In praise of the 1970s: why This House @NationalTheatre is such a hit

James Graham’s This House, still showing at The National Theatre, is one of the very best productions I have ever seen. So cleverly crafted, directed and choreographed, and vibrantly acted. Its context is Parlament, specifically the House of Commons, and a Labour government (first under Harold Wilson then James Callaghan) struggling with a fragile and fast-evaporating majority. Its focus is the critical role played by the whips on both sides of the House – the small group of engine-room operators responsible for party discipline. Our whips emerge as heroic super-fixers, even as role-models. They show that there is an under-stated nobility in doing one’s job well if a sense of purpose is combined with skill and cunning.

One former government minister I spoke to said that after seeing this production, whatever one’s political allegiances, being a government whip is a sexy career move. Long nights, continual crisis, stark exposure to human complexity, bonding professionally with opposition whips, endless opportunities to encourage, influence, negotiate, cajole, and threaten and reward. With power comes fear of defeat – and much humour!

Much has been made of the troubled 1970s, but for my wife, Margaret, and me we can also say -unashamedly- it was a fantastic decade. Yes, this is the blog that speaks up for the Seventies, and not just for more re-runs of The Sweeney.

Nostalgia for the Seventies is not quite the right word. We would not want a return to the inflation, unemployment and ungovernability of that decade. It is more affinity and allegiance to what that decade held us for us as we grew up in turbulent times. Gone was the starry-eyed, fuzzy idealism of the Sixties, but for all the cynicism and disappointment that the Seventies represented, somewhere in the mix was a deep-rooted sense that battles had to be fought and won, and that the forging of ideas and alliances was important. The future could not just be a consumerist one. Joining the Grunwick picket-line in those days were Shirley Williams and me. And I wasn’t that left-wing.

True wisdom lies in seeing beyond the fragmented and apparently chaotic universe we experience every day, especially at times of crisis and uncertainty. What a brilliant theatre production brings to life is that for all our struggling to survive there is a deeper underpinning meaning to our lives, and in this, we are -in the stillness of time- at one. Life does not stand still. Britain moved on from that unsettled period of political, economic and social history. Lady Thatcher’s legacy will be contested for years to come. She will continue to have her admirers and detractors. This play provides indirectly an insight into how – and more importantly, why- she “mysteriously” arose to prominence as Leader of the Opposition. With the benefit of hindsight, mysteries disappear and their inexorable logic becomes clear. That era, however much I was inspired and formed by it, just had to end.

Links below to The National Theatre, but also a new initative to encourage young theatre-makers to collaborate. And my own abridged work on collaboration.

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