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Hard times

Suicide rates rose at shocking speed after the Wall Street Crash of 1929 – and have done with each r

From Jonathan Naess's office on the 15th floor of a block in Vauxhall, you get a good view of the City of London. Round a bend in the Thames, it seems far away, peaceful, glinting in the afternoon sun. Naess - ex-corporate financier, manic depressive and mental health campaigner - remembers it fondly.

“It's a buzzing, exciting, vibrant place to work, a place I always enjoyed working in," he says. At the height of the financial boom, he recalls, to burn out while at work was "a badge of honour, to show how important you were". They called it executive stress. "Stress in a good sense," he says, "as well as a bad sense." Naess is, by his own admission, not well. He suffers from anxiety, depression, lack of concentration. He first had such symptoms in his twenties and then, unexpectedly, they struck again. "When it happened a second time, it was frightening and upsetting. I was in the middle of my career and I thought, 'Well, there's no way back from this.'"

He hadn't seen it coming. Nor had his colleagues. "Nobody tapped me on the shoulder to say, 'Jonathan, I think you need to get some help here,'" even though his behaviour was becoming extreme. Unable to sit still, he kept having to go outside to clear his head, talking too fast, his brain "going off at three thousand tangents all at the same time". He was sectioned, then hospitalised. And then he bounced back - making deals again, proving he could still cut it. Now he campaigns on behalf of people with mental health problems at work. And today he's worried. He looks out of the window at the blue sky. "The time you're most vulnerable to suicide is just about now. Quite often you're too depressed to take your life, but as the good weather comes around, people may just have enough energy to do something terrible."

The statistics show that there is usually a rise in suicides in the spring and summer. And this is no ordinary summer. The recession has deepened. On 12 August, it was reported that the jobless rate in the UK had increased by 220,000 in the three months to June, reaching a 15-year high. There are now more than 2.4 million people unemployed across the country - 7.8 per cent of the workforce - and that figure is expected to rise; the British Chambers of Commerce recently predicted that it would peak at roughly 3.2 million next year. Beyond the immediate economic and social consequences such as lower productivity, thousands more people claiming jobseekers' allowance and a young generation in effect excluded from the labour market, high unemployment is having a psychological effect. Studies show that joblessness can have as great an impact as divorce or bereavement on mental well-being.

Successive periods of recession over the past century have been linked to surges in mental illness, and suicide in par­ticular. During the Great Depression in the United States, suicide rates hit a 99-year high (of 17 per 100,000 people). In the UK they peaked at 13.5 per 100,000 in the early 1930s, when unemployment reached its highest level for a century. And the collapse of the east Asian bubble economy in the late 1990s led to a huge increase in suicide rates. In Japan in 1998, suicides increased by more than a third, soaring to more than 30,000 for the year and then nearly 35,000 in 2003 (a rate of 27 per 100,000, compared to six per 100,000 in the UK in the same period).

Some say the link between recession and suicide is exaggerated - that, as Naess puts it, a public mythology has grown out of the shocking headlines about fortune-losing Wall Street bankers leaping to their deaths during the 1929 crash. But the evidence clearly shows a correlation. In July, the Lancet released a study looking at suicide rates in 26 European countries. It found that for every 1 per cent increase in unemployment, the suicide rate for people younger than 65 increased by 0.8 per cent. Research from the Wellington School of Medicine in New Zealand spells it out: you are two to three times more likely to kill yourself if you're not working.

Across the river from Vauxhall in the House of Lords, the Labour life peer Richard Layard - economist and prominent promoter of happiness - is concerned about the psychological impact of the current financial gloom. How much additional mental illness will there be? A lot, he thinks. But one should not exaggerate that, he says, "because there's so much already". There are about a million people on incapacity benefit in the UK due to mental illness, and roughly six million people suffering from depression or anxiety.

The problem, as Layard sees it, is not just unemployment, but a fear of unemployment - what Naess calls the "fear cycle", where people fear losing their jobs and, if they do, fear never being able to find another one. He refers to a German study which shows that being out of work for a significant period of time affects people's happiness for the rest of their lives. It is a traumatic experience, haunting its victims again and again.

David Spiegel, a psychiatrist who runs the Centre on Stress and Health at Stanford University in the US, supports Layard's view. The latest figures put the US unemployment rate at 9.4 per cent (a slight fall from June's 9.5 per cent, but otherwise the highest rate for 25 years). Nearly a quarter of a million people lost their jobs in July alone. Spiegel says that over the past few months there has been a significant rise in the number of people coming to his clinic, badly damaged both financially and psychologically. "It's probably no accident that the economic term - depression - is the same as the psychiatric one. People tend to feel bad when what they have planned seems suddenly to come apart, when their ability to be effective in the world is challenged." He believes that the reason people become depressed when they lose their job, or fortune, is not just the obvious sense of despair which comes with financial insecurity, but self-blame. "When you're depressed, you feel hopeless, helpless and worthless; you feel like you deserve everything bad that happens to you. Those are the people who get suicidal."

Spiegel argues that Americans don't help themselves by obsessively watching the financial news channels. He describes how "we're all becoming minor manic-depressives" as people track the markets up and down. Research done after the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks, he also says, showed that those who watched the news for more than three hours a day suffered noticeably more than those who didn't. "The same is true with the Dow or the Nasdaq . . . you can drive yourself nuts because you're trying to relieve your anxiety, but you're actually increasing it."

Dainius Puras, a Lithuanian psychiatrist, explains how it is the uncertainty and unpredictability of the economic situation that have such a detrimental affect: "People don't like change." Puras knows the brutal reality well. Lithuania has the highest suicide rate in the world (39 per 100,000). It has also gone through a 20-year period of dramatic social and economic change since the fall of the Soviet Union.

He describes the reaction to freedom in 1989: "Many people could not manage to cope with this change, with this huge societal stress . . . [they] regressed to destructive or self-destructive behaviour." The stress, he says, prompted an unprecedented crisis of mortality, one that still exists. In Lithuania, with a population of just three million, 5,000 people die every year because of "external causes" - suicide, homicide, violence. He describes it as an epidemic.

Puras sees Lithuania's experience as a prophetic microcosm of the global crisis: a society undergoing enormous stress because of the effects of a toxic system, culminating in an “explosion" in the form of a financial crisis. He also points out a strange trend: the more severe the threat to human life, the better societies and individuals seem to fare in their mental health. "History shows that when it is a real crisis like war, or when people are starving, there is a huge decrease in mental health problems, including suicide. During the war you have to survive physically; existential problems are not so important. Suicide is mainly the price we pay for civilisation."

Figures for the UK support his theory - during the First World War, the suicide rate dropped to 8.5 per 100,000. It then leapt to 13.5 in the interwar years, and fell again during the Second World War to 9.2. Immediate, life-threatening crisis, Puras says, creates a sense of purpose: there's not as much time to worry about yourself.

The Samaritans in New York spotted a similar trend after 11 September 2001. The organisation's director, Alan Ross, says it anticipated a surge in calls after the attacks. It never came. There was what Ross calls a "collective, protective, survival factor" in the face of the direct threat. People rallied and supported each other. But since the financial crisis began, people have been calling the Samaritans in their thousands (the Mental Health Association of New York City recorded a 36 per cent increase in calls to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline between 2007 and 2008).
“There's no question this is different," Ross says. "This is a long, ongoing, insidious undermining . . . It doesn't have a clear middle and end. It's hard to see who caused it, who the enemy is, or how it's going to be solved." And although it is affecting everyone, people feel it individually. Money worries are lonely, however many people might be having them at the same time.

According to Ross, the high-risk group is middle-aged white men. They are the group with the highest suicide rates, despite being, he says, "the group with the most education, the most political power, the most financial power". In Lithuania, 80 per cent of the suicide "epidemic" was middle-aged men taking their own lives. Puras argues that it's to do with the sudden loss of status. "They feel humiliated, then they are drinking and then they commit suicide." Both he and Ross are keen to point out, however, that suicide is a complex action - not usually the result of a single event such as losing your job, but a desperate, final act driven by any number of interlocking factors.

The spate of suicides in the US and the UK apparently provoked by the financial crisis (not just high-profile Wall Street and City financiers, but people who have lost savings, jobs, homes) has prompted commentators to coin a new word - "econocide". Ross calls it a "humbling and scary" period for people who might anyway be vulnerable. When Layard describes the recession as a "very tragic thing", he looks genuinely pained. "The world elite has let the world population down, hasn't it?" he says.

Spiegel points to the lack of support available for Americans who are struggling. "There's been a lot of stimulus money thrown around, but I have not heard of any of it being thrown into mental health support services." What's more, most people in the US get their health care through their employer's health insurance scheme. So once you are unemployed, you have to pay. "The very people who need help the most are the least likely to be able to afford it" - a cruel irony with which President Obama is wrestling, in the face of bitter opposition from Republicans and right-wing groups.

The British government is bringing forward an investment of £173m in talking therapies at the primary health-care level to cater for what it imagines will be a huge increase in demand. This year alone, 81 new cognitive therapy services will be set up across the country with employment support workers to help people get back into work. But will it be enough?

A new report by the Audit Commission points out that it is only now that the "second wave" of the downturn is hitting, and predicts an increase in alcoholism, addiction and dom­estic violence in areas particularly stricken by rising unemployment. Another report, by the Resolution Foundation, suggests that it is those earning the very least who are most often overlooked by both business and government initiatives (which focus mostly on those with no skills at all). Both sets of findings suggest that further action is required to protect the most vulnerable, and to prevent economic crisis morphing into deep social distress.

Sophie Elmhirst is a contributing writer for the New Statesman. To read her blog, visit: www.newstatesman.com/blogs

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 24 August 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Is Google Evil?

James Graham. Photo: MIKE MCGREGOR/Guardian
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Love, Labour and loss: how James Graham became the king of political theatre

He captured the spirit of the Commons at the end of the Seventies in This House. Now, he’s turned his attention to the Labour Party.

London, 8 June 2017, 10.01pm

The minute the exit poll was announced, James Graham knew he had a problem. His latest play, Labour of Love, had been announced on 19 May when the opposition was polling a dozen points behind the Conservatives. The initial press coverage had mentioned plans to tweak the script right up until its opening night in September to chart “Labour’s changing fortunes – and any potential new leader of the party after the election”.

All that was swept away when David Dimbleby announced that the Conservatives had lost their Commons majority. Graham was having a party with friends, but he knew instantly that his script would need a significant rewrite. “I didn’t expect that election to happen, like everyone else. And I didn’t expect that result, like everyone else,” he told me one Friday afternoon in August, in a white-walled office above Wyndham’s Theatre in Soho. “So the questions the play is posing about the Labour Party and the direction of travel are not the ones I wrote in the drafts that the actors signed up to months ago.”

Luckily, Graham, who is 35, is used to working at a frantic pace – he writes early in the morning, before the emails start, and late at night. He hates starting to write, loving the possibility offered by a blank page and loathing the thought of muddying it with an inevitably imperfect script. But once he has begun, he charges through scenes, “so that when one character is responding to another, it’s instinctive and visceral. I don’t over-think it.”

That’s just as well, as there is a heavy weight of expectation hanging over Labour of Love. Not only does it have a starry cast – Sherlock’s Martin Freeman, playing a Labour MP, and Tamsin Greig of Black Books, playing his constituency agent – but there is a tingling anticipation that Graham, finally, might be the one to make some sense of our absurd, improbable, exciting, terrifying political moment. That’s because he writes “political theatre” with as much attention to the second word of that phrase as to the first. You will leave one of his plays bursting with knowledge about pairing MPs, or Einstein’s regrets over Hiroshima, or the Byzantine division of labour demanded by print unions in the 1960s. But you will also have watched an enjoyable play. It seems like that shouldn’t be too much to ask and yet, quite often, it is.

Graham’s breakthrough came with This House in 2012, a big, energetic piece about the whips’ offices in the House of Commons during the last years of the Callaghan government. In its climactic moment, Big Ben falls silent, suggesting that politics might offer the appearance of tumult but is too often grindingly cyclical. His previous work includes The Vote, set in a polling station during the last 90 minutes of an election day; Privacy, which grappled with the fallout from Edward Snowden’s revelations about NSA surveillance; and The Angry Brigade, about 1970s anarchists and the police sent to catch them. He has written small plays – The Man has just one character, Albert’s Boy has two – and huge, sprawling ones for the National Youth Theatre, with a cast list extending into the dozens.

Labour of Love is set in a single place – a constituency office in the Midlands – but spans 27 years of the party’s fortunes, from the dog days of late Thatcherism, through the pomp of New Labour, and right up to the present. Like all Graham’s plays, it is meticulously researched. The jargon is technically correct, and the references are contemporary: Tamsin Greig’s agent looks forward, if Labour loses the seat, to leaving the party’s WhatsApp group.

Kate Wasserberg of the theatre company Out of Joint, who directed several of Graham’s earlier plays, compares him to Hilary Mantel in his ability to see “how the follies of the human heart lead to seismic events”. He has, she says, “the soul of a playwright and the brain of a historian”. Harry Davies, his researcher, tells me that the pair conducted 50 interviews for Privacy.

In person, though, James Graham is remarkably unremarkable: average height, brown hair, neatly dressed, good-looking more through the absence of flaws rather than any particularly striking feature. If he mugged you and the case rested on identifying him later, he would get away with it.

Except that wouldn’t happen, because James Graham is nice. He has more than a thousand Facebook friends. He sends thoughtful emails and apologises for not being sufficiently interesting. Everyone in the theatre world likes him; more than that, they feel happy for his success. It’s profoundly disconcerting. (This is partly down to a recognition that he has paid his dues: he must have felt as if he had spent the first decade of his career living inside a perpetual three-star Michael Billington review.) When I ran into him at a bar in the course of writing this profile, he gallantly offered to buy me a drink, despite my only conversation-starter being that I had spent all week trying to get his friends to gossip about him.

Graham is a people-pleaser, something that leads him to accept too many commissions – “He’s always got three more projects on the go than he should,” says the BuzzFeed writer James Ball, who appears as a character in Privacy. As a result, Graham occasionally says yes when he should say no. In 2013, he signed up to rewrite the book for the musical Finding Neverland, a vanity project of the Hollywood über-producer Harvey Weinstein. “The reviews were hideous but it survived because it starred Matthew Morrison from Glee, and it had an advertising budget the size of Venezuela,” says David Benedict, a former London critic for Variety. “A show on Broadway may take a million dollars a week, and if you’re on a percentage, you’re quite happy. I can’t imagine someone as shrewd as him got into bed without knowing.”

Not that money seems to be much of a motivating factor in Graham’s life. Neverland provided him with the deposit for a house in Kennington, but there is a general agreement that by choosing to keep writing for theatres rather than taking a Netflix or film deal, Graham is losing out financially.

“It’s humility,” says Neil McPherson, the artistic director of west London’s Finborough Theatre, of both Graham’s personal civility and his inability to say no to commissions. “It’s possibly a class thing. I have a nightmare with my job with Oxford graduates who would kill their grandmother to run the National [Theatre] a year earlier. But James is humble before the work.”

Annesley, Nottinghamshire, 9 April 1992

It’s the day of the general election and there’s only one way this part of Nottinghamshire will go – Labour. But the nine-year-old James Graham is dimly aware that his parents, who separated when he was four but still live on the same street, are voting different ways. This is one of his first political memories – apart from seeing posters during the 1990 Conservative leadership election and deciding that Michael Heseltine was his guy, based solely on his hair. “That mane,” he says now. “It was purely on looks.” (When Heseltine came to see This House, he was reportedly unhappy with the wig used by the actor playing him. “He came about five times so he can’t have been that offended by any of it,” notes Graham drily.)

The playwright also remembers the closure of the mineheads in Annesley, the village where he grew up. Deindustrialisation hit the community hard, but it was already riven by the ideological disputes of the late 1970s and 1980s. Soon after Graham returned from university, there was a murder in Annesley: a miner who left the hard-line NUM during the strikes killed another who had not. It felt to him like an echo of the village’s deep divides. “I remember watching the mineheads come down, and the physical geography of my town changing,” he says. “I probably didn’t associate that with politics at the time.”

He is the youngest of three children, with an elder brother and a twin sister. After their parents separated, his brother lived with their father; he and his sister with their mother. The twins were the first in their family to go to university; he went to Hull to study drama and discovered a swath of northern playwrights: Willy Russell, John Godber, Jim Cartwright. At the Hull Truck Theatre, “It was like going to a working men’s club… You’d get a pint and go sit at a table and people would do you a play.” To the community there, watching a performance was an equal choice to the pub, bowling or bingo. “It was part of their experience. That will sound romantic or sentimental, but it just was.”

Accordingly, a fifth of the seats for Labour of Love cost just £10, something Graham calls “almost a socialist experiment”, as the discount is paid for by hiking the price of prime real estate in the stalls. “You can’t kid yourself that what you’re doing is engaging in a national conversation about the direction of the left, or of a party whose roots are in working-class trade unionism, if you’re going to fill your Victorian theatre with people who can afford expensive tickets,” he says, “and have already had the conversation with themselves anyway.”

It bothers him that it’s now harder to find working-class voices and experiences represented on television: his formative influences included Cracker, GBH and Auf Wiedersehen, Pet. The ITV regional producing bodies have been whittled away, the new English Baccalaureate curriculum discourages subjects such as drama and, Graham says, “With local authority cuts, the first thing that goes is funding to theatres and libraries. So you have to travel to London to see a new show.”

Graham is part of a generation of younger writers and directors who are fighting back against this trend. He gave evidence at a Commons inquiry into working-class participation in the arts, noting that he supported himself through his early days writing for the Finborough Theatre with bar and call-centre work; in his school years, he would go out window-cleaning with his stepdad. When he first moved to London, he sometimes had to walk home from meetings because he couldn’t afford the Tube fare. “Without being a wanker, he’s stayed in touch with his roots,” Neil McPherson says. “A lot of new writers are very middle class. It’s surprising how many haven’t had Saturday jobs.”

When This House was shown at cinemas across the country as part of National Theatre Live, people told Graham that audiences would cheer when their constituency was mentioned: “It’s a tribal thing, I guess, but you don’t expect to hear the name of your shitty town.” When his mum came to see the play, the crowd, knowing where its writer was from, went wild at the mention of the member for Mansfield. “I was so proud,” he says. “No one has ever cheered the word ‘Mansfield’ in a West End theatre.”

At the same time, the more you read of Graham’s work, the more you realise the pain and dislocation inherent in our model of social mobility. Working-class success is often measured by leaving. It’s an idea that crops up in other contemporary writers at the intersection between politics and comedy. Caitlin Moran confesses that she was thrilled to get a job on the Times at 18, as her options in Wolverhampton would have been “literally cheese counter or prostitute”. In How Not to Be a Boy, Robert Webb – a grammar school pupil from Lincolnshire – writes of his guilt at arriving at Cambridge University with his father and brother. “We find my room at Robinson College and Mark and Dad nearly piss themselves when they see a note on the bed, reading ‘YOUR BEDMAKER’S NAME IS ALISON’. Finally, Little Lord Fauntleroy has staff.”

In her 2016 book Respectable, Lynsey Hanley tackles this idea head-on. “It might be argued that another primary aspect of working-class experience, a feeling which most defines a certain way of being in the world, is loss.” That means the loss of jobs, the loss of a sense of place as a local factory or works closes down, and the loss of the environment that formed you when you have to leave it as an adult. “In doing so, you risk creating another disjuncture, another source of loss, in the history of your family. The place you came from, so this new story goes, wasn’t good enough for you.”

Several of Graham’s early plays are haunted by this idea. In Sons of York, three generations of men from the same family struggle through the winter of discontent of 1978-9. Mark, the youngest, likes the subversive comedian Kenny Everett and remarks on how much Eric Morecambe looks like Philip Larkin; his father, Jim, and grandfather (“Dad”) have no idea what he’s on about. His mother, Brenda, has to do all the emotional labour of the family and most of the practical stuff, too; when Mam dies, the three men struggle to make small talk, let alone share their grief. Dad wants to know who the union rep is at Mark’s work; neither Mark nor his father can bring themselves to tell Dad that he has stayed on for sixth form instead of following the family tradition and becoming a van driver.

Jim wants to be proud, but experiences his son’s social mobility as rejection:

Jim: D’yer’ark at him, eh? Smug little… gi’in it all working-class solidarity.

Brenda: You what?

Jim: When tomorrow he’ll have his nose back in a bloody textbook.

“I feel like there’s stuff in there that’s the best stuff,” Kate Wasserberg says of Sons of York. “It’s not the majestic flying buttresses of This House in terms of ability, but were he to put pain in…” She trails off. “James’s parents are clearly very proud of him but it was always interesting to me that I never got to know his siblings. Their lives are totally different. How many James Graham plays can you think of with brothers and sisters?”

For the record, there are a few. In one, The Man, the narrator even has a twin. His brother has a fatal degenerative disease, which causes injured muscle to grow back as bone. The narrator is racked by survivor’s guilt; haunted by the twist of fate that gave him one destiny and his twin another.

Finborough Theatre, London, 2005

Articles about political theatre have two settings. At any time that we are not fretting about the “death of political theatre”, we are apparently living through a golden age of it. The Iraq War produced the last great flowering, and Brexit now seems to be doing the same. Both are great engines of creativity because they are outrages perpetrated by the political class on the playwright and playgoer class: times when artists and writers have looked at politicians and felt, with a sensation like that sudden falling jerk when you’re nearly asleep, hang on, these people are not on our side.

In the summer of 2005, as hubristic US generals predicted a “fairly substantial” withdrawal of British and American troops from Iraq within a year, a new play opened at the tiny Finborough Theatre. Its author was a 22-year-old who was working as a doorkeeper at the Nottingham Playhouse, 11 miles from where he grew up.

When the script first arrived, unsolicited and unaccompanied by any agent’s recommendation, the theatre’s artistic director, Neil McPherson, was tempted to weigh it. “It was 250 or 300 pages long,” he says now. “He’d basically put in every single historical character you can imagine: Hitler, Napoleon, Pol Pot.” But it was funny – “he can write a zinging one-liner” – and it was ambitious, ending with Hiroshima live onstage. “I said: go away and write the Napoleon play or the Einstein play. He wrote the Einstein play.”

Albert’s Boy was recently revived at the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond, and although Graham found watching it tough – “It was like watching your younger self trying to flirt or seduce somebody, and not getting it right” – it stands up better than other plays that engaged more directly with war and WMD. “I didn’t want to write the Basra play,” is how Graham describes it now.

Set in a single room (to allow it to be produced as cheaply as possible), it has two characters: Albert Einstein and Peter Bucky, the son of a family friend, who has just returned from the Korean War. Bucky, whose nerves are shot from his experiences as a prisoner, has little time for the older man’s recriminations over his involvement in the Manhattan Project. Is it really any worse, he says, to burn instantly in a nuclear fireball than to be bayoneted and left to die in the snow?

There are perhaps too many jokes about how a genius can be terrible at housekeeping (“Maybe the key to unifying your theory is unifying your socks!”) but there is also a light touch with pathos. Einstein’s cat disappears, and his fretting is ended only when he finds the creature’s body in the vegetable patch. It’s both a subtle echo of Stalin’s line about a single death being a tragedy and a reminder of the true danger and temptation of nuclear war: it renders the act of killing distant and bloodless. Death should be messy, never clinical, to stop us getting a taste for it.

Graham wonders if his first produced play accidentally set the course of his career, and whether, “had my first play been a relationship drama in a flat in Leeds… they would all have been that kind of stuff”. But that wasn’t to be. On the first night of Albert’s Boy, Neil McPherson brought in all his books about Anthony Eden. “I plonked them in front of [Graham] and said: get on with it.” The result was Eden’s Empire, which drew muted parallels between the Suez Crisis and the Iraq War. After that, Graham and McPherson spent three hours in a café in Smithfield, “and I talked him into the Margaret Thatcher play” – Little Madam, which dealt with the Conservative leader’s childhood in Grantham. “I didn’t need to give him any ideas after that,” McPherson says. “He had his own.”

Although Graham has since become famous for his big, public plays – and his television work, such as a Channel 4 dramatisation of the coalition negotiations – that doesn’t do justice to the range of his output. Many of his earlier plays are smaller, human dramas. The Whisky Taster, for example, tells the story of a pair of colleagues at an advertising agency trying to win a pitch for a new brand, while struggling to articulate their feelings for each other. A History of Falling Things shows a boy and a girl, both terrified to leave their houses because of their phobia of satellites crashing from the sky, who meet on an internet forum and communicate through webcams. Their bedrooms occupy opposite ends of the stage, with a gulf forever between them.

If you look at these plays, a different Graham emerges from the grand chronicler of political events. “There’s an ongoing theme in his work that is always quite cleverly obscured,” Kate Wasserberg says, “to do with people who cannot form intimacies for various reasons. For someone who everybody loves so passionately, there’s a loneliness… I feel like I’m being indiscreet but it’s all in the work.” (In interviews, Graham will not be drawn on his private life, instead saying things like, “I am not a monk.” He tells me that writing plays is an odd mix of solitude and bursts of public interaction: “I enjoy being by myself, probably a little too much. I have a few friends who live nearby who, if I don’t WhatsApp for while, risk banging on my door to bully me out.”)

Paul Roseby of the National Youth Theatre describes a similar experience when they worked together on Tory Boyz. The play juxtaposes Ted Heath’s relationship with his childhood friend Kay – who loves him but marries someone else when she realises her love cannot be reciprocated – with the macho, bullying world of young, gay Conservative parliamentary staffers.

Roseby admits that he worked on a political play with Graham for months without ever knowing what “his true political persuasion was”. (It seems unlikely to be Ukip, however; his friends include the Guardian writer Owen Jones.) When he saw The Whisky Taster, which ends with the colleagues failing to acknowledge their relationship, Roseby decided: “The thing is with James, he just needs to go out and shag more. I may have said that to him. Why aren’t these people sealing the deal? They don’t commit. It’s very tentative. But that creates a very interesting tension. Still, I didn’t pry too much. We were too busy trying to put a bloody play on.”

Like other friends, Roseby describes Graham as essentially “private”, adding: “I love that about him. In our world, we are so ready to spill everything, but drama is about secrets and lies. He has some secrets and I’m sure he’s told some lies.”

Almeida Theatre, London, 28 June 2017

It’s the press night of Ink, Graham’s play about Rupert Murdoch’s capture of the Sun newspaper, and as usual he has stationed himself at the back of the auditorium to drink in the mood of the audience. He is worried, because the play is showing just a few weeks after the Grenfell Tower fire tragedy. As journalists tried to report on the aftermath, they were shouted and sworn at. There’s an amorphous anger in the air, London’s version of the anti-establishment feeling that led other parts of the country – including Graham’s home town, Mansfield – to vote to leave the EU. “Walking out of that press night, I thought… people will accuse it of being completely toothless and being too kind to him [Rupert Murdoch],” he tells me.

The script of Ink had already been heavily rewritten from the first day of rehearsals. “When I brought the script in… I had one of those moments I thought I had got used to, which was the difficult read-through where it’s not quite there yet and you feel vulnerable and exposed,” he says. “It felt like a series of disconnected events – the thing I always hate and warn myself off when doing history, that it just becomes an episode tick list. This happened, this happened, in this order. But it doesn’t seem to amount to anything.”

He left the rehearsal room that night and stayed away for a week, rewriting the whole second act and most of the first. “I had thought the story was so amazing, the world was so vivid, that it would be great. Actually, I had to go back and do some proper play-writing.”

I was at that press night, and two things struck me. The first was the hilarious starriness of the audience, at least in journalistic terms: Kath Viner, the editor of the Guardian, to the right of me; Tony Gallagher, the Sun editor, in the row behind. Journalists love any art about journalism, no matter how brutal or condemnatory: it makes us feel that what we do might echo down the ages, instead of disappearing into chip-wrapping. The second was a feeling of surprise at the interval: hang on, this is Rupert Murdoch, portrayed on a stage in Islington, north London, and he’s… not the Devil?

Graham’s Murdoch is a bundle of contradictions, unsure of himself, still the Australian immigrant stung by being called a “sheep farmer” and on a mission to liberate the working class from what he sees as pointless self-improvement foisted on them by a paternalistic establishment. His key line comes when he marches into the Mirror Group’s boardroom, ready to buy its worst-performing title, and gets tired of the pleasantries: “That’s enough foreplay. Can we get down to the fucking?”

On the surface, it reads like a yahoo deliberately outraging the standards of people he doesn’t respect. But Graham’s portrait of Murdoch suggests another reading: a socially awkward man making sure that everyone else feels uncomfortable, too. “I hope it’s the latter,” Graham says. “And the way that Bertie [Carvel] performed it was the latter.” (I tell Graham it reminded me of my old editor Paul Dacre. I recently discovered a diary entry from 2008, when I wrote about nearly running into the Daily Mail supremo in the newsroom after emerging from behind a pillar into his path. “He looked tortured and mumbled apologies without making eye contact, before moving on. Five minutes later he was calling my boss a c***.”)

During his research, Graham discovered that the Sun’s first editor, Larry Lamb, had hidden the launch of Page Three from Murdoch. “Whether it’s true or not, books like Stick It Up Your Punter! and Larry’s memoirs suggest he was furious… And you think: my god, what did Rupert Murdoch learn about his anger and piousness about Page Three that he had to unlearn to become the most successful newspaper magnate in the world?”

During the interval, a friend suggested that Ink would inevitably be compared with David Hare and Howard Brenton’s Pravda, a savage satire of the press from 1985, in which the South African tycoon Lambert La Roux buys a newspaper from a bumbling old aristocrat who wants the money to buy a share in a racehorse. That play is far less interested in the motivations of its Murdoch figure. The last line, spoken by La Roux, is: “Welcome to the foundry of lies.” This is not something you could imagine one of James Graham’s characters saying.

Hare sees the even-handedness of Graham’s characterisation as a response to the prevailing political climate – just as Pravda was ahead of its time. “I remember Howard turning to me at the first preview when the audience started to laugh and [saying]: but they haven’t said anything funny yet. I said: no, but I think they want this play.”

Hare tells me that he thinks Pravda was a rare example of one of his plays “sailing downwind”. “By and large, if you write political drama, you’re sailing upwind – trying to persuade people of something that they don’t necessarily want to be persuaded of.” (Hare’s Iraq play Stuff Happens was written, he says, when supporting the war was still seen as a patriotic duty.)

Ink, which is just about to transfer from the Almeida to the larger Duke of York’s Theatre in the West End, sails defiantly upwind by depicting Rupert Murdoch as an iconoclast disrupting a self-satisfied elite, and showing why working-class Britons were so eager to buy the Sun. The most captivating scene is one in which members of the new editorial team interrogate what they really want in a newspaper: free stuff, gossip, football, sex and the weather. The discussion kicks off with Larry Lamb’s confession, delivered in a broad Yorkshire accent: “I don’t like brass bands. There.”

Hare also declares himself to be a great admirer of the way Graham shows “process” – deepening his audience’s understanding of a situation rather than trying to win it over to a cause. “The easiest kind of play to write is the left-wing play which takes an obvious injustice and stirs up feeling against it,” he tells me. Graham, on the other hand, “writes about the real world, not piety”.

None of this matters, though, unless we accept that theatre – and, by extension, any art – can have political consequences. Graham believes that it can, citing the way Tony Kushner’s Angels in America humanised the victims of the Aids outbreak in the 1980s. “Nothing I’ve done ranks on that scale in terms of influence,” he says. “Some people may tell me they had no idea parliament worked like that, say, or that that’s how the Sun newspaper began, and it has made them see things in a new light, perhaps. Oh, and when I did The Whisky Taster at the Bush in 2010, sales of whisky in the O’Neill’s downstairs went up around 200 per cent. So playwrights are good bootleggers, if nothing else.”

National Theatre, London, 2010

As soon as it became clear that there would be a hung parliament, James Graham decided to pitch a play about politics to the National Theatre. He had little hope of success – he assumed that one of the grand eminences would have bagged the subject – but came away with the commission from Nicholas Hytner for This House.

As ever, the research consumed him. He wanted to turn away from the Great Man version of history and show politics as an engine room. To that end, he placed the action in the whips’ office, as Labour and Conservative whips cajoled and sweet-talked their backbenchers into voting with the party line against a backdrop of recession.

“I was very reluctant at the beginning to talk to James or anyone else,” says Ann Taylor, a former Labour whip who now sits in the Lords. Whips traditionally never speak about their work: Gyles Brandreth, a former Tory whip in the Major government, recalls getting a literal black spot in the post when his memoirs were first published in 1999. But something about Graham’s approach persuaded Taylor: “He filled me with confidence that he was doing it for the right reasons – to portray the period.”

This House is a play without an obvious antagonist. The villain, if there is one, is the system, the great shuddering machine of parliamentary democracy, which gives everyone a little bit of what they want but always at a cost. Between the two sets of whips, the class divide is obvious, but the Labour side has what Graham’s other dislocated, upwardly mobile protagonists never have: comradeship. They swear defensively, talk about “birds” and football and regard themselves as a band of barbarians attacking a citadel, using amendments and points of order as their weapons.

Like Ink, This House sails upwind. It was written two years after Laura Wade’s Posh (filmed as The Riot Club) stormed the Royal Court, showing a Bullingdon Club mob trashing a restaurant and getting its thickest member to take the rap with the promise of a parliamentary seat. But in Graham’s vision, the Tories are not the villains, nor are they universally privileged. The central relationship is between the Labour deputy whip Walter Harrison and his Tory opposite number, Jack Weatherill, who left school at 17 to train as a tailor and always carried a thimble to remind him of his background. Jeremy Herrin, who directed This House, says its core is the idea that “dignity and honour are possible in politics… Like the man, [Graham’s] work is generous and humane.”

Once the whips had decided to talk to Graham, they couldn’t stop. The former Labour whip Ann Taylor even suggested toughening up a line of hers, when the team is discussing the recall of Alfred Broughton, a Labour MP who is at home dying of heart failure, because without his vote the government will fall:

Taylor: I don’t understand, we’re one man down, and the Doc wants to come.

Harrison: Ann, it’ll kill him!

Taylor: He’ll die happy.

“It came out in conversation,” Taylor says now. “I said – it’s reality. It was how a few of us felt at the time.” She has been to see This House four times and tells me how on the last day of its revival at the Garrick Theatre, Walter Harrison’s grandson came to the matinee and was so touched that he left one of his grandfather’s lapel badges for the actor playing him that evening. “Labour whips have been to see it, Tory whips have been to see it, and neither felt it was unfair,” Taylor says. “Maybe it’s because he’s so young, he’s so open-minded. I don’t understand how he understood so much.”

Graham attributes his desire to be even-handed partly to his background – “I’m sure the political divides, the split identity between northern and Midlands, the historical fault lines that ruptured through the towns in the 1980s and 1990s, have contributed to my desire to step back, to take in all sides, yes” – and to his natural temperament. “My family often – and not always as a compliment – refer to me as the diplomatic one in arguments,” he says. “There’s a risk, of course, and I’m not unaware of it, that you’re simply not picking a side.”

Among James Graham’s peers in the theatre, there is a general acknowledgement that This House is, technically, his masterpiece. But they want more. “I wonder if there will be a moment when he will come up against a subject that’s fully worthy of all his skill, that challenges him and is painful, and that will pull something out of him,” says Kate Wasserberg. Paul Roseby’s hopes are simpler: “There has to be more to life than plays. I hope it doesn’t pass him by, the emotional stuff.”

David Hare worries that Labour of Love will feel too reactive because it is tied so closely to current events. “That’s what I call ‘chasing the dustcart’,” he says.

Annesley, 8 June 2017, 10.01pm

It’s the day of the general election and there’s only one way this part of Nottinghamshire will go – Labour. And particularly on this night, surely, when the exit poll predicts Jeremy Corbyn making unexpected gains across the country. In Graham’s home constituency of Ashfield, Gloria De Piero hangs on with a majority of just 441. In next-door Mansfield, everyone expects Sir Alan Meale, the area’s Labour MP since 1987, to be returned to parliament.

But something is wrong. Since Tony Blair’s 1997 landslide, when Meale’s majority swelled to more than 20,000, Labour’s tide has gone out as old class loyalties have crumbled. By 2015, Ukip was in third place.

Still, no one expects it to go blue. At 4.10am, the returning officer Jacqueline Collins duly announces Alan Meale’s re-election. A few muted cheers, and then a dreadful pause. “I’m so sorry,” she starts again. “I declare that Benjamin David Bradley has been elected and I do apologise.” Mansfield has its first ever Conservative MP.

How did this happen, I ask Graham over email. He says that he knows miners and their children who voted Conservative, some of whom are ashamed to tell their families. For some, the motivation was Brexit; for others, it was a sense that “Corbyn’s Labour Party is not their Labour Party”. He adds: “I’m not saying they can’t be won over – and in fact, maybe [Corbyn’s] performance in the final weeks and post-election has helped. But Mansfield, since the blood spilled in the 1980s, has long had a suspicion, a dislike, of ‘the mob’. That militant side to the left, what they view as fanatics, hero-worshipping, political radicalism.”

He also attributes the Conservative win to a “bigger middle class, moving into estates on the outskirts” – and also to Labour’s fundamental problem in its former northern heartlands, as “young voters leave for education and then as graduates they don’t come back”. In other words, it’s partly down to voters like him, who might once have stayed and prospered in a village like Annesley but now find themselves at the back of an auditorium in London, trying to recreate a home from which they have been severed.

“Ink” runs at the Duke of York’s Theatre, London, from 9 September. “Labour of Love” runs at the Noël Coward Theatre from 27 September. “This House” tours Britain next year

James Graham’s selected work

Albert’s Boy (2005)

Graham’s first produced play featured Albert Einstein and a family friend debating the ethics of nuclear war.

Tory Boyz (2008)

In this sprawling epic, the story of young, gay Tory parliamentary researchers is juxtaposed with that of Ted Heath.

The Man (2010)

In this one-man show (sometimes performed by Graham), a man tells the story of his life through the receipts he has collected for his tax return.

This House (2012)

Graham’s breakthrough play followed the whips’ offices in the late 1970s, culminating in the fall of James Callaghan’s Labour government in 1979.

Privacy (2014)

Riffing on the revelations of Edward Snowden about NSA surveillance, this was rewritten for Broadway and starred Daniel Radcliffe as “the writer”.

The Vote (2015)

Broadcast live on election night from the Donmar Warehouse in real time, this followed 90 minutes in a polling station.

X+Y (2015)

Graham’s film debut followed an autistic prodigy (Asa Butterfield) competing in a maths Olympiad.

Quiz (2017)

This play about Who Wants to Be a Millionaire’s “coughing major” opens in Chichester in November this year.

The Culture (2018)

This commission was written in response to Hull (where Graham attended university) being the 2017 City of Culture. It is a farce in the style of the BBC’s W1A

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 24 August 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Is Google Evil?