James Graham on storytelling, politics and fake news

As playwright James Graham turns his attention to “the most British crime of all time” in his upcoming TV adaption of the infamous Who Wants to be a Millionaire? coughing scandal, CR sits down with him to discuss the challenges of storytelling in the post-truth era

As a political playwright, James Graham is in the business of dealing with truth and lies. Over the past decade, his work has given us a glimpse into the psyches of some of the most fascinating and controversial figures of our times – from a young Rupert Murdoch during the first year of The Sun in hit play Ink, to the behind-the-scenes orchestrator of the Vote Leave campaign, Dominic Cummings, in Channel 4 drama Brexit: The Uncivil War.

Given how much of Graham’s writing has a political bent to it, it’s surprising that politics didn’t play more of a role in his upbringing. “I grew up in a mining town [in Nottinghamshire], so politics always felt quite raw and real, with very human consequences. But we weren’t a socialist family; we didn’t talk about politics at the dinner table,” he says. Nor were they theatre-going types ­either; instead, his interest in politics was born from his love of history at school, while soaps such as Coronation Street and Emmerdale were his early sources of drama.

Benedict Cumberbatch as political strategist Dominic Cummings, in front of the Vote Leave campaign bus, in the Channel 4 drama, Brexit: The Uncivil War; James Graham’s play, Quiz, reimagines the infamous Who Wants to be a Millionaire? scandal. Photo © Johan Persson

Later on, Graham’s drama teacher “forcefully suggested” he get on the stage himself; he ended up ­enjoying performing so much he decided to study drama at Hull ­University. “I realised quickly that some ­people were very good. I definitely wasn’t very good at it, I was OK,” he says. “But I think also my temperament suited the mix of public-private qualities to what essentially is writing. You go from moments of intense solitude to huge public-facing attention when you are rehearsing a play, having to lead actors, having to sell your work and make sure it gets an audience, so I kind of like that balance.”

JUNIOR GRAPHIC DESIGNER

Milton Keynes