There’s a kind of warmth and poignancy – almost nostalgia – burned into James Graham’s portrait of the founding days of The Sun newspaper (or rather, its 1969 transformation from ailing broadsheet to wildly successful, relentlessly populist tabloid). Yes, the topless teenagers and mindless moneygrubbing are there, as well as the Black Mirror-worthy story of how one of its editor’s wives was kidnapped and eventually murdered, while the paper treated each fresh demand from her captors as an ‘Exclusive’. But Graham’s play also has the energy of a team sports movie, or a band-getting-back-together story. A motley crew of characters, some past it, some bitter, some impossibly out-of-touch, nonetheless share a goal of making the big time that’s eluded them so far.
Rupert Goold’s staging is flat-out brilliant. It sets this story of a paper, reimagined from the ground up, on teetering towers. Old-fashioned writing desks are stacked high on the stage, to be clambered over like an ants nest of arcane activity. It’s all marshalled into life by Rupert Murdoch, played with an utterly compelling brand of otherworldly, cerebral evil by Bertie Carvel. There are loving homages to trad journalism: the five Ws are illuminated in glowing cubes, and we learn that the ‘why’ is something The Sun’s new editor Larry Lamb has already lost interest in. After years mouldering in the mid-ranks of the Daily Express, he knows that the ‘what’, ‘when’ and ‘who’ are all that matters. Screens at the back of the stage show old headlines and faded splashes, infusing everything with the atmosphere of history-in-the-making.
In an era where print journalism is visibly and unattractively dying, it’s a splendid picture. The towers of desks are a symbol of comforting hierarchies which are rapidly being dismantled, of the solid structure of a centuries-old business that still runs on rules and unions. Here, a news journo could never drink in the same club as a sub-editor, let alone a lowly printer. Newspapers are there to edify the public, not cater to their basest desires. The unions are all-powerful. But, of course, rules are made to be broken.
Graham’s vision of The Sun’s earliest planning meeting shows a bunch of hidebitten journos casting off the shackles of respectability to say what they really like, the results democratically written up on a board. Girls. Footie. Booze. Telly. Gossip. Going out. Free stuff. Sophie Stanton plays the staunch editor of the women’s section, holding her own in this boy’s club by suggesting Sex – the stuff she’s never been allowed to print in her advice columns. It’s pragmatically, misleadingly softened into Love (later to be converted into ‘bonking’). This a newspaper run on the pleasure principle, the unrestrained play of masculine Id.
The strangeness of ‘Ink’ is that it romanticises both a lost world, and the men who broke it apart. Larry Lamb is portrayed as a fundamental decent man who’s consumed by ‘winning’, by taking The Sun from ailing broadsheet to top-of-the-world tabloid. But even so, I couldn’t understand how this translated into turning his colleague’s heartbreak over his wife’s kidnapping into a front page splash, into getting an astrologer in to predict where she was and gleefully publishing the results. His motivations feel just as shadowy as he introduces the first topless Page Three girl, persuading her into it with visible, paternal distaste for what he’s doing, and ruining her acting career in the process. Again, the ‘why’ is missing. Perhaps Graham’s too in love with the myth of lovable Yorkshire Larry, rising to the top from humble origins, to really stick the knife in.
Ink is full of shadows of journalism’s future. Graham even makes a case for Larry as a pioneer of that 21st century buzzword, user generated content. He proclaims that the more of the paper the readers can write, the better, and its approach is fuelled by their demands: populism masquerading as democracy. Maybe he’s right. But I watched the play with a strange mix of edge-of-the-seat fascination and deep discomfort. Anyone who works in journalism, however peripherally, ends up sucked into its loving system of self-mythologising, and I think that’s true of Graham, too. Ink is all about the business of writing, and not about its devastating real life consequences: the lives ruined by gossip stories, the untold social losses when you play to win. Perhaps the door of this glorious, warren-like office needs to open a chink, and let the outside world in.
Ink is on at Duke of York’s Theatre. Book tickets here.