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September 19, 2006

Time has proven Pravda's prophecies wrong - so, Richard D. North asks, why is Chichester reviving the play?: Pravda - Howard Brenton and David Hare

Posted by Richard D. North

Howard Brenton and David Hare's Pravda (1985)
directed by Jonathan Church
Chichester Festival Theatre, Chichester
8th - 23rd September 2006

Birmingham Repertory Theatre
29th September - 14th October 2006

Here we all are, twenty years later, and the heavens haven't fallen in. The two Times, the two Telegraphs, the two Mails, the two Mirrors, the two Expresses, The Guardian, The Observer and the new kids on the block, the two Independents, are all there, twenty years after the 1985 premier of Pravda, and its almost immediate revival in 1986. And the Sun, unreconstructed, remains a lark which adds to the gaiety of the nation. Maybe the printed daily and weekly press is a bit trashier than it used to be. There's more gossip, more windy and juvenile opinion and less coverage of Parliament and maybe a bit less of foreigners, too. But the liberal anxieties of twenty years ago seem even more misplaced now than they seemed at the time. Good.

So why revive Pravda, and at Chichester too? One rather odd reason is that the middle-aged theatre audience is likely to be receptive, and was, the other night, in its undemonstrative way. All the old lefties would have enjoyed having their prejudices massaged, and many old Tories have matured into fans of a certain sort of soft-leftiness. If you seek proof, consider the way Tony Benn now wows the blue-rinses, who like his oh dear, oh dear, how flashy and vulgar and un-English everything now is. As they pause between the cheap flights to holiday homes all over southern Europe, they are inclined to mourn John Ball and John Bull pretty similarly.

Another, very marginal, reason is that the co-writers, Howard Brenton and David Hare are - were - local boys (Chichester High School and Lancing College, respectively).

Beyond these defences, the play has to fend for itself, and can't. Nicely staged as it is at Chichester, and with good strong ensemble playing, it has only one big character - Lambert Le Roux - and it's a bit of a difficulty that he poses the old Cruella DeVille problem. Roger Allam inhabits him with proper power: he's the baddest and the best thing in the piece. It's great, by the way, to see John Woodvine: vigorous and familiar after all these years.

The closest obvious piece of mimicry is Bruce Alexander's Elliot Fruit-Norton, or William Rees-Mogg to you and me. "Mystic Mogg", as Francis Wheen re-christened him, is the pivot of the play. He's the old-guard, and something newer is required. In this and little else Pravda seems true to the world it is reporting. Mogg was exactly the kind of class act - always pompous, usually thoughtful and often wrong - whose decline in journalism we can both miss and get over.

Some other things ring true. Benedict Nightingale in his Times review (15th September, 2006) reminded us of Bernard Levin's strictures of twenty years before: the great, irreplaceable, windbag said the play:

is an illiterate strip cartoon, cruder by far than the worse excesses of any newspaper….
That's not quite right: the cussing of a Charles Wilson or a Kelvin MacKenzie were indeed fabulously colourful and are decently captured - perhaps even directly copied - by Pravda. There is even something true about the way a government-bashing scoop gets handled by the Daily Usurper, which delights in publishing a leak and then hands over its source.

Pity, from the Brenton-Hare standpoint, that it was the real life Guardian which suffered this humiliation, though it's true that it only got the chance because the leaker, Sarah Tisdall, assumed The Times and the Telegraph would have been too right-wing to use her material. In Pravda, The Victory's right-wingers positively turn down the story. And there again one wonders about the accuracy of our two: time and again, papers have shown that a story's always a story, never mind the political consequences.

But these are small issues compared with the play's great big failures. There is one brief moment when the most important single feature of the newspaper world of twenty and thirty years ago is mentioned. A dinner-jacketed trade unionist pauses in the newsroom on his way to eat with the management and royalty. He's popped in to say that he's going to stop the paper later. People may now have forgotten, but the print unions every year sucked tens of millions of pounds of profitability out of the British press, and did so when the old managements were mostly pretty willing to invest in their titles if possible. So when a new generation of hard-nosed and ambitious eccentrics from outside the British "establishment" came onto the newspaper scene (as they always tend to) they were in the nick of time to make a vastly beneficial difference.

Oddly, Le Roux seems much more like the coarse and saturnine ex-Czech Robert Maxwell than the ex-Australian Rupert Murdoch, who like the Canadian Conrad Black, came from a rather civilised background. Le Roux is posited as having a South African background which (a bit distantly, admittedly) reminds one of the ex-German Roland "Tiny" Rowland, who was an old Africa-hand. It was Maxwell who said he would expose a take-over target "to the laws of the jungle" and who was prone to pontificate. (These and most other media facts cited here are culled, I hope accurately, from Roy Greenslade's book, Press Gang.)

Pravda is always assumed to concern itself with The Times, and its telling of that story is mangled. As Pravda was filling the National Theatre, Rupert Murdoch was moving the two most important papers in Britain onto a sustainable future at Wapping whilst appointing editors (Harold Evans and Andrew Neil) who epitomised modern journalism. They were controversial in their different ways, but they were capable of delivering what demanding readers wanted. And Murdoch, frankly, made it happen for all that he incurred the wrath of all right-thinking people for his presumption. Maybe all right-thinking people don't care about a free press. And as a side luxury, Murdoch (and Eddie Shah before him) made it possible that The Independent should be born, fully-fledged. That's how I saw it all, as one of the Indy's journalists from the start.

Maybe Brenton and Hare had some romance or dream about the press which they wished was more widely shared. But we never get a feeling for what it was. So part of the problem is that they don't tell us whether they know or like journalists any more than they do proprietors. Newspapers are not and never have been good places for idealists. From Defoe and Wilkes onwards, Grub Street has only known, at best, a seamy grace. In the 1980s, one could look back to the glory days of boozy old Fleet Street, with its literacy and cynicism. Liberals and lefties tended to look forward, as Pravda does, with a sort of doomy eagerness, to a world of corporate manipulation. But it didn't happen, or at least no more than it ever had - and maybe less.

Perhaps it's the play's naiveté which is its real drawback. In the mid-1980s, few people (including these two playwrights) knew very much about newspapers or the media. We weren't, as everyone is now, "media-savvy". Audiences probably took Pravda as a wickedly sharp insight to a wicked world. After Drop the Dead Donkey and much else, including The Thick of It, only a much more accurate and insightful satire would wring our withers now.

Richard D. North's Let's Scrap the BBC: How to set broadcasters free will be published by the Social Affairs Unit this winter.

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