labour whips

War Cabinet: James Gaddas, Natalie Grady, Martin Marquez, Tony Turner and David Hounslow in the chief chip’s office. Pictures: Johan Persson

This House

Birmingham Rep


If you ever thought politics was a noble calling, a desire to serve your fellow man, to make society and the world a better place . . . think again, or enter the House – in this case the chamber at Birmingham Rep.

Politics is more a game for grown up children, a blood sport without blood, and This House covers the tumultuous period from 1974 to when the wounded Callaghan Labour government fell in 1979 and the new, unexpected leader of the Tory party, Margaret Thatcher, who had deposed Ted Heath, won the subsequent election.

Writer James Graham freely admits his play is not a historical record but it is based on true events and, speaking as one who was a political correspondent around that time, the conversations may be fictional, but the sentiments are pretty well on the money.

Heath had called a snap election in 1974 and lost, with Harold Wilson’s Labour party forming a minority government. Hung parliaments have the life expectancy of Mayflies so Wilson called an election later that year, emerging with a majority of just three

Two years later Wilson, just 60, retired, leaving Jim Callaghan to take up the reins, with the pair, and their whips, managing the quite remarkable feat of keeping the party in power for four and a half years, only falling to a vote of confidence by one vote after a prolonged Tory war of attrition.

The play centres on some of the characters and events of the time, such as Walsall North MP John Stonehouse who went missing off a beach in Florida only to pop up a month later when he was arrested in Australia on Christmas Eve, 1974.

It was a moment I remember well. A flash on the wires came from Associated Press shortly before 2am. I was late man on The Birmingham Post in the days when it was a daily newspaper and was soon speaking to the arresting officer in Melbourne and we splashed with the story in the 6am edition.

The premature reports of his death and then his resuscitation and subsequent retirement – with a jail sentence thrown in for good measure – had the effect of cutting Labour’s slender majority by one leaving any sign of dissent by any backbencher, or worse, an inconvenient demise, a nightmare for the whips.

And that is where the play centres the action, upon the political ringmasters who keep the circus moving along, throwing in the clowns if a distraction is needed.

victory dance

Victory Dance: The Tory whips, Giles Cooper, William Chubb, Nicholas Lumley and Matthew Pidgeon, celebrate defeating labour

In the blue corner we have William Chubb as the urbane, devious, condescending Tory Chief Whip Humphrey Atkins with his deputy the more approachable but equally devious Jack Weatherill played in suave fashion by Matthew Pidgeon while bringing up the rear is Giles Cooper as the young, but learning fast, Fred Silvester.

In the red corner is Wilson’s cockney enforcer Bob Mellish played with East End charm by Martin Marquez, with his deputy the blunt speaking Yorkshireman Walter Harrison who has a more physical air to his methods of  persuasion, bluffly acknowledged by James Gaddas.

Michael Cocks is the future chief whip, under Callaghan, played by Tony Turner, with a different, quieter style, helped by the loyal Joe Harper, played by David Hounslow, and the whip’s office’s token woman – a position bluntly explained to her by plain speaking Bob – Ann Taylor, played by Natalie Grady, a token women who is to become a rising star.

Much of the play centres on the sparring between the two offices, arranging the order and timing of business, compromises and pairing – the simple age-old system of a party compensating for opposition members who are sick or away on Government business by withdrawing an equal number of their own party from voting.

Even more eccentric is nodding through where if a member is in the grounds, even in an ambulance in some cases, but is too ill to reach the voting lobby, the tellers can “nod him through” counting his vote for his party.

And amid all the gentlemen’s agreements is the less gentlemanly plotting and scheming to defeat any moves by the other party, or at the very least to make life as awkward or embarrassing as possible.

And around the Machiavellian whips we have the members themselves with the left-wing loose cannon Audrey Wise, MP for Coventry South West, comrades and sisters, arrested on the picket lines and played by Louise Ludgate, and Tarzan, Henley’s Michael Heseltine, played by Harry Kershaw, swinging the mace on the floor of the house.


Harry Kershaw as Michael Heseltine swings the mace on the floor of the house


There is wheeler dealing with the “odds and sods”, the minor parties, leading to the Lib-Lab pact that was to run for 16 months after Labour wooed a rather smarmy member for Roxburgh, Selkirk & Peebles, Liberal leader David Steel, played by Geoffrey Lumb.

Newham MP and Labour minister Reg Prentice crossed the house to join the Tories after a left-wing takeover of his constituency deselected him – perhaps a glimpse into the future there - reducing numbers even more. Then there is Doc, the ailing member for Batley & Morley, Alfred Broughton, played by Ian Barritt, wheeled in ill and with an oxygen tank to bolster numbers when the Tories pulled the plug on co-operation and pairing. He, like the Labour Government, was merely hanging on, delaying the inevitable.

As in Parliament no one is who they are, merely who they represent, named by constituency, called out by the bewigged speaker, Selwyn Lloyd (Miles Richardson) in Act I, George Thomas (Orlando Wells) in Act II, on a simple set from Rae Smith with the two whip’s offices centre stage, flanked by Common's green benches filled with a scattering of audience backbenchers tucked away at the sides while a speaker’s chair appears through the rear wall for scenes in the house.

Dominating the rear is the huge clockface of Big Ben with a three piece band under Tom Green adding incidental music.

Bad hairstyles and big ties and suits abound, this is the 70s after all, while the Labour whips office perhaps shows its roots with language of a distinctly industrial nature with Bob apologising each time to Ann for “all the ******* swearing.”

That Labour lasted as long as it did was remarkable although, under assault at every turn, it struggled to pass legislation leading Walter Harrison, as the Tories won the 79 election, to question whether there was a better way than adversarial two party politics, a time for consensus politics perhaps. Forty year's on it is a question still being asked.

It is a tale of a government dodging and ducking, and doing backroom deals with the odds and sods to scrape together enough votes to survive. It could never happen again . . . could it?

Having lived through it and reported on some of it, this was a snapshot of the time, a trip down memory lane, while for a younger generation it will be a revelation that politics is not as dusty and boring as it might seem watching Parliament on TV.

Since opening at The National Theatre in 2012 the world has changed and what was a biting fictional romp set around fact has drifted much closer to reality in a gloriously funny, witty and fast paced production stripping politics down to machine polished tooth and expensively manicured claw. To 21-04-18

Roger Clarke


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