Tuesday, June 2, 2020

This House

As someone interested in ordinary politics (i.e. not the kind we're having now), I got a big kick out of this week's (UK) National Theatre Live video, a 2013 production of This House by James Graham. It's a portrait of the UK Parliament from the point of view of the Whips' Office, a perspective rarely used in parliamentary stories. I've read many British political memoirs, but usually by ministers, rarely by a whip. It's a splendid drama, it's online up until this Thursday, and here's the link.

(Some people, when they hear of British political whips, may think first of Francis Urquhart in the original Westminster-set House of Cards. But we rarely see Francis acting actually as a whip, and it's important to realize that the reason the Chief Whip makes such a delicious villain is for the same reason that it's the butler in the classic cozy country-house murder mystery: because in real life, this master of loyalty and discretion is the last person who'd actually do it.)

The story covers, starting with the previous election in which the Conservatives lost office, the parliaments of 1974-79, during which the Labour Party, under Wilson and Callaghan, had a wafer-thin majority, if that, in the Commons, so the whips had a lot to do in rounding up votes and keeping the calendar organized. The principal characters are 3-5 whips in each of the Labour and Conservative parties. Each side plans together, and negotiates and clashes across the aisle. The wary but sincere friendship between the two deputies, Labour's Walter Harrison and the Conservatives' Jack Weatherill (later Speaker himself) is the key relationship in the play.

There are scenes on the floor of the Commons and elsewhere (even in the Westminster clock tower), but most takes place in the two whips' offices placed on opposite sides of the stage, and there's lots of quick scene-cutting between them, so the play proceeds with great snap. This is especially helpful because much of the dialogue is of the "as you know, Bob" sort, in which experienced characters explain things to each other that they'd already know, for the sake of keeping the audience up to speed.

My favorite moment illustrates both these points and occurs early on. The Conservative Chief Whip is exhorting his deputies: "All right, chaps, the usual channels are now open. It's time to ride out into the field. And remember, our one advantage is our ... um, oh, how do I put this so that it won't sound ... I can't. Our class. Labour whips are foul-mouthed, brutish, trade-unionist ..." Flash-cut by lighting change to the Labour office across the hall and into the middle of a sentence by their Chief Whip: "... toffee-nosed, ass-licking, dick-wanking wankers! With silver spoons in their mouths and rods up their asses. Full of baronets and major-generals. Their weakness is their inflexibility. So exploit it!"

Few government ministers appear, and that only briefly; the other characters are almost all House officials (Speaker and clerks), plus many a back-bench MP to be exhorted or kept in line, and third-party members (always called "the odds and sods") to be wooed for their support in the voting lobbies. Few names are used for these characters, and those mostly first names in informal conversation; whenever one appears, the Speaker announces them by the name of their constituency, as he would on the floor of the House, and even the whips usually refer to them that way, which I'm not so sure is realistic. Most of these people are pretty obscure to a foreign viewer, but there's a few it'd be helpful to know who they are. A few references to an offstage character called "Finchley" are to then prospective Conservative leadership candidate Margaret Thatcher; after she's chosen leader she's usually called "the Lady."

All of these characters, though, are real people, though I don't know how accurately they're always portrayed. I can't speak to all the minor events, but the major ones are all historical. Even the MP who loses his grip on sanity and fakes his death by drowning so that he can run off with his mistress and escape his business debts and frauds - that really happened.

I enjoy a good, fast-paced and historically intelligent political play, like Robert Schenkkan's pair on LBJ. Graham doesn't have quite that skill with exposition, but as an enjoyable theatrical experience it goes in that company.

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