Ink at The Almeida Theatre,
July 22nd, 2017
” Law to the Left, God to the Right”
I loved James Graham’s last work, “This House”, which explored the hung parliament of the 70s, but loved “Ink” even more. The drama traces the transition from The Sun as a failing broadsheet (Never knew that! before!) to a populist-driven tabloid.
The stage is set with positioned “Five ‘W’s”: “Who,” “What,” “When,” “Where,” and “Why.” Referring back to the Five “W”s helps journalists address the fundamental questions that every story should be able to answer. Here, their answers in the present instance: Who? Publisher Rupert Murdoch and Editor Larry Lamb. What? Murdoch’s takeover, and Lamb’s reinvention, of The Sun newspaper. When? 1969-70. Where? Fleet Street, London, when it was still so deeply identified with the press that in this play it’s simply referred to by locals as “the street”. Why? Ah, now, that’s the interesting one.
From the outset, The Murdoch Sun is a byword for “fun” and, above all, sales and never claims to be investigative. Murdoch’s ambition was for it to overtake the Daily Mirror within a year of his buying The Sun from IPC, owner of the Mirror. The first half of the play, at least, shows liberalism as a contrast to the increasingly stuffy preachiness of the Mirror under Hugh Cudlipp (David Schofield). Cudlipp is a believer in the duty of newspapers to guide and educate the working class. S, its two warring philosophies – holding up a mirror to who we are versus showing who we might be and, when judged solely by the market, the former wins out. It is with this mind set that Murdoch is able to persuade Lamb to take on his former employers, whispering, tactically that he never got to edit the Mirror because he wasn’t part of the old boys’ network.
Bertie Carvel is admirable as the Mestipholean Murdoch, with his pitch-perfect Australian brogue, and reptilian-Slitherin manners which embodied Dickens’s Uriah Heep. But this is Lamb’s story as further expanded in the second half of the play. Richard Coyle shows Lamb’s early idealism and its erosion by ever more insensitive ambition: his decision to eat his own, so to speak, by exhaustively news covering the kidnapping of the wife of Murdoch’s deputy chairman, Muriel Mackay, who was subsequently murdered, and then to introduce topless Page 3 models as an equally naked sales gimmick. The seeds of The Sun’s pathology are being sown. Pearl Chanda gets her best scene at this point as model Stephanie Rahn (née Khan), although there is a confusion of the concept of sales and readership. And so Page 3 is unveiled as the final, apocalyptic weapon in the circulation print war, and it horrifies even Rupert the ‘Dirty Digger’… until the numbers roll in.
The play also benefits from a range of fantastic supporting performances, not least Sophie Stanton’s Mrs Hopkirk*, the perceptive, self-assured editor of the ‘Women’s Pages’; Tim Steed’s fastiduous Bernard Shrimsley, who can “turn ugly into an art form”; Justin Salinger, as former crime writer Brian McConnell; and Jack Holden as the photographer graduating from the mortuary (in a great gag, he notes he struggled when covering football matches and kept missing goals – corpses stay still).
It is both a personal and a public story. On one level, Graham’s play is a compelling character study of two men: two outsiders rejected by the Establishment, intent on thrusting two fingers up, and prepared to go to unprecedented lengths to do so. On another, it is a thrilling historical reminder of a turning point in British society, of a moment when market forces began determining the content of papers and Fleet Street fought its way into the gutter. We are given the classic struggle of old versus new, of flawed but principled tradition versus cut-throat and callous innovation, of crosswords and gardening tips versus free giveaways and topless teenagers. The Sun had too little regard for decorum or decency in securing headline attention. It is seemingly, the death of something venerable and honest at the hands of something new, nasty and nefarious. Pause here to note the how the latter is visually prophetic in the programme cover, which pays a nod to David Bailey’s portrait of the Kray Twins:
The play is by no means preachy but by the end of the play, it’s safe to discard one of the “W”s: “Who.” As in, “Who is responsible?” The answer to this question is the same in every story: it’s all of us. On the other, Ink is a salutary reminder of how it broke the fourth wall between the newspaper establishment and the reading public No one’s hands are clean. “There’ll be a lot of blood,” Richard Coyle’s manfully serious Lamb advises. “I hope so,” his maverick boss replies.
At the end of it all, the question is not “Why?” but “What next?”
Rupert Goold, the Almeida’s artistic director, who energetically directs the production, describes “Ink” as a comedy that is “very anarchic and very nostalgic about the lost traditions of Fleet Street” and it is. There are some wonderful throwaway lines: Earlier in the play, on hearing The Sun has only a limited number of Es for a headline-sized font, Lamb says ‘let’s hope nothing happens to the f****** Bee Gees’.
Front pages are splashed against the back wall by Jon Driscoll’s projections; Lynne Page choreographs rhythmic, ritualistic routines which detail the dementedly complicated process that was the hot metal press (an outdated, labour-intensive system kept in play by the powerful unions that Murdoch despised). Adam Cork scores it all with a stomping accompaniment.
* Joyce Hopkirk, who was Lamb’s resident oracle on all things to do with women, was later responsible for piloting the UK launch of Cosmopolitan.