Why neither playwrights nor politics can resist Boris

Written by Caroline Frost on 30 April 2019 in Culture

Why playwright Jonathan Maitland couldn’t resist the temptation of Boris and “the dinner party that changed history”

Before the curtain had even gone up, there was fun to be had going to see Jonathan Maitland’s first political play ‘Dead Sheep’ back in 2015.

The empty stage was dominated by a huge painting of Margaret Thatcher’s late 1980s Cabinet, and I, and everyone around me, happily filled the time trying to name all the distinctive faces from nearly three decades before.

The point was, back then it was possible to do so, in a way that seems unthinkable now - despite this era’s wall-to-wall coverage of Parliament and the familiar voices booming out from College Green.

As Maitland puts it, we have far fewer “drunk shaggers” lining the front benches. He tells me, “They’re kind of blander now, but the loss of memorable characters is to the gain of diversity.

That picture of Thatcher’s Cabinet had one woman, no ethnic minorities. Thank god, things have changed.”

One man, of course, remains the exception to any bland, increasingly on-message rule, which is why Maitland has turned his attentions to our former London Mayor and Foreign Secretary for his third stage outing, The Last Temptation of Boris.

“I was on the hunt for fresh material, and the moment I heard about that dinner party, I thought, that’s a play. There’s a long tradition of dinner party plays, and I thought someone would beat me to it, but they haven’t.”

‘That dinner party’ is of course, an evening in February 2016, when Boris Johnson and his then-wife Marina Wheeler entertained the Goves, plus Evening Standard proprietor Evgeny Lebedev.

It has become the generally accepted truth that it was this deceptively relaxed social occasion on which Johnson was persuaded to join the Leave campaign and it thus became, in Maitland’s view, “the dinner party that changed history”.

“If he hadn’t been persuaded to join Leave that night, we wouldn’t now be headed for the Exit door,” he emphasises.

Even without that fateful night, the journalist turned playwright describes Boris as a natural characterful prism through which to view our current political era.

“He just stands out. He’s apparently unspun, and has extraordinary voter recognition. But he’s also arguably the most divisive politician of the last 100 years. Love him or loathe him, there’s something about him you can’t ignore. Flawed, funny, charismatic and incredibly divisive – he’s Marmite.

“He’s a poster boy for Brexit and I’ve heard what he’s done, along with Michael Gove, described as ‘evil’. Now you can argue that politicians are misguided all day long, but evil? That’s worth a play.

Boris is an easy way in. It’s almost a bit too obvious, but ticket sales have been really good, so sometimes I guess it’s okay to go with obvious.”

"It's really about power"

Despite the treasure trove of Johnson’s gifts and gaffes, Maitland reveals his play, even with Boris in the title and central role played by Will Barton, is propelled by his interest in more than just the man. As well as the real-life dinner guests, audiences will meet the spirits of prime ministers past, before fast forwarding to post-Brexit Britain 2029.

“It’s really about power, wanting power, what power does to us,” Maitland explains. “Brexit is a great framing device about what we want from our leaders, and what is to become of us.”

The writer reveals he encountered a lot of hostility in the theatre world to his play, from those who didn’t want to contribute to any more myth-building of Boris.

“My feeling was, if you took that attitude, you would never do a play with a baddie in it, or anyone you didn’t approve of,” he says now. “He’s out there already. I don’t think a play is going to make any difference at all.

“It doesn’t add to the myth but chips away at it, and takes him seriously. I’ve seen umpteen screen versions of him spouting Latin, and I think he deserves to be taken more seriously than that.” He pauses. “After all, he could be our next Prime Minister.”

Was Johnson really responsible for the result of the Referundum, though?

“You ask anybody, experts in both campaigns, and nobody will argue,” says Maitland. “If Boris had joined Remain, we’d probably be permanently in the EU. Cameron let the genie out of the bottle, but in terms of the actual campaign, it was Boris.

“There’s one thing he’s good at, it may be the only thing, and that’s winning campaigns. Remainers blame him more than anyone else for making the difference.”

Andrew Gimson, long-time observer and biographer of Boris Johnson, is more circumspect about both Boris’s campaigning efficacy, and also his contribution to the Referendum result.

“He’s not an invincible electioneer,” he reminds me. “He tried and failed to become rector of Edinburgh University; the students tried and managed to stop him. But he won twice in London, which is in many ways a Labour city, and most people would say he had a decisive influence on the Referendum.

“He did help to win it, but he bounced off other people. Barack Obama indirectly helped too (in 2016 when, pressed by David Cameron, the US president made his remarks about us going to the back of the queue for trade talks if we left the EU).

“Boris was rude to Obama and tasteless in reply (referring to Obama’s ‘part-Kenyan heritage’) but he raised the basic point, this chap from America had no business coming to tell us how to vote, and that was basically the public feeling that he articulated.

Boris had the audacity to attack Obama in a conspicuous way that was full of inaccuracies that annoyed Remainers, but it was damned effective.”

"He changes the atmosphere"

Gimson, one of the few people around who can match Maitland for tireless Boris-watching since the first version of his biography was published in 2006, agrees there’s no more eye-catching figure in British politics today.

“He has some gifts which no other contender for the Tory leadership possesses. If he goes into a shopping centre on a very quiet day where nothing is happening, he changes the atmosphere and that’s a very unusual thing to be able to do.

“He has an unusual combination of fondness for both Latin and Greek classics, but also action movies and fast cars. He likes lots of aspects of high and low culture, and there are few people with genuine enthusiasm for both.

It means he can make connections on different levels and, while it’s nothing like the whole of politics, the ability to connect with different people, in a democracy, either in person or through the TV screen is a very surprising thing, and he does it with a mixture of seriousness and humour.”

Maitland, who claims passing social acquaintance of his subject (in a recent interview he claimed no offence at Johnson trying to chat up his wife), says peeling back the layers of this puckish figure is key to the success of his play.

“There’s the Boris the public knows, well in fact there are two of them. There’s the slightly buffoonish Have I Got News For You character, then there’s the trying-to-be-serious Foreign Secretary.

And now we have a potential Prime Minister, the apparent ERG wrecking ball.

“Crucially for a drama, I’ve asked myself, what’s he like at home? There are plenty of scenes with that other Boris too.”

Maitland has spent time with many of Johnson’s closest friends and reports, “One of his traits is a lack of self-awareness. I don’t know if he’ll even know about this play, although I imagine he’ll secretly enjoy it.”

The writer is at pains to point out this is no hagiography for a man he professes is “absolutely loathed by many, particularly in the theatre world, bizarrely”.

He adds, “There’s a competence issue with him. We know about only some of the gaffes - the lady in Iraq, losing letters, some basic honesty challenges. It may be too strong to call him a liar, but he forgets. Plus, he uses questionable language that people think smacks of racism.

“So then we have to ask ourselves, at a time when we’ve never been so divided since the War of the Roses, do we want to elect the most divisive politician of our time? But if we do, it’ll be very interesting. The writer in me almost wants it to happen.”

The pragmatist in Andrew Gimson is equally untroubled by the thought of Johnson’s high-wire antics propelling him all the way to Number Ten.

“You have to be resilient, you can’t be out of reach of a knock- down blow,” he says. “There is a kind of politician who rises without trace, and the danger of that is that, when eventually you do find yourself committing a gaffe, you haven’t had much practice dealing with it.

“It must be like training for everything. If you only know how to sail a boat in calm weather, you won’t be ready for the storms when they arise.”

"Anything can happen"

For both playwright and journalist, the unsinkability of Johnson reveals as much about the British electorate as about the provocateur himself. Maitland says, “Lots of people won’t say it out

loud, but when he says things about women and doesn’t apologise, they say, ‘Too bloody right.’

“There are so many people who won’t say it out loud, but they are sick of people apologising, and they love public figures who don’t.”

Gimson agrees, “The people of Merry England rather like him, a man who can make a joke during a very serious time, particularly during a stiff dinner party in Islington,” but with a caveat for the future.

“It’s quite true that as PM you can’t tell too many jokes. Harold McMillan was very good at jokes but he didn’t tell many, because otherwise he risked becoming a comic turn.

“When Boris was running for Mayor in 2008, he stopped telling jokes for several months, he became very boring, because he needed to reassure people he wasn’t just a clown.

“My advice to him would be to be extremely dull for the next year or two, not that he’d listen to me.”

If Johnson does listen to all the advice around him, how likely is it to be him, straight of face, shorn of locks, to replace Theresa May at the Tory helm?

“He’s alarming so many people, the middle ground is opening up extraordinarily,” says Maitland, who reveals his play has undergone several revisions since its first reading last summer.

“That’s why so many people want to stop him. But if he gets through to the last two, he’ll probably win. The Tory membership loves him.

“Tony Blair called him the mirror image of Corbyn, and a lot of people find both unpalatable. The next election could be between these two, which is extraordinary.”

Andrew Gimson looks to history to keep his powder dry. He points out, “Reputations have been made during the Brexit crisis on both sides of the House. There are a lot of quite good people around who we’ll be hearing more about.

“The favourite has not won the Tory leadership since Eden in 1955, and there’ll probably a John Major figure coming through, one with fewer enemies, who we don’t know much about yet, but who’ll become the stop-Boris candidate. But anything can happen.”

About the author

Caroline Frost is a freelance entertainment journalist. She is TV chair of the Broadcasting Press Guild and former entertainment editor for HuffPost UK.

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