Thank you. It’s an honour to have been asked to speak here today. Although looking at the h100 List this year, I’ve no idea why I’m presumptuously standing here; given the talent, creativity and achievements far surpassing my own within this room. But I’m also excited, and genuinely inspired, to be part of such a group.
I don’t know about you, but I find working in the arts often seriously discombobulating in either being a far-too-lonely and private endeavour one minute; an overwhelming public and intensely populated one the next.
Those days where the only human contact you have is with the Amazon delivery guy, or, as I experienced today, where you get a phone call at 3 in the afternoon, open your mouth to say "hello" and nothing comes out because you realise you haven’t literally used your voice since yesterday lunchtime.
To then finding yourself at events like this. Or rehearsals. Or filming days, exhibition launches, studio recordings, first nights. And suddenly you have to be the confident, articulate, public-facing arm of your own single-person enterprise.
That’s why – apart from having a lovely place to hang out in central London – that’s why I think having a community of peers matters. Being able to identify yourself within a group matters.
We’re perceived as being an overly confident and relatively loud profession, even though I – like I’m sure many of you – have never felt myself to be either. Thirteen years after I first put a play on at the tiny Finborough theatre in Earl’s Court, and in the years since fortunate enough to have had champions who staged my work at the Bush through to the National, the Donmar and into the West End… I am embarrassed to say that I still personally feel inadequate or presumptuous about calling myself a Writer.
I dread that moment four minutes into a hair-cut when the question of your job comes up. And I hear myself saying, “Oh you know, I sort of… I work in, like… behind the scenes in, like… entertainment and the media, and, and … live, live media, live art.”
Theatre, it’s called theatre, James, why are you embarrassed to say theatre?
“Oh cool, what do you do in theatre”?
“Oh I – you know, I just sort of like… I come up with a lot of the – things, that when like, when the actors, when they … step forward and speak, that’s – I come up with some of the things to get put in their, in their… mouths, for them to… to say and shit”.
It doesn’t matter at what point we’re all at in our artistic career, I find a lot us very often struggle to confidently declare ourselves.
The most surreal time for me – and forgive me, I have dined out on this particular story with some of you before, but I remember the time a particular Hollywood producer…. not currently working… was in London. We’d met several times before. I arrived in the lobby of his hotel and he exited the lift. I said hello, and he simply said ‘"this way", pointing into the restaurant. He wasn’t being as friendly towards me as he’d been in the past. And he was huffing, looking around the restaurant, mumbling "where is he, where is he?"
Eventually I asked who. And he said "James Graham". Me.
He’d thought I was the work experience intern.
Despite that, I was so embarrassed I’m ashamed to say I can’t tell you for how many existentially-strange minutes I continued to pretend looking – for myself – until finally announcing to the producer that I had in fact arrived.
Why this tentativeness? Partly it’s because I still feel so lucky still, and disbelieving, to be doing what I love. Partly because of the pervading perception problems of the arts. Or it may in fact just be my perception of the perception problem, of the arts. But I do think we’re entering an interesting time for the creative industries. A paradoxical one.
I’m currently somewhat immersed in the thoughts and wisdom of Charles Dickens, for a new show – Sketching, opening at Wilton’s Music Hall this month. I’m writing it collaboratively with 8 emerging playwrights we’ve found, and commissioned, from across the UK, receiving their professional debuts.
It’s about the dichotomy of London at the moment – open, and yet to some, increasingly closed. Rewarding, and yet punishing. Confident. And uncertain. A city, like seemingly everything else in the western world right now, pulling itself in two, towards ever more polarised extremes. To quote one of the most overly-quoted of Dicken’s lines, so forgive the cliché: “It was the best of times, it worst the worst of times. It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness. It was the spring of hope. It was the winter of despair."
So too, I worry, for the creative industry. Record attendances… Libraries closing. More work being produced in the capital than ever before... historical cuts by local regional councils. Glory, awards, adulation abroad… scepticism at home.
As you’ll be hearing a lot tonight, but it bears repeating, it is our industry, our mickey-mouse, easy-peasy, namby-pamby, artsy-fartsy, money-grabbing industry that is the fastest growing in the country, the very top sector of all sectors. It isn’t sucking subsidy from the state, it is the chief driver of all national growth, generating tax revenue far greater than the investment it receives in return.
So – you know – you’re welcome, Britain.
It’s also an industry that’s getting harder to access if you’re working class. If you’re born outside of London. If you’re not born in a city. We know there is a gender disparity, a racial disparity, an education disparity. On television, on stage, in music, in gaming, we’re making some of the best work we ever have in generations. We’re told it’s a golden age. And yet arts is disappearing from our schools.
That’s not anecdotal, that’s not subjective. And I know we all know this, but sometimes it’s just worth saying it again and again until the horror sinks in. It is statistically the case… that drama, music, arts, dance, and photography is disappearing by stealth from our schools. Teacher numbers are plummeting, hours are shrinking, the percentage of uptake from students to take GSCE and A’Level arts courses are down by over a quarter since 2010 and are plummeting further still.
I was lucky enough to be involved in a series of events this year, one in Birmingham that gathered together headteachers, and heads of departments, and students, and parents, another last week at the Royal Albert Hall organised by the charity Children & the Arts. And they were broadly united. Funding squeezes for schools, combined with the philosophical damage of arts no longer being recognised as a core subject on the secondary school curriculum, as of 2014.
Every time I think about that – it absolutely devastates me. Us, this country, the country of JK Rowling, Daniel Kaluuya, of Adele, of Steve McQueen, and yes, of Shakespeare… we, no longer recognise ARTS, as a core subject. For the first time in the modern curriculum? In other words, children are told it quite simply does not have as great a value, any more.
I was talking with the theatre director Rupert Goold yesterday about theatre and politics, and the politics of theatre, and he said that where once the arguments for investment in the arts as an obvious economical, social and emotional benefit had been assumed to have been won, he feared that – in policy, and in the public’s perception – we’re now having to fight to win the argument once again. I think that’s true.
I experienced something similar recently. I’ve just finished filming a new TV drama about the Brexit referendum, which – my apologies – I’m aware literally no one asked for, or probably needed. It’s hard being a political dramatist in this climate when it feels like every package on the Today programme is trolling you. Taunting you to compete, like a Run DMC dance-off. For some reason, someone stole and leaked an early draft of my script and touted it around to journalists and also some of the real life characters in the show. I can’t pretend it wasn’t a surreal experience to read feedback from Steve Bannon. Not because I’d put him in my drama, but because I hadn’t put him in enough.
I also found myself in a positon I really hadn’t expected to be in, in 2018 – defending not just the right, but the necessity, of artistic expression when it comes to making sense of the world around us. No more so than something as confusing and divisive as Brexit. And yet I found such language, such arguments, were alien to even some journalists who themselves have lobbied for more nuanced and open discourse. Quite simply, they didn’t think the arts should have a seat at the table.
And I think that’s new. And it’s dangerous. I think we haven’t been making the argument. And so headmasters are stopping school plays. And political commentators are questioning the value of any artistic response to the most nation-changing event of our lifetimes.
We mustn’t stumble, when faced with the question, in this post-truth, tribal, oppositional, frequently cruel, dangerously misleading new world, of what value the arts has in all this, to make sense of it all. To paraphrase someone else once again, this time Picasso, whose words I already pilfered for my play Quiz, earlier this year.
“Art isn’t truth. Art is a lie, that helps us realise truth”.
I look forward to joining you all in continuing to make that argument, as a community.