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James Graham is the nation’s leading political playwright, having recently scored a walloping West End hit with ‘This House’, his drama about the events following 1974’s hung parliament. He’s got multiple TV dramas in development and a new West End comedy about Labour on the way. But first comes ‘Ink’, which stars Bertie Carvel as a young Rupert Murdoch making his first moves on Fleet Street in 1969.
Why write a play about Rupert Murdoch?
‘The story itself is what started it, of how over the course of a year Murdoch bought this quality broadsheet – I think we forget that that’s how The Sun started – and how with the help of [editor] Larry Lamb turned it into The Sun we know. It’s an origin story, and it gets quite brutal and violent – there is blood on their hands.’
Do you worry he might crush you like a bug if he doesn’t like it?
‘There’s a point when he just becomes one of your characters and you forget that it’s him… and then my friends remind me. But I’ve been in touch with people from The Sun – I spoke to Kelvin McKenzie a few weeks ago before whatever happened to him happened to him – and I think they’re just watching us curiously. My intention isn’t to do a stitch-up.’
Bertie Carvel and Richard Coyle in 'Ink' © Nadav Kander.
‘There is blood on their hands’
Are you going to tell me that Murdoch’s actually a misunderstood character?
‘From what I understand he’s a glorious mix of contradictions: he feels big and loud and brash but actually he’s quite shy. But I know a lot of people have strong feelings about him and not without reason.’
‘This House’ was quite romantic about the past; is ‘Ink’?
‘Yeah, a bit. Old Fleet Street was a very tight community, they all drank in the same pubs and got married in the same church. And I love the idea that even in 1970 the way they made newspapers was batshit crazy, the unions and the hot-metal presses: it’s like something from Tolkien.’
Do you think the 2017 election result shows The Sun’s power waning at all?
‘There’s been a shift, no doubt, in how people consume and share news, but I think at this stage, claims of the death of tabloid power are very much exaggerated.’
Does it feel like a burden at all, being this go-to political writer?
‘There’s probably a not particularly attractive side to it, this idea of: “Oh, I must be the one to write the Brexit play!” I am aware that for whatever reason I am able to get these stories to theatre and TV and maybe that won’t be the case one day. It’s a Faustian thing because I get excited about the drama but as a citizen of the world I get depressed. After the referendum no amount of people tweeting me saying “you should write something about this” could cheer me up.’
'Ink' is on at the Almeida Theatre until August 5 2017.