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Whipping This House into shape

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As the widely anticipated political drama This House opens at London’s National Theatre, Jonathan Watson asks its stars Philip Glenister and Phil Daniels whether they think they’ll get a vote of confidence from the theatre-going public

Phil Daniels and Philip Glenister freely admit they can’t wait to take part in political theatre. They’re starring in This House at the National, James Graham’s new play about the punishing life of government whips during Harold Wilson’s hung parliament of 1974, and the two friends are ready to face the challenge.

They met each other 15 years ago mucking around on a golf course and, perhaps unfairly typecast as gormless cockneys and hard men, you wouldn’t have pegged them for this high-brow satire. But both of them say the play was impossible to turn down.

It presents an opportunity to go behind the closed doors of Westminster during one of the most volatile post-war political periods to date. And then there’s that rare thing – playing a role that influences how voters perceive the people that run this country. In 2010, David Haig starred as Jim Hacker in the brilliant stage reboot of Yes, Prime Minister, and showed us that the Cabinet office could behave like a circus ruled by buffoons. It was backed up this week as Peter Capaldi’s swear-happy, loathsome Malcolm Tucker returned in Armando Iannucci’s political satire The Thick of It. Tucker is an iconic role that has become a reference point for everything people revile about spin doctors. Do Daniels and Glenister think they can have the same kind of effect on the public?

“Well, it’s going to be hard work that’s for sure and we’ll be crapping ourselves when we’re doing it,” says Daniels. “You’ve got to be funny, you’ve got to be in charge, and you’ve got to look like you’re a politician instead of looking like you might not know what’s coming next.”

Glenister says he’s not sure he does yet and grins at his co-star. “Regardless, I think Phil would make a great whip in real life. He’d charm them. In fact, forget that, I think we should both go and run the country because we’d instil loads of free time like back then in the 70s – ‘Go and have the day off’.”

The action is set in 1974. The UK is swimming in an economic swamp and the Labour government holds a frail majority of just four in the House. For anything to even begin to look like legislation, the Labour whips have to resort to the dirtiest tactics they can think of. The image of “the engine men” carrying MPs on their death beds through the ‘Aye’ door and headbutting colleagues in the bars to force them to toe the party line is no exaggeration.

In Anthony Seldon’s mammoth account of the party – New Labour, Old Labour: The Wilson and Callaghan Governments 1974-1979 – the author recounts a story where deputy chief whip Walter Harrison “grabbed hold of MP Eric Heffer by his lapels on the Commons terrace and threatened to throw him over the wall into the Thames if he ‘didn’t get into the chamber and effin’ vote'”.

Glenister is playing the role of Harrison and, alongside Daniels as the then chief whip Bob Mellish, I ask whether they find the old-school, brutal, good cop, bad cop form of politics appealing. Have they had enough of the rise of the professional political class, where MPs such as David Cameron, Nick Clegg, Ed Miliband and Ed Balls are perceived as having been groomed for the job?

“This play is a very interesting piece of social, political history,” says Glenister. “These guys had all come up through the war, they’d all been involved, whether it be the RAF or navy or army, these were hard men. Tough guys. Compared to today where they’re sort of fast-tracked through the system – a lot of what [today’s MPs have] seen now are just cloisters.”

That they’ve been secluded from the real world? “Yeah, think about it,” he continues. “There’s the cloisters of Eton, the cloisters of Oxbridge to the cloisters of parliament.

“But back then, even on both sides…” he pauses.

“There was a begrudging respect between them that they’d served their county,” interrupts Daniels.

“Indeed,” booms Glenister in an RP impression of Stephen Fry’s General Melchett from Blackadder Goes Forth, “And… they pulled together.”

The pair have assembled for the interview on the South Bank during a protracted day of script-cutting, where funny and unfunny lines from the play are being won and lost like policy ideas around the Cabinet office table. Downstairs, in what Daniels describes as “a windowless dungeon of a rehearsal room”, the words they’ve learned are being culled. It’s clearly frustrating and the strain of the long days is beginning to show. “It’s the hardest work of my life,” winces Glenister, before smiling and tucking back in to his giant “and deserved” plate of chilli and salad.

They’re both enjoying the build up to the play, joking, laughing and bouncing off each other, but at times, when they’re asked about any direct relationships to their characters’ politics, they dodge the questions like all good MPs. Both of them are ready to play up to the pomp of historical characters, assuming the accents of Ted Heath, Wilson himself or even Winston Churchill whenever they get the chance to sound off. But when we get too close to the ‘truth’, for a minute or two it looks like the world of spin is rubbing off on them.

“I’m not really basing my performance on anything or anybody,” says Glenister. “I’m just playing the piece. I’m playing Walter. I was told that Tony Blair sent Walter a letter saying that he was the only man that he feared in the Commons. Tony Blair feared Walter. I prefer to use those insights to work out how to play him.

“He’s also a great character. He’s a brutish Yorkshireman and he’s hard as old boots.”

And with Glenister’s history portraying hard man Gene Hunt, which drove the energy of Life On Mars and Ashes to Ashes on the BBC, perhaps it’s only fitting he should play the part. “Hmmm,” he says. “I can’t think why they came to me for the part. I must be the only southern actor who’s typecast as a fucking hard northerner.”

And Daniels? “This was my mum and dad’s politics, not mine,” he says in his cacophonous cockney accent. “Well, what I remember anyway. I couldn’t wait to get out of the house, but it’s sort of ingrained in my head. The three-day week, the lights going out, not being able to watch the telly. We even had to talk to each other for the first time in our lives.”

He’s quick to make a joke about it, but he also seems nostalgic for the “good old days of partisan politics”.

“This is all a different time for MPs,” he continues. “They didn’t all come up through university, back then they were belt and braces mainly that come up through unions and stuff like that, you know.”

But if they consider this to be a celebration of forgotten battles, fought by dockers and other union men on the floor of the Commons, they must be concerned contemporary audiences could miss the point.

“Coalitions, weak governments, pacts, and doing deals?” Daniels raises his voice and eyebrows. “Back then it was double dip, now it’s double it.”

I remind Daniels that, only recently, he was in Hyde Park with Blur singing Park Life to thousands of people during what must be the most patriotic 100 days in recent British history. Post-Olympiad, is now a good time to undermine British politics, and, by association, Britain? Is it going to work with audiences?

Despite being nervous about making his debut at the National in his first stage performance for more than a decade, Glenister is certain the play is going to get some laughs.

“Since they’ve put cameras in [the Commons], it has all been toned right down and it’s all, ‘Hear, hear!’. But before the cameras were there, some of the antics were insane. They used to throw stuff at each other across the chamber. Not just paper. Books. Now surely, come on, that’s funny? Right?”

And if it isn’t? They both say they’ll be able to laugh it off. “We’ll probably just about slog our way through this first,” jokes Daniels. “Yeah if we don’t throw the law books too hard at each other,” adds Glenister.

“And then next, if we don’t?” Daniels leans over, pats Glenister on the arm and pokes out his chin. “Erm, a bit of golf old boy?

“Yes, yes, why not old bean,” says Glenister smiling. “Then we’ll probably try our luck with This House Two – The Thatcher Years.”

*This House runs at the National Theatre’s Cottesloe, London, until December 1. Visit www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

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