question, it's finding exciting stories that work for me narratively but then the access point being a bit skewed for left field.
RG: You've got political and social crossroads, you've got marginalized characters who might carry that story rather than the obvious characters. Feels like, often, you are drawn to the comic and the absurd in terms of the narrative events, what else? I am interested how writers who spend a lot of time on their own and yet your worlds are very rich and lively and the first time, I remember reading the first draft of this play and thinking, "God it's just got so much energy", is that... What is going on for you? Your alone in your office writing away...
JG: God, what's going on!
RG: What is going on in the creative moment but also maybe where is that from in here?
JG: The world thing, I think I am noticing is a common thing. You are not particularly conscious of what you're doing when you make your choices but I know that I am attracted to busy, vivid worlds and often that includes very defined groups of people, whether that's the group of labour whips in the 1970s or a group of journalists in the 1960s, there is something about a group dynamic which I enjoy writing. I enjoy scenes with more than two people, I enjoy-
RG: Those are difficult to write. A lot of writers struggle on-
JG: I think I would find it way more terrifying to do a one-hour long duo. I think there is something about the opportunity different voices and characters present to you that I find really exciting. It matters to me that-
RG: Do you act them out when you are writing them?
JG: I'll give it a go. I do ... Rhythm is very important to me and I find that that helps when you speak it aloud. I also really enjoy, with this play and with This House, the opportunity for particularly regional voices that aren't all from the same class or the same part of the country. I enjoy those accents and those big characters so there is something about a group dynamic I guess you get in sports movies or war movies. You get to throw a bunch of people together and just really enjoy spending time with that team and your job really, especially if its unsympathetic characters like politicians or journalists sometimes, to enlist the audience into wanting to support that group and get involved.
I enjoy that and I have never been embarrassed about saying that it’s about humour and it’s about comedy and I think, especially with political theatre or political ideas, I have always wanted it to be entertaining and enjoyable as well as asking those questions, so one of the next plays I am doing, outside of this theatre, is a play about the coughing major who, do you remember, he wants to be a millionaire. The scandal where he, allegedly, coughed his way to a million pounds. That is a play about truth and post-truth and what is true and what is real and is there such a thing anymore. What is reality and what happens when justice turns into entertainment or politics turns into performance. When there aren't yes, no answers to things anymore but through this bizarre story, the guy who coughed in a game show, or did he? Come and see. Its funny worlds, its ways into things that matter to me, anxieties that I have about our society, but with weird groups of people you can build.
RG: Like Love Island-
RG: How did it begin for you? Did you go to the theatre a lot when you were a kid or ... Tell the folk where you are from. Tell him your origin story. The James Graham story.
JG: From a small town in Nottinghamshire and I am very pleased to say, actually, that my drama teacher is here tonight, who taught me a lot, and my headmaster. It was a comprehensive school in a post-industrial town, which suffered great unemployment when the mines closed. Was just very lucky that a group of people, that I can't believe is still supporting me today, believed that kids who went to comprehensive school should do drama and should do plays, so that was my only access to it actually, was through school. It was through performing in plays and then reading scripts and then I went to university, maybe half-thinking acting, half-thinking directing, half-thinking anything, but writing, as a process, I think, appealed to me.
I think if any of you guys are writers, but there is a strange ... It satisfies two contradictory needs, which is to work privately and quite intensively and alone for a lot of the process, which I enjoy. I was shyer than I am now, back then, and I enjoyed that process of just living in my own head for quite a lot and then you get to be absorbed into a team of people that you trust and people do a lot of that work for you and realizing your production and collaborating with you on it.
It is strange mix of sometimes being incredibly private and then incredibly public and the balance of that is tough sometimes but also enjoyable and theatre, I knew, was always going to be the medium because it's live and you do TV and I do films but there is no equivalent to being with an audience live every single night and hearing them respond to the work, learning from that work, working with an incredible company of actor and we have some of the best stage actors in London working in this play at the moment; and them being in the room with you and them bringing their stuff with them and pushing you and pushing the text-
RG: They're all downstairs and they can hear this.
JG: I know that and that's why I said it. Hi guys.
RG: Was there a sort of formative ... Did you read a play or see a play when you were a teenager or something and go ... Was there a big influence on you?
JG: I don't think one but the sort of plays we did at school were often in the kind of northern work, trust tradition often but they are also politically motivated as well. People like Dario Fo, Bertolt Brecht - that European tradition, political but comic, funny, clownish, farcical, which I always enjoyed. I don't think so. The majority of plays I saw were Pantos and Shakespeare like everyone else growing up. The one thing I did learn from Shakespeare, for me it was always less about the language and it was still always about the narrative, the story, the gaspeite-. I can remember the interval of Othello, which is still the best interval in any Shakespeare play ever; as Iago and Othello hold each other and decide they are going to murder Desdemona. That's a spoiler, sorry. That feeling in an audience, when the lights go down and you want to come back but you are coming back for the story to see characters destroy themselves. I just think that is so cool.
RG: Do you see ... If you're being super honest, do you see yourself in the work a lot or is it, because obviously you are going to history, you are going to ideas, you are bringing sometimes dead, sometimes forgotten people to life, worlds, on your own, but is there a ... The idea of a personal voice that, you know, Tennessee Williams or whatever, do you recognize that or do you-
JG: I think less that. What my priority, I think, is always to capture the mood and the atmosphere and the authentic voice of the, particularly the professions, whether its politics or journalism or game show hosts and/or coughing majors. What I want to capture first and foremost, the authenticity of that world and mimic that. I can't imagine there is not, in an unconscious/subconscious way that my fears, anxieties, doubts are there and I guess I see ... Do I see myself in Larry Lamb and Rupert Murdoch? God, that's therapy but I would see, you know the feeling sometimes that you ... No I'm not even going to say it, what takes an outsider, but, yes. The anxieties that a lot of these characters go through in terms of their self-doubt about where they come from and whether they have value or they have worth in a particular industry, the desire to succeed, but then the conflict of what you lose doing that, I think all of that is a human drive.
RG: One thing that people always say about you is your appetite for work is huge. You write, your incredibly prolific, unafraid to take very big subjects on, big casts, to be a political voice, political voice for a generation, does that feel pressurising or where is that from? So many writers will fiddle around in the margins and their terribly anxious about delivering anything up and your quite robust in the re-drafting, you'll throw things up, you'll fine tune-
JG: I don't know any other way to work. As you remember, the draft that we brought into the rehearsal room in week one, I left the room on the second day to go and re-write almost the entire second draft, but we had the basic characters and we had a lot of the moments, but we felt that we had to take our characters to a further extreme and push them more, so that's what we did.
That first moment when you're feeling that it's not quite working and you're ... In front of your peers that you respect and you just want it to right first time. I don't know any other way to work except to take something into a room that's not quite fully formed and to learn from that, and then self-flagellating and then move on and try and make it better. The same thing, exactly, happens in the first preview or second preview when you have a moment that doesn't light or strike or go in the way that you think. It's your responsibility, it's not the company of actors or the director. You have to suffer that in front of three hundred people, go home and fix it. I'd rather that than write a novel where you just send it off and you have no idea how it's engaging with people and the conversation ends there.
In terms of the work load, I can't really control my geeky enthusiasm or excitement for stuff, for things, for stories so you think you're going to have a quiet year and then Britain votes to leave the EU and you think 'ok that's going to be the next couple of years', just talking about that and trying to understand that from all sides. I suppose I don't give myself the pressure of feeling like I have a responsibility to a generation of people because I think it's in no one’s interest for a single write to take on the mantel of looking at politics for people. I think we need pundits, writers doing that from their own perspectives and coming at it from their own angles. I think that I liberate myself, actually, from that responsibility because I don't necessarily want to write that play that will nail the government on this particular issue. I want to be free to write, maybe slightly dweebier plays about characters or people or worlds that don't necessarily immediately present a relevance to other people.
RG: I want to ask you about one thing you had just before we came in earlier when you were talking about another commission of yours that wasn't working, that you'd had for a while and you were ... What is that when you're writing a play and it just won't solve. How does that manifest itself for you?
JG: Well, touch wood. There's no wood-. It hasn't really happened very often. I've been very luck with directors I've been given and the teams I've been given that help you find a way through it. I think, either, you don't know why you're spending time there. You don't know why, as a writer, you're spending time with these characters, with this story and so you imagine an audience isn't going to be feeling it either; that it doesn't feel like you. Sometimes you've convinced yourself a kind of play is what you should be writing, or you look at other playwrights or other writers and what they're doing and you think, oh, I kind of want to get a bit of that and try a bit of that. Then, you just feel inauthentic, your voice doesn't feel true, or you're just not ... It ceases to be saying anything that certainly wrestles with you or that keeps you awake at night.
There's so many things, obviously, to talk about that are happening in the world at the moment, and in your own personal life, and your own personal troubles that you can't really waste time on trying to write about something that, actually, you know has ceased to connect in a very deep, visceral way, politically, emotionally, with what's going on of you. It just dries up as a process.
RG: Have you ever had writes block, or did you believe in the idea or do you think you just work harder?
JG: I don't know whether I... I do. Of course, you can sometimes find the process harder. Again, luckily, I've never found myself unable to write. Luckily, you're normally so late with deadlines, as you would be able to attest to, that you actually just have to get on and try and produce something. There's deadlines and then there's deadlines. You guys have bought a ticket to the show tonight, so that's a deadline! The other hypothetical deadlines are less so. I enjoy doing it. I enjoy being at my computer. I enjoy playing.
RG: When you see... I remember there was something in rehearsals, you saw a play that was so different than your kind of writing... I think it was, maybe it was the Alice Birch play or something... and seemed to really enjoy it. What happened there? It's the same activity, theoretically, theatre and yet this is this deconstructed, post-modern feminist, sort of breakdown of-
JG: I could do that. I couldn't do that. I think you have to be a fan. You have to be a fan of theatre, and you have to like the work even when it's not your work. You have to be curious about other people’s work and an audience's positive response to other people's work. I'm able to compartmentaliSe, in my head, even, I think, think that necessarily don't connect or that I don't necessarily love, but I can see the impact it's having on audience. You have to be curious about that and excited by that.
RG: Do you remember that game we played, I think it was in the technical rehearsal about words you'd least like and most like to hear about your writing?
RG: Cool, funny, relevant, political, emotional. I can't remember what the answers were at the time, but what would you most like people to say about you, I think, and what would you most feel the cold sweat about?
JG: Oh god. I would-
RG: You overhear it just as you're coming in.
JG: I think I would, I don't know because there's so many things you want to hit.
RG: Funny was pretty high, wasn't it.
JG: It was pretty high, I'm trying to just not be a tart about it, but I do want to reach an audience and entertain them and know that phase, "Good night at the theatre" is not one that's massively fashionable, for reasons I understand. Actually, I think it undermines that you can do a show that is entertaining ... When I say entertaining, I mean what you mean is entertaining, I don't mean it's Vicker's trousers falling down, I mean its characters that you recognise and emotions that get to you and ideas that capture you, and stories that surprise you. It's those things, it's not high or low, it's just things that reach you and make you laugh or cry or think. I would hate for someone to think it was boring.
RG: Boring. I remember it, now.
JG: What would I love? I don't know. I guess that it is theatre, theatrical. That you couldn't have seen that watching at home on Netflix, or you couldn't have seen that on TV or in the cinema, that there's something about being live in the room and the work itself, the form and the style of it that feels unique as a play that you had to come watch in a theatre.
RG: One tip to a young writer, what would it be?
JG: Err... Two. Find your thing and be honest about what that thing is. When I started in 2004-05, with my first plays in London, the trend at that time wasn't that twenty year old writers should write a play about Anthony Eden and the Suez Canal crisis, and that there definitely wouldn't be an audience for political plays. People didn't want to go see political histories, people wanted to talk about something that's more modern and cool. I stuck with that for a while and thankfully, now, people seem to be quite politicised and they want to go and have that in a theatre. I just found that ...
I think, also, it's about writing... You have to... This sounds like an obvious thing but I think a lot of people don't do it, you have to write your play. You can do a lots of sketch nights you can do lots of half-drafts of things, you can do lots of short plays, you can contribute to do a small thing at certain festivals, or be part of writers groups. Those are all really important, brilliant, but I think you have to find a single play that takes you a year, six months, a year, and maybe two years. Work on it. Drill it. Make it and then send it to the right theatre collaborators who seem to share your enthusiasm for what other theatres might think of niche or strange. Just do that play.
I know a lot of people, and I did it at first, who would just do loads of really short things and sketches and try and get them on ... It was only when I calmed down and found the thing that really mattered to me, and just drilled it and drilled it and sent it off. That was the play that-
RG: How were you making a living in that early period?
JG: I had an office job. I was ... Then, when I started to have to be in rehearsal, sometimes as you do, part-time work. I was in call centres and bars. I poured the worst pint in London, I can say that. Yes. Sometimes that is really hard. Sometimes you are ... I remember times when you'd have a meeting and you were so embarrassed because at the time you had no money on you oyster card. You'd have to walk into London and then walk back and pretend you haven't done that.
I didn't mind though, because I made that choice. I made that choice to try and devote myself to try and writing plays and being very aware they would take a very long time.
RG: Was there ever a moment in that early period where you thought, I'm going to give up or do something else-
JG: No. No, never.
RG: Good. Thank you, James. Thank you for your wise words. Thank you for your plays. Thank you all for coming.
Ink runs until 6 January 2018 at the Duke of York's in the West End.