An edited version of this piece appears in today’s Independent. I have italicised the bigger chunks not in the Indy for any of you who may have read it already, so you can skip to those bits! Also quite interesting for journalism students to see what the sub-editors decided could hit the deck as they cut to fit the space in the paper. This longer version is also being published on the paper’s website
There are many ways to judge a play. Did you enjoy it on the night? Would you recommend it to others? Do you want to see it again? And does it make you think, and keep thinking?
One would imagine the first of these is the most important, and likely to dictate the answer to the others. Yet with POSH I did not enjoy the experience of watching the play. But I have recommended it to everyone, am planning to see it again soon, and I have spent at least part of every day since I saw it thinking about what it means, what I really think about it and whether it has lasting political and cultural significance.
So why did I not enjoy it, when it is clearly topical, well-written, well cast and acted, and likely to damage the Tories? The answer is that for parts of it I felt quite ill. Not ill in the manner of the fictional Riot Club members throwing up after downing too much wine, champagne and spirits. But ill at the thought that this might just be an accurate portrayal of the Bullingdon Club on which it is so clearly based, and therefore a picture of our current rulers, their values, what they really think, believe and say when they are not minding their ps and qs whilst decontaminating the Tory brand.
The audience reaction also made me feel queasy. To one side of me was my partner Fiona and her mother, both of whom like me would argue that a non meritocratic class system based on wealth, connections and private education has done real damage to Britain. We laughed rarely, even when what was said was funny. To laugh would be to indicate a shared enjoyment of what was being said and done. Around us there were other, perhaps like-minded people revolted by the sexism, the snobbery, the belief that money and contacts could get them out of any scrape.
To my immediate left were three middle aged American tourists who seemed bemused but gradually joined in with the laughter of those who were enjoying the jokes and the banter more than I was. I sensed a fifty fifty split between the uproariously laughing and the silent.
I did some pretty wild and crazy things at university but nothing like this lot, though I do confess to occasional drink-fuelled violence, not least with types similar to those in the play. I had never encountered people like this and their braying, arrogant born to rule ‘superiority’ brought out the worst in me, broadened my anti establishment streak and hardened my support for the politics of the left.
I do not loathe all posh people in politics. My diaries contain regular fond references to two Old Etonians in particular, fellow diarist Alan Clark, and Churchill’s grandson Nicholas Soames. The fondness is for the size of their personalities and perhaps also because of their never pretending to be something they weren’t.
The story in POSH is fairly simple. The Riot Club has had to move out of Oxford and instead hold its night out in a small hotel. They are determined to live up to the worst excesses of their predecessors and as they do so, social, political, cultural and sexual views emerge which some in the audience found repellent, others hilarious. ‘That brought back so many memories,’ chuckled the cashmere-sweatered, check-shirted, orange-chinoed, pinky ring wearing guy behind me to his wife as they left for the interval.
When I chaired a debate on Laura Wade’s play a few days later, director Lyndsey Turner, who is most certainly not posh, said that during the interval you could feel the divide between people. The posh enjoying it more than the non posh. At times she thought things might explode.
The interval is directly preceded by a hugely powerful speech by a character who alas shares my name and who is sick to death of the wealthy having to pretend to like and care about the poor. He also reveals a vulnerability, a real worry that whereas many think they have everything, it doesn’t feel like that to them. They know most people think they are ridiculous. They have to lie about the purpose of the dinner. And though Labour are out of power, they don’t yet feel like the Tories are in power.
Alistair becomes the key character in the second half when he makes another powerful and brilliantly crafted speech and gets involved in an altercation with the hotelier whose daughter is molested after a prostitute hired for the night is asked to leave.
Enough on the plot, what of the politics? David Cameron must have thought he had managed to defuse his poshness as an issue when Labour ran a by-election campaign with class as a major theme, only to see it backfire. And when he was decontaminating the brand he did a pretty good job presenting himself as a fairly ordinary middle class guy, albeit of the upper variety.
He was clearly conscious of the issue’s risks. He didn’t talk too much about Eton and makes sure – for now at least – that his children use state schools. And someone has gone to a lot of effort – and presumably used a lot of money – to take out of circulation the picture of Cameron, Boris Johnson and pals in their Bullingdon uniform.
Governments create culture whether they intend to or not. It was a while before so-called spin became the favoured target of comics and satirists, but it stuck, as I know only two well from Rory Bremner, Malcolm Tucker and the rest. Posh could well become to this government the cultural tag that spin became to ours.
It is doubtful the play would be the success it has become had Cameron and Co not been in power. The question is whether it really does capture something about him and his ilk.
When I was on Midweek on Radio 4 last week I chatted with Libby Purves in the Green Room about the play. She thought it was ridiculous. Over the top. Unrealistic. Silly.
But one of the panellists on the debate I chaired said she felt it did portray a kind of truth, that there are people like the Riot Club members in existence and they include people now running Britain. The panellist was Rachel Johnson, editor of The Lady, sister of Boris. She went on to say class was becoming more not less relevant and ‘at the risk of sounding like your beloved Fiona’ it will not change while we have the social apartheid of private education. Wow.
One of the most powerful political quotes of this Parliament was the jibe by Tory MP Nadine Dorries MP that the problem with the Government was that it was run by two arrogant posh boys who don’t know the price of milk. ‘Don’t forget the arrogant,’ said Rachel. ‘It is the combination of posh and arrogant that could be lethal.’
So why has that lethality seemingly now been unleashed when in the Crewe by election the posh card was deemed to be a disaster? The answer probably lies in the Budget. The top rate tax cut revealed an instinct. It put an end to ‘all in this together’ and suggested they were in it for their own kind.
Empathy matters in modern politics. Cameron was quite good at it in opposition. But in government – from student fees to scrapping EMAs, unmandated health reform to a stealth strategy to return to two-tier state education, from horse rides with Rebekah Brooks’ to misunderstood LOLs and country suppers, the sense is of an out of touch elite pretending to be different to who and what they really are. They have to pretend because they want to do what they failed to do last time, and win a majority. They would struggle to win a seat if the public thought POSH was them.
But when your profile becomes as high as that of a PM or a Chancellor or a wannabee PM with a personality as big as Boris Johnson’s, the public will work out their true character.
If their true character is the one they try to present to the world, POSH will be nothing more than an interesting and divisive piece of entertainment. If the public decide it is closer to the one on stage at the Duke of York’s then by the time the planned cinema version comes out – which could have an even deeper cultural impact – Cameron could be on his way to becoming a political novelty; a one term PM who fought two elections and won neither. And his poshness will be one of the reasons. Because it is impossible to see this play and imagine that the people it portrays remotely get how the majority in Britain live their lives, or even care.
@ Alastair Campbell’s diaries, Burden of Power, were published on Thursday, £25