‘It’s so funny,’ Cliff Richard used to sing on Top of the Pops, ‘how we don’t talk any more…’
In these grim, dystopian days, I feel the same about my relationship with so much of the mainstream media. In six long years now, they’ve seldom, if ever, allowed me to broach the subject of Brexit, and, quite frankly, it’s not just funny, but also totally insane. It’s a national psychosis. It’s as if Brexit has become not a question of legitimate public interest, but some godawful family secret, like an old uncle’s drinking or the time a maiden aunt was done for shoplifting.
On dark days, I’d started to wonder if it was me that had somehow failed in this relationship. I had to at least to consider whether all those bookers at the BBC and Sky News who once couldn’t get enough of me, had somehow, after all those never-ending paper reviews, managed to see through me. Was it just possible that I’d lost my charm or had never had it in the first place?
Edinburgh is therefore doing me the power of good. I am up in the city for the run of Bloody Difficult Women at the Assembly Rooms for the duration of the Fringe, and suddenly I am a media darling again. I feel liberated and I can be myself. I am an out and proud Remainer once more. Rather wonderfully, my play – which focuses on Gina Miller’s court case against Theresa May’s government over parliamentary sovereignty and what has ensued – is causing a bit of a stir.
Scottish journalists are calling to talk to me about it. I’m getting invited on to Scottish television and radio shows. Questions that are regarded as blasphemous in London seem up here perfectly natural – a journalist from The National even asked why I reckoned we can’t talk sensibly about Brexit south of the border – and, while I am not taking a single good review for granted, I at least have every reason to expect their reviewers to turn out.
The contrast with the reception Bloody Difficult Women got in a cold and chilly London after Christmas could not be more striking. Newspapers whose owners the play dares to criticise angrily made it clear they had no intention of according it any space whatsoever in their arts pages.
One well known theatrical impresario – even though he was willing to invest in it – said the play was right up there with Springtime for Hitler in The Producers in that no writer had previously been so manifestly stupid as to attack the very newspapers he expected to review it.
Predictably, so far as the fanatically pro-Brexit Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail were concerned, it was the play that dared not speak its name, even though it so happens I gave good years of my life toiling on the staffs of both those titles. The Mail was especially outraged by the very idea of it.
My play dares to portray its editor-in-chief Paul Dacre on stage – even sharing an image of that god is deemed to be the gravest of all sacrileges at the paper’s Kensington citadel – and their legal department barraged us with letters demanding to have advance sight of the script, which, needless to say, we declined. One journalist I know on the Mail said she was very much looking forward to seeing it, but gleefully predicted I’d never work again.
Of course, Scotland’s openness about Brexit – its people’s defining ability to talk plainly on this subject and just about every other – may well not necessarily be such a good thing for the play commercially. It was Bloody Difficult Women‘s official status as forbidden fruit in London – the playwright Jonathan Maitland went so far as to call it an “incredibly brave” piece of theatre – that was almost certainly a factor in it rapidly selling out at the Riverside Studios and its run having to be extended.
Still, William Burdett-Coutts, the artistic director of the Riverside when the play was originally commissioned and is now one of the big star makers at the Fringe, assured me Bloody Difficult Women would be allowed to shine in Edinburgh in the way it could never be allowed to in London, but he added the play had better still be bloody good.
Certainly I recognise that in a city where it’s possible to say whatever I damn well like, the play will have to hold its own and the competition during the Fringe is fierce. I have rewritten the last scene – an imaginary encounter between Gina Miller and Theresa May – set in the present day at least a hundred times. I’m now finally happy with it. Three new cast members have also been recruited – we have a new Gina Miller in the brilliant Rita Estevanovich – but the soon-to-be Lord Dacre need not fret. Andrew Woodall is once again portraying him in all his potty-mouthed glory.
Of course, I try in the play, as in life, to see the funny side of a bloody depressing situation, but I mean it sincerely when I say to Edinburgh how grateful I am to it. This city is making me feel alive again. Its willingness to give me a chance means the world to me.
I was thinking how, as a young journalist still wet behind the ears, I had interviewed Arthur Miller. I asked the great writer about his play The Crucible, written at the height of the McCarthyite era in America as a savage, full-on assault on it and its practitioners.
That took some guts back in the fifties, and it was a massive career risk, but I remember saying to Miller how I considered it inconceivable that there would ever come a time when it would be thought of as brave either in his country or mine to write a political play again.
I remember the great man looking to the heavens and then saying after a long pause that I’d better grown up and quickly. He said that a country, just when it felt most complacent, was at its most vulnerable, just when it seemed to have everything, it had the most to lose. Those lines I’ve used in the play because I learnt the hard way how Miller grasped human fallibility a lot more than I did at that tender age.