I felt rather old watching Ink at the Almeida Theatre the other night. Not because I was around in 1969 when Rupert Murdoch bought an ailing broadsheet called the Sun and set about turning it into the most popular tabloid newspaper in Britain. But because the sound of typewriters clattering away at the very start of James Graham's scintillating new play suddenly swept me back to my earliest days as a journalist, when computers were extremely large things that sat in the basement and no one exactly knew how they worked.
Later that evening, I filed my review from an iPad, to my editor Daisy, who sent it from her phone on a bus to the WhatsOnStage website where you could all (if you wanted) read it before midnight. As I pressed send, I was overwhelmed by the sensation that in my own short working lifetime, an entire world has changed.
When I started as a young reporter at the Coventry Evening Telegraph, hot metal was still being used for some pages – and the print unions still ruled the roost. Just as it shows in the play, journalists weren't allowed to carry certain bits of paper from one place to another and the etiquette of actually gaining access to the print room was a minefield for the unwary. But once there, amidst the big sit up and beg composing machines that turned molten metal into the words you had just written, it was hard not to be overwhelmed by the power and majesty of a process that hadn't changed much since Caxton and was still very much a part of the lore of being a journalist.
Ink shows how Murdoch introduced a different set of values into British journalism, and felt like living history to me
Somehow the seriousness of the printing – all the effort it took - defined how strongly I felt about my new profession; inspired by All the President's Men, the book that explained how committed journalists broke the Watergate scandal, and TV's Lou Grant, where wrongs where righted every week thanks to crusading and impassioned reporters, I was going to tell the truth and change the world.
Ink, which shows how Murdoch introduced a different set of values into British journalism in his pursuit of his vision of freedom and a more streamlined industry, brought all those feelings back. It felt like living history to me.
In fact, if you poke around the same books as Graham has used as his sources, the play is very much less than documentary. Timescales are ruthlessly compressed in the interests of dramatic excitement. For example, it took the Sun almost a decade not a year to overtake the Mirror and the fatal outcome of the kidnap of the vice chairman's wife which dominates the second half of the play owes as much to police incompetence as journalistic callousness.
Shakespeare's histories weren't much more accurate, however and the merit of Ink - as of Graham's early This House, which is just about to go on national tour – is that it uses a clever and open examination of the past in order to illuminate where we have got to today. This House, for example, conjures the period of Labour's minority government between 1974-9; it is my primer when I think now of how the Tory whips will have to operate as they attempt to cling to power.
It is the imaginative leaps made by writers that help us to fill in the gaps
Graham's modern history plays do more than communicate facts. In her Reith Lectures on Radio 4 at the moment, Hilary Mantel is examining with characteristic precision the relationship between the past and the present, and between history and its interpretation. "History is not the past," she said. "It is the method we have evolved of organising our ignorance of the past. It is a record of what's left on the record."
She argues that it is the imaginative leaps made by writers that help us to fill in the gaps. By listening to the clatter of the past, by staring hard at its lineaments, writers help us to understand where we have come from. But because their interests are shaped by the times they live in and their own personalities, they conjure a picture that adds a new and important layer of meaning. As she reminds us even when we remember "as psychologists so often tell us, we don't reproduce the past, we create it."
In the case of James Graham, this act of interpretation enables us to see the present more clearly. By highlighting past decisions, moments that seemed at the time to slip by, he reveals with blinding clarity both what we have lost - and also, because he is an essentially fair writer, what we have perhaps gained. In times to come, historians will no doubt study his work; they won't necessarily get the entire picture, but they will get an infinitely illuminating one.
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