How growing up in Kirkby influenced Brexit playwright James

Kirkby playwright James Graham.
Kirkby playwright James Graham.

Kirkby playwright James Graham has been propelled into the international limelight with his much lauded drama about Brexit.

Tonight the tables are turned as he himself becomes the subject of a TV documentary.

James goes back to his roots in a BBC documentary imagine... James Graham: In The Room Where It Happens, aired tonight (Monday January 21) 10.45pm-12.00am.

Alan Yentob follows the celebrated young playwright whose award-winning works take audiences to the very heart of the defining political events that shape all our lives.

James took time out from his busy schedule to talk to your Chad about his career and how growing up as a working class lad in Kirkby has shaped his work and made him one of the most accomplished dramatist of his generation.

Brexit - The Uncivil War caused a commotion when it dramatised the controversial methods used to promote the Leave campaign before the 2016 referendum.

On the success of his latest drama, he said: “It’s been like nothing I’ve experienced in my life to be honest.

“The level of scrutiny both in the build up to the broadcasts from newspapers , politicians and social media and then the conversations that came out of it after we screened it.

“It’s been huge - I feel very privileged to be contributing something at this difficult time for everybody whether remain or Brexit this is a tricky time for the country.

“I’ve always believed ever since I started doing school plays at Ashfield School that drama and storytelling and film and plays could play a helpful part in trying to make sense of stuff like this.

Brexit the Uncivil War has become the definitive take on the Brexit referendum, focusing on a narrow aspect of the leave campaign.

People gave the drama a lot of credence because he went to the ‘horses mouth’- spending many hours shadowing the central character of the drama, Dominic Cummings the main strategist behind Vote Leave.

James said: “I read a few books which had come out from people who were there from both sides of the campaign.

“I wanted to understand the side that won, who ran vote leave, to try and understand them, give them a chance to put their side if the case forward, whilst also provoke and challenge them and ask them difficult questions.”

What does he think to the current state of play regarding Brexit?

“it’s mad isn’t it. No-one can predict what’s going to happen next but Everybody should be angry and disappointed - whether you voted to leave or remain. The fact is we shouldn’t be here.

We are 70-odd days left before the deadline and we are still talking about what we want our future relationship to be and what the future of our country should be and it couldn’t be more down to the wire so something has gone wrong.

“I also get worried - and this is what I wanted the TV drama to tap into as well - about normal citizens and how we are treating each other , how divided we all are and how poisonous and unreasonable the conversation becomes for different people on different sides.

“Actually I believe we are more united than we are divided but we don’t treat each other particularly well. For me we are in a really dark time.

“I don’t know how we are going to get out of it but I believe the shows that great actors like Benedict Cumberbatch can contribute to the understanding of it and people can listen a bit to different sides.”

How have the people protrayed in the drama reacted?

“They were not creatively involved in the show and had to wait to see it like everyone else did.

“The reaction from leave and remain has been good so far.

“We’ve not yet heard from Dominic Cummings himself .

“He’s a combative character I think he’s been away. I think they understand it’s been quite a tough balance to get it right.

“Craig Oliver who ran the remain campaign played by Rory Kinear was grateful and impressed by the actor’s performance .

“Politicians seem to like it but not too much I hope because we have to hold them to account of course.

The drama seems to have become the definitive one so far - will there be a follow up?”

“There’s enough material isn’t there - it’s the story that never ends.

“Possibly, I think it’s important that other people get a chance to have a stab at it as well, that was my voice - different people will have different interpretations to what happened.

“Whether it’s on stage or screen I’m going to try and continue to use what’s happening in real life to inspire plays and films because I just find it exciting.

“we are living through the most extraordinary political moment since the end of the Second World War.

Toninght he will be the subject of a BBC documentary part of the BBC One series Imagine by Alan Yentob , which takes a look at his past work, interviews him and some of the actors and directors he has worked with like Martin Freeman from Sherlock and Benedict Cumberbatch.

“I think I’m more scared about that than the drama because it’s me on screen.

“It’s that really weird thing that documentaries do sometimes I go back home. wander around Kirkby and Annesley .

“I went back to my mum’s house I look at some of my past and try and work out how the way you grow up might influence what you are writing about.”

All his family still live in the Kirkby area and James says goes back quite often.

He revealed he has just become an associate artist at the Nottingham Playhouse.

“I have a formal relationship with them to become formally involved in future work and working on local arts programmes and how we can get local people into that theatre who wouldn’t normally go which is great. I love that I want people I grew up with to go to the theatre and see work which can inspire them.”

Has his background coming from the area influenced the way he writes and look at things?

“Without a doubt - probably in ways I’m not always conscious of .

“The first play I ever wrote in 2002 which me and another Ashfield school lad took up to the Edinburgh Festival was about the Miners’ strike and based on interviews and stories that we did from people around where we were and I just from then on really everything I’ve done has been politically or historically based.

“Because we come from a very unique part of the world I think in north Nottinghamshire.

“It has not always been clear what we are politically.

“During the miners’ strike there were differences between the Yorkshire miners who majority stayed out and the Nottinghamshire miners who majority broke away and wen back to work.

“I’ve always embraced the limbo a bit that Mansfield and Ashfield sits in.

“We are never quite sure go left or right, Labour or Tory.

“I’m grateful for that because I think it helped me when I was writing for the Brexit film not be too much on one side or the other and to try and give it that balance and not be ideologically inflexible, when a lot of other writers can be.

“I like being curious about different points of view.”

He has come down on the side of the Labour party in the recent past, helping Ashfield MP Gloria De Piero on the hustings with her last election campaign.

“I think my relationship with the Labour party is sometimes inconsistent and going through change at the moment .

“The last play I did in the West End the Labour of Love was set in Kirkby in the office that Gloria sits but with a fictional MP to try and make sense of it the changes in the party and tension between the different factions.

“The reason I supported Gloria is that I think she is such an impressive MP. She’s always given me loads of support as a Kirkby writer trying to make it in film and TV

“She has just been a very visible MP and making sure she’s listening to peoples’ concerns.

“It is a difficult line she has to tread as someone who campaigned for Remain but now supports the vote as it went in her constituency to leave .

“It’s not really easy for anybody but I really admire her for her integrity.”

“I sometimes think we expect too much of MPS It’s an impossible line to tread . At 52-48 with the outcome of that vote is about as close as you can get. How do you please everybody? - it’s tough.”

The Brexit drama has propelled him into the limelight.

“Because it’s on TV and because of the nature of it and because you have got a famous actor in it and it’s Brexit it gets so much attention which I had sort of been expecting just not quite the level it got to .”

His plans for the future?

“The Brexit film is going out in America at the weekend and we’ll see how it goes over there.

“I’m taking one of my plays Ink from the West End to Broadway in the Spring. I’ll keep writing other stuff and spend a lot of time at the Nottingham Playhouse building relationships between the theatre and the community.

“I’m writing a couple of films this year I hope will start filming next year for cinema release.

He has been back to his old school.

“That’s one of the moments of the documentary , I go back to Ashfield School to hand out certificates to pupils who have done really well for extra curricular activities like plays and music and sports .

That was brilliant - I loved being back in my school Hall where I did all my exams and my early performances.

“Very surreal of course but I think thankfully in other areas of the country the arts are being drastically cut in schools and the uptake of arts subjects is really falling which I think is really worrying for schools especially in communities like ours where you need working class kids to be confident enough to become the artists and the writers of the future .

It was really good to see the headmaster of Ashfield School being committed to school plays and drama being an essential part of school life and will keep it that way.”