Great Britain’s crunk account of red top newspapers

Great Britain moves to the West End to begin a stint at the Royal Haymarket Theatre. 

It’s hard to fathom how a newspaper, even a red top, could have ever listened in on the voicemails of murdered children, British soldiers’ relatives or 7/7 London attack victims. The Guardian’s revelation that this was common practice at The News of The World shocked the country to the core, but what’s interesting about the phone hacking scandal is that we, the general public, were effectively the main culprits.

Brits consume scandal on a drip. Privacy is seen to be the price that is paid for celebrity status and as we idolise TV personalities and rock stars we make a disconnect between us as ‘people’ and them as ‘celebrities’, which is why the phone hacking scandal was ever allowed to happen in the first place. The Fleet Street culture of rummaging through bins, peaking over garden walls and lurking around dark corners had become common practice and what’s more it was seldom questioned. If we can get an ‘up the skirt picture’ of a celeb disembarking from a taxi then their loss is the public’s gain, after all, “there’s nothing more British than a wank into a tissue”.

But as soon as a murdered girl or relatives of soldiers are targeted the whole country is up in arms. The shocking revelations that Milly Dowler had been a target of phone hacking caused outrage and for good reason, but we’d been buying comparable content for years before it happened. As the mission statement of Richard Bean’s fictitious Free Press read, “We go out and destroy other people’s lives on your behalf”.

Great Britain is the latest of Bean’s slapstick shows to grace the West End after debuting at the National Theatre for a two month stretch. The play goes about destroying the bastions of British society and exposing their inextricable, corrupt links to one another. Press, police and politicians are running Britain in the only way it could ever function (it is touted) by 20 people talking to 20 people who talk to 20 people. The PR machines that operate under the guise of democratically-elected politicians and responsible police chiefs are the basic dietary supplement of any Fleet Street hack who works an intricate system of bribes and corruption to serve the public interest, or what has later become known as the ‘interest of the public’.

Billie Piper, who took the lead at the National, has been replaced by Lucy Punch at the Haymarket who plays the shallow and ruthless news editor Paige Britain who works the top brass at the Met along with politicians, inmates and sports stars to uncover the biggest scoops. The real-life name dropping is endless; Andy Coulson, Rupert Murdoch, Clive Goodman, Glenn Mulcaire, David Cameron and Gordon Taylor all feature, but the really intriguing one is Rebekah Brooks.

Punch’s sleek blonde look and insatiable appetite for scandal is a shocking indictment of the red top press. She bedded politicians and police officers, handed out bribes and was neck deep in the phone hacking scandal, but who was she? A somewhat isolated figure that looked the spit of Brookes, was fond of horses and took the moral high ground was introduced late on and mimicked Brookes’ career path as editor of The Sun, but she wasn’t notable. My take, and perhaps I’m delving too deep, is that Brookes could well have been being portrayed by both characters – one an outlandish scandal seeker and the other an innocent bystander – to reflect her role when working at the newspaper and the subsequent role she played in defending herself in the ongoing (at the time of the show’s release) trial.

If I were Bean I may have been tempted to keep the focus on phone hacking, but as it was the play attempts to cover Sarah’s Law, MP’s expenses and the farcical goings on at the Met. The variable smorgasbord of events successfully highlighted and comically slandered the relationship between the press, police and politicians, but as The Guardian’s Michael Billington noted, it did so through “a kaleidoscope of short scenes”. This made the narrative difficult to follow and, at three hours long, also made it drag.

Overall a very good show documenting a fascinating period of British press history, but read up before you go see it, you may get lost!

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