Breaking Baz: ‘Sherwood’s’ James Graham Hits West End With Alan Bleasdale’s ‘Boys From The Blackstuff’, Talks Europe-Set TV Thriller & Updates On Soccer Drama ‘Dear England’

James Graham sets a mental timer of strictly 45 minutes for a conversation that will encompass tonight’s gala opening at London’s National Theatre — en route to a run at the Garrick Theatre — of his sublime stage adaptation of Alan Bleasdale’s landmark 1982 television drama Boys from the Blackstuff; followed by updates about the BBC TV version of his Olivier Award-winning soccer play Dear England, which will see him doing on-the-ground research at next month’s Euros in Germany; plus revelations about an epic new show he’s developing with House Productions that will explore the “mood sweeping across Europe.”

The 45-minute time-frame is kinda apt because each half of a soccer game is three-quarters of an hour.

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So let’s kick off with the football, and I’ll fill you in on Boys from the Blackstuff farther down the column.

The playwright’s Dear England is ostensively about the beautiful game and England men’s football team manager Gareth Southgate’s attempts to transform the squad’s physical and mental acuity, but it’s underpinned by its spotlight on the country’s national identity and its ability to accept losing before they can win games again.

Joseph Fiennes, who portrayed Southgate on stage at the National and a transfer to the Prince Edward Theatre, will repeat the role in the TV production that will go before cameras later in the year.

Graham and the play’s director Rupert Goold, artistic chief of north London’s Almeida Theatre, travel to Germany “to hang out with some people at the [Football Association] who’ve been very generous with access to games and people.”

And because it’s a show for the BBC, Graham’s hoping “to be with some of the BBC Studios guys like Gary Lineker and just see how that process works. I think the media and the press will be a more present character in the TV drama.”

The story will still be framed around Southgate, but an ending is up for grabs.

In the stage play [SPOILER ALERT], as Graham has it at the moment, Southgate and England skipper Harry Kane hug after Kane’s missed penalty.

Should England prevail at the Euros and actually, like, win the thing, “I will totally accept that,” he says.

Joseph Fiennes in ‘Dear England’ (Marc Brenner)
Joseph Fiennes in ‘Dear England’ (Marc Brenner)

But as a playwright, it puts him in a bit of a pickle.

“This sounds like such a treacherous thing to say as an England fan, as a playwright it’s a better story at the moment [where we lose],” Graham says. “But it’s a story about how to learn to lose, how we have to accept that we are going to lose quite often and regularly as a country and how we find strength in that, lessons from that. But I’ll accept it if we win,” he says, smiling as he pops a French fry into his mouth as we chat in the Union Club in Soho.

When I press him on why we don’t enjoy winning, he says simply, ”I think we can’t win until we are better losers.”

We’re a strange country, I remark.

“We’re a mad country,” he responds. “Because we’re so old. That’s why we’re mad,” he suggests.

He cites that when the German team lost to England heavily in the early 2000s, it was such a trauma that the Germans went away and spent a decade rebooting. “The Das Reboot,” he jokes.

“Quietly, calmly, scientifically, they said, ’OK, so how do we regenerate and rebuild and reboot and let go of the past?’ Then they come back 10 years later and they win the World Cup again. We just can’t do that,” Graham argues.

“We can’t, like, regenerate. And that’s what Southgate’s trying to do,” he adds. “To celebrate the past, don’t burn it down but be released from it to write a new story. And that’s why we’re doing better than we’ve ever done before, because we have to learn to deal with our past. And deal with the fact that we’re going to lose and we’re not always going to be amazing.”

Graham accepts that it’s galling that the England national team isn’t always exceptional at a game it invented. “And that’s OK .Just because we invented it — what a lovely gift to invent something, give it to the world and then they beat us at it. That should be a great thing,” he reasons.

Fiennes, so good in the stage version, is the only actor cast so far for the Dear England drama series.

He’s up for “a couple of cameos from legacy players” like goalkeeper David Seaman.

Graham says he’s still working out what to do about the Gary Lineker character in the play.

“It’s quite fun to have the real Gary, or would that take away from investing in the fiction [of the play]? I don’t know.”

The soccer legend caught the play at the National and was “very generous and lovely” and impressed that the actor portraying him “really got his accent.”

Graham was nervous, though, “because it’s only my interpretation of their story, and he sort of confirmed ’that feels like you’re telling the right story of what Gareth has done in terms of this transformation, and how we did it.’ And that was a relief.”

James Graham of ‘Dear England’ (Getty Images)
James Graham of ‘Dear England’ (Getty Images)

But he and Goold are still doing “loads and loads” of research, hence the forthcoming trip to watch the Euros, like meeting with players and striking coaches “and things like that, just to give it authenticity.”

Neither Southgate nor Harry Kane and the England players saw Dear England.

Graham understands why. “Gareth brilliantly — and, in my view, correctly — sees himself as a playwright, helping them to tell a new version of their story. And they need to protect that. So I think having some other f*cking playwright get in there and tell their own story back at them, I think would mess with their heads. So I totally get it.”

However, Southgate deputized family and friends to check it out.

Graham tells me that there are developments “at an early stage” to bring Dear England back into a London stage and then to tour soccer cities such as Manchester and Sheffield.

If we’re not  always exceptional at the national game, Graham agrees that “we’re exceptional in theatre.We’re exceptional at drama but we don’t have to win all the time.”

Boys from the Blackstuff is a winner, though.

Set in the early 1980s, the show’s about a Merseyside gang of workers who lay tarmac — the black stuff — but they’ve run out of road as jobs become scarce and they risk breaking the law when they take on odd jobs while also receiving government benefits.

These working men of the north — whether they be road workers, ship builders, miners or whatever — are the backbone of our country. Rather, they were. Successive Labour and Conservative governments shut down traditional industries, leaving whole swathes of the country north of Watford scratching for jobs that weren’t coming back.

More than that, the play’s about men — and women — demanding to be seen. Demanding to have a job. Demanding to raise their families out of poverty.

Watching the production, directed with passion and wit by Kate Wasserberg, which began at Liverpool’s Royal Court Theatre, it’s not hard to see how Graham’s version of Bleasdale’s seminal work echoes the hardships many are enduring now.

Boys from the Blackstuff started out as a single play, where the men do have jobs, though it all goes wrong for them. And then Bleasedale came up with the series starring Bernard Hill and Michael Angelis.

There’s a line in that first drama where in-your-face Yosser makes this incredible speech: ”I’m a man. I want to be seen. Look at me!”

Graham found that as heartbreaking as I do, and he begged Bleasdale if he could structure a story that would include it. “I feel it’s like a story about masculinity in the modern world. And these men are just screaming, ‘Look at me!’”

Alan Bleasdale (left) and James Graham (Jason Roberts)
Alan Bleasdale (left) and James Graham (Jason Roberts)

It started with Kate Wasserberg, who’s just taken over as artistic director of Theatr Clwyd in Wales and who, incidentally, directed several of Graham’s earlier works at the off West End Finborough Theatre in west London.

Graham heard that she wanted to offer him a job.

It was the last thing he wanted.

At the time, he was writing Sherwood — Season 2 is on BBC TV in the fall and a third season is awaiting the green light — the bound-for-Broadway-in October musical Tammy Faye with music by Elton John, lyrics by Jake Shears and directed by Goold; the Dear England play; another called Punch, which had a short run at his hometown Nottingham Playhouse and is toying with West End transfer proposals; and a musical based on George Orwell’s Animal Farm that he’s collaborating on with Beauty and the Beast composer Alan Menken and lyricist Glenn Slater (Sister Act, School of Rock-The Musical), to name but a few of Graham’s projects.

“I was so busy. I was like, ‘No matter what she offers me, I’m going to say no.’ And then on the phone she said the words Boys from the Blackstuff, and I was like, ’You f*cker. How can I say no to that?”

Initially, Graham had a “general nervousness, probably misplaced” about social realism and the north of England and how there’s sometimes a snobbery toward “some of that stuff. It’s just very old-fashioned now if you put moaning northerners on stage. Is there an appetite for it?”

He admits that was “completely misplaced prejudice” because when he went back to the original TV single play and the five-part series, he found that they still resonated. “Just those timeless human stories of despair and loss and identity,” Graham said.

He’s believes that though the story’s from a past era, the new adaptation, as noted earlier, resonates. “A different situation, but the despair is the same and the anger is the same,” he says.

The work places Bleasdale, Graham believes, as “the British Arthur Miller.”

What both he and Graham bring across is a powerful sense of “the north’s resilience, and it’s the north’s sense of humour despite the bad hand they’ve been dealt“ but done with humour, grit and poetry. These men really express themselves through Bleasdale and Graham.

The two artists did a workshop at the National Theatre. It was before lockdown, and they worked with a group of actors; some were members of the original TV cast including Michael Angelis “before he died, bless him. It was a lovely full circle for him.”

Graham wrote a draft and sent it to Bleasdale. Then he’d jump on a train and go visit him in Liverpool. “We’d go to a Chinese restaurant on the docks, and we’d just go through it, and he would give notes.”

The notes would be written in black using a big felt pen on A4 paper “one note per A4 page, and you just get this pack to take home. It’s brilliant. It’s very analog but beautifully so.”

The famous “Gizza job!” and “I can do that!” lines from the TV drama remain popular sayings in many parts of the UK, because there are many who seek regular, properly compensated employment. But the difference now, says Graham, is that there isn’t the camaraderie of the kind Yosser and his mates had back in the ’80s.

“You’re a cog in a corporate machine, whether it’s an Amazon warehouse or a call center. You don’t have that sense of community around your work,“ he says before noting that he doesn’t imagine people “getting the same sense of self worth from having to work three different jobs.”

Boys from the Blackstuff runs in the National’s Olivier Theatre until June 8. Bill Kenwright Productions will transfer it into the Garrick Theatre from June 13 through August 3.

The cast includes George Caple (Doctor Who) Dominic Carter (Coronation Street, Game of Thrones), Helen Carter (The Flint Street Nativity at Liverpool Everyman), Aron Julius (Death on the NileDeath in Paradise), Nathan McMullen (Doctor Who Christmas Special), Lauren O’Neil (plays Witness for the ProsecutionThis House), Jamie Peacock (Masquerad), Barry Sloane (The BayLitvinenko) as Yosser, Liam Tobin (Then and Now) and Mark Womack (The Responder,Murphy’s Law). Boys from the Blackstuff marks Graham’s third play at the National Theatre after Dear England and This House.

Barry Sloane as Yosser in ‘Boys from the Blackstuff’ (Jason Roberts)
Barry Sloane as Yosser in ‘Boys from the Blackstuff’ (Jason Roberts)

On top of everything else on his slate, Graham’s exploring the idea of a thriller, as yet untitled, with House Productions, the producers of Sherwood. It’s very early days, but he wants to look at “the mood sweeping across Europe at the moment. I think it would be set in multiple different countries and capture the feeling of, not revolution, but unease about the old order.

“Brexit will be in there. But also history and kings and queens and countries and borders. It’s set in the modern day, but it’ll bring lots of history with it, like in a Dan Brown way, I guess. There’ll be discoveries of European pasts and alternative lines of history and things like that,” he adds.

It’s another compelling topic for the playwright of Nottingham to explore.

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