Readers with any experience of James Graham will know that he takes an almost heroic view of parliamentary democracy and the people who uphold it. This House was his first major hit and remains a powerful story of fundamentally noble people navigating an often ignoble system.
Britain is split down the middle in 1974. Its institutions are crumbling, neither party has a majority, and a cacophony of minor party voices hold the whip hand over the Wilson Government. Into this picture step the party whips, their dark arts keeping the show on the road behind the scenes, manipulating, bribing and threatening their MPs into toeing the party line in the name of loyalty, stability and keeping the other lot out.
Cheaper productions would pitch this as a tale of villains on both sides, using underhand means to gain slight advantage. But This House forces the viewer to consider the moral quandaries involved. Nowhere is this more affecting than in the true story of Alfred ‘Doc’ Broughton, whose declining health threads through the narrative and forces Chief Whip Michael Cocks (Tony Turner) and Opposition whip Jack Weatherill (Matthew Pidgeon) to decide how far their loyalties can take them in forcing him to attend votes.
Where Graham’s subsequent play, Labour of Love, portrayed an MP pulled along by the tidal forces acting on the Labour Party over a quarter of a century, This House focuses close-up on the pivotal conversations and relationships which drove the course of the country during a period of serious strife. Despite some problems with the casting of some characters (particularly David Steel) the key players are drawn well and the lack of appearances from any of the four Prime Ministers helps expose the claustrophobic pressure in the engine room of democracy.
Despite Graham’s evident Labour leanings, neither side comes off as black or white, and the Tory whips eventually realise their actions to frustrate and wear out the Government have gone too far when Minister of State for Employment Brian O’Malley drops dead at the despatch box (a real tragedy recorded by his counterpart Ken Clarke).
Where other writers might have produced a dry political drama, This House is shot through with real emotion, and Doc’s fierce loyalty unto death is the subject of the play’s most moving scene.
The message of This House is that Parliament may house centuries of traditions, but it relies on people to keep them alive. And people, like Parliaments, are constantly divided.
Image credit: Johan Persson