Jeremy Irons at the WOS OutingIrons & Brenton Share Good Stories at WOS Q&A
Date: 28th March 2008

Theatregoers at our sell-out Outing to Never So Good, a new political drama chronicling the life and times of Harold Macmillan, at the National Theatre last night (27 March 2008) were treated to an exclusive post-show discussion with author Howard Brenton and star Jeremy Irons, who offered insights into the creative processes and confessed how they both fell in love with the man behind the headlines.

Brentonís play paints the portrait of a man at times comically and, in the end, tragically out of kilter with his times. The Eton-educated idealist, who rushed, with Aeschylus under his arm, to do his duty in the Grenadier Guards, is tormented by the harsh experiences of war and an unhappy marriage. His career in the 1930s is blocked by his loyalty to Winston Churchill, and he nearly loses his life in the Second World War. When at last he becomes prime minister after the Suez crisis, heís brought down by the Profumo scandal.

Never So Good is directed by Howard Davies and designed by Vicki Mortimer. Irons is joined in the cast by Ian McNeice as Churchill as well as Anna Carteret, Anna Chancellor, Pip Carter, Robert Glenister and Anthony Calf. The production runs in rep in the NT Lyttelton, where itís currently booking until 24 May.

Last nightís post-show discussion at Never So Good was chaired by Whatís On Stage magazine editor Roger Foss. For more photos and feedback, visit our Outings Blog and for details of upcoming events, click here. Edited highlights from the Q&A follow Ö

On creating the play

Howard Brenton: I set out to write a satire. I wanted to write something about the Tory party and I thought ďwell how do you do that?Ē Then I came across Harold Macmillan and he took over really. Itís not a satire as you have seen, itís a history play. I began to take him very seriously. He seduced me really. I fell in love with the old man. I went and read his diaries in the Bodleian library and it was very moving. His hand was shot in the war so his handwriting deteriorates at night with the drink and if he has had a particularly bad day. There was something almost sťance-like staring at these little books with scrawling handwriting. His spirit got to me.

Jeremy Irons: Itís extraordinary to hear Howard say that because, when I read the script, it felt like a love story that he was telling. I could see that he felt for this man. I immediately wanted to do it. To me Macmillan was a man out of date. He was a ridiculous figure because we were in the Sixties and here was this Edwardian chap fluttering around. He just seemed to be a complete anachronism. He embodied everything the Sixties wasnít about and so one laughed at him and dismissed him. Then reading this and discovering not only the way England has changed over 50 years, but how this man had become what I remembered was amazing. And I felt rather ashamed of myself. I felt this was a considerable man and a man I began to care about deeply, purely from you Howard. I mean, it is terribly good writing.

Brenton: I began to think of Richard II at the end. It almost did become an apology really. The last 20 minutes of the play especially. There was something magnificent about the way Macmillan went down privately. Whereas people were being horrible about him in public, in private there was this tragedy. So I did think of Richard II. I wanted to get to what it is actually like to govern. I wanted to write about politics without being rude. Thereís nothing wrong with that type of writing. I have done lots of satires which I have always thoroughly enjoyed, with satisfyingly appalling reviews. But satire simplifies things. It cuts things away to be cruel and I wanted to understand the complexity of ruling. You canít do that through satire.

On finding the softer side of Harold Macmillan

Irons: The lunch I had with Macmillanís daughter-in-law was sadly only a half-hour but was very useful to me. We were rehearsing, and by the time we got the taxi over there she had done this wonderful lunch and we just gobbled it up and had to leave. She told me about his use of spectacles which was actually very useful. They were for long sight; he never used them for reading. She told Anna Chancellor quite a lot about Dorothy who she plays. She just helped me get on my feet. When youíre trying to play a character, you want little specifics but you also want a sort of a feel. I watched the way she was and the way she ate and drank and just got a feeling. Itís a funny process finding a character. It was very useful to me because it gave me a feeling of touching him.

Irons: To get a feel for him I looked at pictures of him in that time and got a bit out of that. I found that very useful. I looked at him on video and I saw his eyes smiling and I thought ďyes, I knew I would like youĒ. I saw his uncertainty as he was not sure whether he should sit down or stand up and the way he fluffs his lines. I thought to myself, ďI adore this manĒ. We feel a warmth towards Macmillan because of the way the playís written. We have got to know this man and his foibles, his failures, his vulnerabilities, his unhappiness, his moment in the sun. I think thatís the great thing about this play. Not only do you get this great panoply of history over 50 years but you learn about this man.

Brenton: There was something about Macmillan and the elite of that time in that they confronted the big issues. They looked at the big picture and tried to fix it. Even though it turned out disastrously they were trying to fix the Suez Canal. It was a disaster but they addressed big issues and made big decisions whereas now politicians dare not make big decisions so they debate plastic bags and hunting which are not the big issues facing this country. Macmillan would never have stood up and talked to the House of Commons about plastic bags.

On condensing a manís life into a play

Brenton: There were so many aspects of his life that I couldnít go into. How long do you need to stage a life, a 70-year play? Thereís a famous remark of his which I left out. Someone asked him, ďwhat is the most difficult thing the prime minister has to face?Ē His response was ďevents, dear boy, eventsĒ. But the play is like a dramatisation of that remark. Heís facing three crises in the play and with the first one, Munich and the Reich of Hitler, he is with the events, he is flowing with them and he is on the right side. Then with the second event, the Suez Canal, he is on the wrong side but switches onto the right side. The third crisis, which is the Profumo scandal, kills him. He canít control it, he loses control, he doesnít understand. Iíve only just realised this sitting and watching the play. The reason why that remark isnít in the play is because it is the play really. There were lots of big events that shaped Macmillanís life, but I think the war was really crucial to him. He was in pain throughout his life as a result. He was mocked for shuffling because of this pelvic injury.

On Macmillanís relationship with his wife Dorothy

Irons: I donít think sheís portrayed that kindly.

Brenton: Yes, I donít know it is that kind. I find her fascinating though. She was part of a world which you see in The Duff Cooper Diaries, which is very interesting. Anna Chancellor who plays Dorothy was reading these diaries, which are very racy and really interesting, and she suddenly realised with horror that he was writing about her grandmother. I was fascinated by that world that Dorothy was operating in.

Irons: Macmillan says we have to struggle on with what weíre given, you make your bed and you lie in it. Nowadays the fashion is that, if you donít get on honky-dory, you change, and I think that is possibly a hiding to nothing in 75% of cases. I think Macmillan knew that and that is why he stayed with Dorothy. Also, I think he knew he wasnít a great husband. My reading of it is that the trouble he got into at Eaton along with a dominating mother who made sure he didnít forget it, made him shy away from anything passionate or sexual. I should think he was a lousy lover but I think he valued Dorothy. I think he knew that she was a tremendous help to his public image, and she was a rock for him. Laurence Olivier always said that, as he had difficult relationships with women, he put all the energy he wasnít able to use into his work. I think thatís common with a lot of men. Itís tough on the women though.

On the different eras in the play

Brenton: I always wanted to mark the passing of the eras and I think the dances do that. Theyíre fascinating. The Lindy Hop was a big surprise, I was shocked how violently happy it was. At this most dangerous and frightening time, the favourite dance was this wild celebratory dance. A lot has changed technology-wise since Macmillanís time. In the Suez scene, they have radio planes and they can listen to radio traffic, but thereís nowhere near the surveillance we have now with satellites and other information. The voting polls have changed in interesting ways. Churchill assumed he had won the voting polls in 1945. It took about two weeks for the votes to come in and he had lost by 145 seats and no one knew.

Irons: Itís not better now. If you lose respect for your leaders youíre in deep trouble and we have lost it. I think itís because we know too much about them, they parade in front of us. Debate has gone. No one knows how to debate, and if anyone says anything and throws out an idea which should be talked about and thought about, then they are immediately hung, drawn and quartered for daring to do it. I am very depressed about politics at the moment.

On having the young Macmillan on stage

Brenton: I always had this idea about having the younger version of the man on stage at all times.

Irons: Itís a very interesting device. It was quite hard to work it out in rehearsal. We thought maybe if he wasnít going to say anything in a particular scene perhaps he shouldnít be there, but he has to be there. Whatever he be - the conscience or just the dead idealist within him, the idealist who died in that great war but who soldiers on for all those other people who died, all his friends - youíve got to make room for it. Thereís a wonderful line, quite difficult to comprehend but wonderful, ďTradition doesnít mean that the living are dead it means the dead are livingĒ. I think, in my Macmillan anyway, thatís very important. Itís very important to have that reminder in the younger man staying on stage. He changes functions. Iím very glad to have him there, partly because he (Pip Carter) is a wonderful actor. To be on stage and not say anything has a great power. Heís incredibly useful to me just to bounce off. That black monkey or black dog that sits on your shoulder.

- by Kate Jackson

Originally posted on

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