High Profiles (Samuel French, 1992)
This series has barely begun and yet I already propose to cheat – appropriately enough for a series devoted to politicians.* Rather than focusing on a novel written by a sitting MP, this is about a play whose author had left the House of Commons a couple of decades earlier.
High Profiles by Woodrow Wyatt (a Labour MP for 21 of the 25 years between 1945 and 1970, but now a supporter of Margaret Thatcher) tells the story of an ambitious government minister hoping for promotion to the Cabinet and trying to avoid the press revealing private scandals that would scupper his advancement. It had a brief stint at the Theatre Royal, Margate in October 1989, but attempts at securing future runs in London or the surrounding area came to nothing.
Baron Wyatt of Weeford – he’d been elevated by Thatcher – was an influential columnist in the News of the World and The Times, with the ear of both the prime minister and Rupert Murdoch, not to mention the Queen Mother. On top of that he was chairman of state betting company the Tote, and a man with many other business interests and powerful friends, as detailed when his Journals were published in the 1990s.
Yet his fame and influence did not guarantee success for the play. It went through a number of titles – Knowing the Wrong People, Thanks to Mrs Thatcher (she is prime minister, though unseen, from whom the protagonist, Phillip Grantly MP, seeks favour), the Division Belle (which was still the name when it was mounted in Margate) and finally High Profiles, under which a script was published in 1992, the action now set in June 1990.
Throughout the second volume of his Journals, which deal with the slow-motion car-crash of Thatcher’s fall and Wyatt’s attempts to regain influence after John Major’s succession, the author’s dramatic ambitions are a constant subplot. His playwrighting often interrupts his recounting of conversations on matters of the greatest pith and moment involving individuals (as a footballer might put it) in and around the Cabinet. High Profiles has more index references in the Journals than anyone or anything apart from Thatcher, Murdoch, his other great confidante Norman Lamont, and the Tote. A recurring saga is Wyatt’s increasingly vain efforts to find a London venue and a high-profile lead actor to play Grantly.
Wyatt’s Journals more generally portray a man torn between smug self-regard and bleak disillusion. He is by turns convinced that his columns move public opinion in an election-deciding way, and that he is a mediocrity, lacking the power and wealth of his associations, well aware his political career never quite hit the heights for which he’d hoped. To his frustration, he’s someone in proximity to money and power rather than one blessed with either in his own right.
Thus when reflecting on his theatrical exploits, Wyatt is sometimes sure ‘we have really got a good play which would run well, as Bernard Levin always said it would, in London’. And elsewhere he laments: ‘It would have been something to have written a play which was successful but now there is really nothing,’ as well as ‘I don’t really think I have a talent for writing plays.’
The latter pessimism was more justified: while you can licence the play from a reasonable £69 plus VAT, even in normal times the map of ‘current performances’ on Concord Theatricals’ website is no less blank than in the present circumstances. There is good reason for this. While Wyatt’s talent for prose remained in demand for decades in the shape of books, newspapers and (when posthumously published) diaries, his impact as a playwright was such that this is probably the only piece ever written about the subject since the brief Margate run ended, Wyatt’s personal fame having at least earned a few morsels of coverage and reviews at the time.
While his Journals drip gossip and indiscretions from prime ministers, media moguls and senior royals with an entertaining mixture of pompous self-delusion and flashes of self-doubt, High Profiles is just dull. Admittedly, thirty years on, the revelation that a minister is cheating on his wife would not be the career-threatening scandal it was in the days between Cecil Parkinson and Back to Basics, but Grantly does not come across as sympathetic a character as Wyatt probably intended, making it hard to care much whether his affair is exposed by the tabloids and his Cabinet ambitions scuppered. The sub-plots around smaller scandals involving his wife, son and daughter only seem to interrupt rather than develop the main storyline, which in any case is resolved in presumptive fashion followed by a final twist that doesn’t really make sense.
But then the plot does not seem to have been high on Wyatt’s priorities for High Profiles. In his diary entry for 4 October 1989, the first night in Margate, he says it ‘is supposed to be a sophisticated Noel Coward/Somerset Maugham/Oscar Wilde play’. The context is that Wyatt isn’t happy with the vulgar way the actors play the scene where Grantly’s wife is seduced by an MP friend; but it also shows the author’s real motivation – the delivery via the script of aphorisms of the kind Coward, Maugham and Wilde were past masters at trading.
‘The sole reason for being in politics is power.’
‘Good marriages advance from marriages of bodies into marriages of minds.’
‘It is more serious for a woman to be promiscuous than a man. Men can and do flit from flower to flower.’
‘What you have without effort palls fairly soon. And the risk of being found out heightens the excitement.’
Grantly drops all those bons mots in the space of a couple of scenes. This may not be Wyatt’s News of the World column, but it can still be a vehicle for pontification, and by nature he was a Formula 1 pontificator.
But it isn’t all gems for the ages like: ‘The true price of a mistress is you never know how much havoc they can wreak.’ Wyatt never missed a chance to flatter, privately or publicly, Margaret Thatcher. This play is no exception.
Grantly is hoping for the Prime Minister to promote him to her Cabinet but is sincere in his worship of her, forever even in family conversations coming across as a Wyatt column make flesh. ‘She’s flighting to make everyone better off,’ he scolds his son, a Harrow-educated activist for the Workers Revolutionary Party. ’The PM’s ruined the county,’ Grantly Jr proclaims. The response: ‘I hope she goes on ruining it the same way forever. Then we’ll be as rich as the Americans and the Japanese.’ His wife Victoria says later of the blessed Margaret: ‘She’s not a Tory. She’s a radical revolutionary. That’s why non-Tories vote for her.’
At one stage Grantly even declares: ‘She’s our Joan of Arc. If they burned her they’d soon wish they hadn’t.’ And that is a pointed comment, as between the original staging of the play and the eventual published version, Thatcher had been, as Wyatt wrote on 22 November 1990 with a nod to John F Kennedy’s fate exactly 27 years earlier, ’assassinated’. And in what passes for High Profiles’s sophisticated humour, references to what Wyatt considered ‘the fateful day’ abound.
Michael Heseltine, not a figure with whom Wyatt was enamoured, is never named but is presumably the man being described as ‘that charlatan who waves his hair and arms to impress the Tory women with his warm and caring heart. It’s really an icebox of cold ambition’. And, in a gag with a short shelf-life, Grantly adds: ‘He’s blown it. He’ll never be back in the Cabinet.’ (Which obviously he was in real life by then). In one of several monologues between scenes, Grantly mentions ‘that anonymous fellow, John Major – he’ll never make it to the top.’ (Which obviously he had in real life by then).
Speaking of real life, Wyatt isn’t above shoehorning in lines like Grantly’s wife declaring: ‘I adore Nigel Dempster’s tittle-tattle.’ We know it was shoehorned because Wyatt writes in his Journals; ‘I rang Nigel Dempster and read to him the lines in which his column is mentioned. He was rather pleased so think I may get a mention in his column, too.’ A lack of further references to Dempster in the Journals suggest it didn’t happen, though other friends like Frank Johnson were happy to plug the play, with Wyatt’s fellow Times columnist Ned Sherrin declaring it: ‘No end-of-the-peer stuff,’ which makes you wonder if he thought of the pun first and fitted the review to match.
Although Wyatt resists writing himself into High Profiles, it doesn’t mean he is above throwing in several references to himself, no doubt picturing a sophisticated theatre-goer enjoying a meta-chuckle. Grantly’s close MP friend (and his wife’s putative lover) Jack Collingwood is made a fan of horse racing, of little use to the plot but crucial to including the if-you-don’t-know-Wyatt-is-the-author-entirely-superfluous line, when discussing a horse he owns and is backing: ‘It’s about time I won something off the Tote’.
Meanwhile the newspaper that threatens to take down Grantly, and comes across as pretty principled, just happens to be Wyatt’s employers, the News of the World. As for other media, Wyatt, who at this time was active in trying to make sure the then-current Broadcasting Bill cracked down on what he saw as bias among broadcasters, has Grantly’s revolutionary son say of his education at Harrow: ‘Most of the intelligent masters have leftish friends putting out unbiased programmes on the BBC and ITV.’
Wyatt’s embrace of the meta includes comment on the very medium itself. Mrs Grantly bemoans: ‘Those left-wing loonies who make fortunes in the theatre,’ while her husband (who if I understand the medium of theatre correctly, is a politician played by an actor) admits: ‘All politicians are vain. Like actors.’ If only he’d been Stewart Lee twenty-five years later, Wyatt could have been garlanded with BAFTAs.
Instead of which, if Wyatt is remembered for anything, it isn’t as a playwright. His Journals refer to attempts at penning another, but he admits: ‘I feel that it is not much good really.’ Wyatt is persuaded to watch some new work as inspiration, attending Simon Gray’s Hidden Laughter and reflecting almost exclusively on Felicity Kendall’s performance, or a very specific aspect of it: ‘She is quite attractive and does have nice legs.’
There is probably a promising play in High Profiles, but not the one that ended up on stage or in print. While putting in plenty of jokes, Wyatt seems to have too much serious political purpose and aspiration for social credibility to embrace his work’s true calling, as a farce.
Simultaneous affairs and both children getting into scrapes, all the time trying to keep it from the prying press and stay in favour with Margaret Thatcher – the ultimate vicar popping in for tea or promotion-touting boss coming to dinner – the ingredients are there. It is the choicest irony that the play’s best chance of a life after Margate was crushed because the theatre at Leatherhead instead plumped for another comedy where an MP has an affair with his secretary – penned by Ray Cooney.
* I am assuming the mere publication of this sentence will bring down this government and its shame-faced hypocrisy.