You would never know it from his relaxed, affable demeanour in front of camera, but James Graham is arguably the most acclaimed and accomplished dramatist of his generation.
Since his 2012 breakout hit This House, the 36-year-old has enjoyed a run of successes with big, ambitious, funny plays and television dramas that have tackled politics (Coalition), internet surveillance (Privacy), the rise of tabloid journalism (Ink )… oh, and more politics with a forthcoming Channel 4 drama about Brexit starring Benedict Cumberbatch. He recently had both Ink, about the rise of Rupert Murdoch’s Sun, and Labour of Love , about the ideological battles within the Labour Party, playing only yards from each other in the West End.
I would have assumed that this double whammy would feel rather good, but Graham said his reaction was to feel ‘shame and guilt and think, “Should I stop writing now I have had my time in the spotlight? Should I move out of the way so other people can have an opportunity?”’ In the end he resolved that rather than quitting he should exploit the opportunities coming his way to help others.
‘There is a very visible problem with what stories get told on British stages,’ Graham says. He wanted to do more than ‘moan about it and virtue signal about it on social media’. So when offered the opportunity to update Sketches by Boz, Charles Dickens’ chronicle of the multiplicity of stories in Victorian London, Graham suggested that rather than writing it himself he would collaborate with emerging writers from groups under-represented in the industry. From a submission list of 800 applicants, eight writers were selected and Graham worked with them as a mentor on his new play, Sketching. ‘I do feel a duty and a responsibility as a writer to encourage other writers,’ he tells me, ‘the way I was encouraged even though I did not come from a background that conventionally would see you writing plays.’
One of three children, Graham was born in 1982, in the village of Annesley in Nottinghamshire. His father was a local council worker and his mother worked as barmaid. ‘I remember what it felt like to grow up in a post-industrial town in the 1990s and feel voiceless,’ he says ‘but I was very lucky because my family encouraged me to be creative. When I was a boy we would go on holiday to Skegness and in the two-hour car journey we would listen to The Goon Show. My dad bought me a tape recorder so I would do the silly voices.’ Graham went to what was at the time the largest comprehensive school in the country, with about 2,500 pupils. ‘My school was determined that students, particularly lads, would do theatre,’ he recalls. ‘We did Grease — I played Vince Fontaine and had to wiggle my hips — and Return to the Forbidden Planet.’
That was enough to inspire him to study drama at Hull University in 2000 and after graduating he got himself a stage door job before landing his first commission in 2005. ‘I was sleeping on the floor of my friend’s house because I didn’t have a place to live,’ he says, ‘and I remember going to the local garage to buy a newspaper to see a review of my play Albert’s Boy in the national press for the first time, standing there thinking: how have I got away with this?’
Graham had moved to London in 2004 after applying for a job in a marketing agency. ‘When I was growing up people had a sense of pride in saying they had never been to London,’ he says, ‘but I always got unashamedly excited by the idea of living here. I do think it’s remarkable that a city of this size and scale works so well — that every day eight million residents and millions of commuters can arrive in the city and it can function and work, and people can be helpful and kind and generous to one another and live alongside each other.’ There are, Graham freely recognises, less rosy aspects to London — the increasing divisions between rich and poor and the housing crisis, to name but two — and part of the appeal of working on Sketching was to explore different faces of the city.
‘The template was Dickens,’ he says, and it was up to the writers ‘to find the modern heroes and villains and the present-day version of orphanage managers and money lenders. We have a family drama set in a Polski sklep in Mitcham. There’s the story of a “flusher” finding a particularly shocking item down in the sewers, a tale of a physicist falling in love. We depict some zero-hours and agency workers going on strike and the daughter of a keycutter from Hackney who enters into an ancient secret society, and so on. But big characters, big heroes and villains and high stakes.’
Graham is single and lives alone in a recently bought house in Kennington. He is also terrifyingly productive. ‘There was a time when, to prove that being a playwright was a proper job and something that should feel hard, I would get up stupidly early,’ he says. ‘I had a rule that I would have to get up when it was dark. I would be at my desk by seven and would work through till one or two in the morning.’ And pausing just for food? ‘Maybe food but not always,’ he says. ‘I very frequently don’t have food in the house, so I will get annoyed about having to go out.’ He notices my shocked expression. ‘My mum had three jobs growing up and she still has two,’ he says. ‘She does a night shift in a warehouse Monday to Friday after her day job in a school, so I think I should be working hard, shouldn’t I?’
His upbringing has shaped his entire approach to theatre. ‘I can’t bear any theatre that feels like it is an in-joke, or theatre for theatre people,’ he says. ‘Most people in this country don’t go to the theatre and that is the proportion of society I want to reach.’ So you’re a populist, I say. ‘Yeah but politicians and Nigel Farage and Arron Banks have ruined that word,’ he says.
Mention of Farage leads our conversation towards Brexit and Graham’s forthcoming TV drama. ‘My town was one of the top 10 that voted to leave. The vast majority of my friends growing up would have voted leave and people in my family voted leave,’ he says. ‘So I feel a sense of responsibility about not favouring one side over the other and not depicting heroes where there are none.’ Earlier this year a rough draft of Graham’s script was stolen and leaked online, an experience he found ‘embarrassing, exposing and annoying — you are mucking about in the privacy of your own home, and thinking maybe this and maybe that, then it gets pored over by journalists and real life people, which felt unfair.’
Politics has been the central preoccupation of Graham’s career, from Eden’s Empire (about Anthony Eden) to Tory Boyz (about Edward Heath), from Little Madam (about Margaret Thatcher’s youth) to This House and Labour of Love. ‘I do sympathise with politicians and I don’t envy them,’ he says. ‘I feel sorry for them and yet the quality of political discourse is the worst it has ever been. Politics has been reduced to talking points and we have retreated into simplicity.’
A contributing factor to this, he suggests, is that online platforms have replaced social spaces such as the town hall and the pub. Social media forums such as Twitter ‘are not places that allow for nuance; they encourage total commitment to one particular and often simplistic point of view. But it is not just the platforms and technology, it is also us — there is a potential for these networks to introduce you to people and ideas and concepts that you would never have had access to before, so it is we who are failing by not embracing the potential of these platforms, instead behaving almost as the worst versions of ourselves.’
Twitter leads us, inevitably, to Donald Trump. ‘I don’t know how we globally row back from a fictional character becoming the President of the United States,’ Graham says. ‘If you look back at Donald Trump even 10 years ago, he played a different character: he was more reasonable, he was more liberal, his vocabulary was bigger, he had irony, self awareness, intelligence and a politics that have all vanished.’ The state of politics on both sides of the Atlantic clearly worries Graham but he is honest enough to admit to an upside. ‘It saddens me that we live in a world that feels angry and dangerous and ungenerous,’ he says, ‘but there is a narcissistic side to me that says this is the best time to be writing.’ Alongside Sketching and the Brexit drama, Graham is developing a feature film adaptation of 1984 with director Paul Greengrass as well as a screen version of Ink and a TV drama about the impact of the miners’ strike on his home town. ‘The most exciting stories for me are personal struggles,’ he says, ‘set against the backdrop of nation-changing events.’
Which draws us back to the two life-changing events of 2016 — the Brexit vote and Trump’s election. Graham doesn’t offer easy answers in his plays, but he believes the power of stories can help to heal the divisions these upheavals caused. If social networks and politics nudge us towards those who are like us, theatre and stories can, he suggests, take us inside other lives and that is why a project such as Sketching feels necessary and important. ‘We all win as theatre-makers and audience members if we have a multiplicity of voices bringing different stories and different perspectives and styles onto the stage,’ he says. ‘What art demands of you is understanding, tolerance and an openness to different people and different points of view. Empathy.’
‘Sketching’ runs at Wilton’s Music Hall, 26 Sep to 27 Oct (sketchingtheplay.com)