Continuing our series in which theatremakers reveal the culture they have been enjoying in lockdown, writer James Graham tells Fergus Morgan about geeking out to podcasts and working on a musical with Elton John
Writer James Graham has done more than most to keep the UK entertained during the coronavirus lockdown. His three-part ITV drama Quiz, adapted from his 2017 play about Charles Ingram’s alleged attempt to cheat his way to a million pounds, was broadcast on consecutive nights in mid-April. It drew in more than 10 million viewers, uniting the nation just as his previous TV drama – Brexit: The Uncivil War – divided it.
“I was on my own watching it like everyone else, and like everyone else I was feeling lonely and discombobulated and weird,” he says. “So to have strangers and friends messaging me telling me they couldn’t wait to watch Quiz was lovely. Obviously, the circumstances when it went out were horrible, but it did mean there was an audience sat at home watching it together, which was great. We always wanted it to feel like that, like event television.”
I’ve just started reading Ali Smith’s Spring at the moment, the third book in her seasonal quartet series. I had the privilege of meeting her before the lockdown. We did a panel together and she gave me a signed copy.
It’s great partly because it’s set in spring, and the book helps remind you that spring is happening in the outside world at the moment. But it’s also great because her writing style is so stream-of-consciousness. The thoughts tumble out in a elegant, natural way and I think that feels a bit like what’s happened to all our brains at the moment. There’s a tumbling quality to people’s thoughts and anxieties right now, and the book locks on to that.
I love the BBC Sounds app. I love going into really geeky political history podcasts from the archive. I found great joy in listening to a three-part series called The Brown Years about Gordon Brown’s time in office, which is obviously an incredibly sexy thing to listen to.
The political sphere feels so frightening and random at the moment, I found a weird kind of peace in remembering a time when the cause and effect of politics felt more logical. People did things, and there was this effect, and people tried to counter that effect by enacting this policy. I found it strangely calming to remember a time, and hopefully imagine a time again, when the things that happen in the world felt more rational. And I’m such a fucking dweeb, but I just loved hearing the voices of Hazel Blears, Peter Mandelson and Alan Johnson.
I’ve watched some digital theatre. I’ve been trying to watch the National Theatre at Home productions on Thursdays with everybody else. I didn’t see Jane Eyre in the theatre so that was a massive treat. I thought it was brilliant, a visual explosion of loveliness, and I enjoyed watching Tamsin Greig – who I’ve been fortunate enough to work with – in Twelfth Night as well.
I’ve also been finding shows elsewhere, though. I’ve never been to the Lincoln Center in New York, and I’m not a massive opera, ballet or classical music buff, but it is releasing pre-recorded concerts every day, which are lovely to have on in the background when I’m cooking. Oh, I’m cooking now as well. I never used to cook.
None of the music I listen to is very edgy or cool. I can’t listen to lyrics when I’m writing because they get stuck in my head, but – and this is such a cliché – I do enjoy listening to film scores or cinematic, instrumental music. I enjoy composers such as Michael Nyman or Max Richter.
Their music has moments that are so infinitely sad, but I kind of enjoy wallowing in the sadness and pain of it because a few bars later, it’s going to emerge into some weird, hopefully, joyful optimistic moment. And I think that, in the spirit of the time, it’s okay to be really sad at the moment and it’s okay to be really happy too.
Staring at the wall
I’m a big believer in sitting and looking out the window or staring at the wall. I think one of the worst elements of the previous world was that I was always rushing about and never really found time to sit down with a cup of tea and think. It sounds hippy, but boredom is really important for creativity. Spending 20 minutes a day being a bit bored is probably doing me a lot of good.
How are you keeping your theatre work going?
I’ve written a short play for Headlong, as part of a series it is doing called Unprecedented, which uses video-conferencing software. There’s a whole generation of kids who won’t complete their education in the normal way. That broke my heart a little, so I thought it would be fun to write about a bunch of younger characters trapped in their rooms, not at school, trying to find ways to connect online.
I’m also developing another three-part television drama that Michael Sheen brought to me, way before he did Quiz. That was probably going to go into production this summer but the fate of it is a bit unknown now. I’m writing a musical with Elton John and Jake Shears as well, about the TV evangelist Tammy Faye Bakker. I’m not going to pretend it isn’t both surreal and giddily exciting to do a video conference with Elton John. I over-thought my Zoom background for far too long.
And there are also plays that are emerging. They are in their early stages and I don’t know what they’ll be yet, but I’m determined not to accidentally fall down the rabbit hole of television, so I’m definitely writing a couple of plays. We’ll see where they go.