Ink is a new play running at the Almeida Theatre in London, written by James Graham, author of the very successful drama about 1970s politics, This House. Its subject is the relaunch of The Sun newspaper under owner Rupert Murdoch (played by Bertie Carvel) and editor Larry Lamb (Richard Coyle). It’s a clever and entertaining play, inventively directed by Rupert Goold, that homes in accurately on a key turning point in modern culture. A West End run is promised, and its eventual conversion into a TV play would seem a certainty. It’s a story that demands to be told.
Ink is all about the importance of stories. It starts off with Murdoch asking Lamb what makes a good story. Lamb responds with the five Ws – who, what, where, when, why – expressing caution over the last of those, because once they know why, your reader no longer has any interest in the story. The newspaper does not really want to say why – it just need its story to run on, day after day, endlessly.
The Sun newspaper (then a broadsheet) was founded in 1964 as a replacement for the Daily Herald, a failing, Labour-supporting title owned by IPC. The change of title was not matched by changed by a change in editorial vision, and the title floundered against the mass market’s leading daily, the Daily Mirror. In 1969 the Australian Rupert Murdoch, already owner of the Sunday title News of the World, bought The Sun and launched it as a tabloid under the editorship of Larry Lamb, an ambitious and somewhat embittered northern editor of the Daily Mail who felt he had never been given the editorial opportunity his talents merited.
The first first half of the play celebrates the change Lamb created, under Murdoch’s direction. With minimal resources and in the face of hostile peers, exemplified by the Mirror‘s Hugh Cudlipp (played by David Schofield), Lamb’s paper embraces the new age of individualism. The Sun isn’t there to educate; it’s mission is to entertain. This is expressed through a breezy, occasionally musical, ensemble performance from Lamb’s motley gathering of overlooked hacks who somehow create a paper that people want to read rather than ought to read. It has an air of the earthy collective endeavour of a Carry On film, in which an unlikely group of misfits somehow succeed in their mission through good humour, bad puns and smut – Carry On Printing.
The second half changes the mood, which turns moral. It is less successful dramatically, as zest is replaced by angst, but the playwright really had no other option (if he wasn’t to end up with a celebration of Rupert Murdoch). Things begin turning dark with the dreadful story of Muriel McKay, wife of the paper’s deputy chairman, who was kidnapped by a duo whose intended target had been Murdoch’s wife. The paper throws everything into the reporting the story, but when the victim is murdered, the question is asked whether all the publicity had driven the kidnappers to kill her. Lamb, oppressed by the thought of what he has unleashed, yet equally driven by the need to push up the circulation figures and beat the Daily Mirror, takes the dramatic step of introducing nudes on Page 3.
This move, destined to become the one thing for which Lamb is now remembered (as his character ruefully recognises), is treated as an act of guilty desperation, connected somehow with the shame of the McKay coverage. In reality, the kidnapping occurred when the paper was just six weeks old, while the first Page 3 picture was published on the newspaper’s first birthday – but, in true hack tradition, never let the whole truth spoil a good story.
Lamb did write in later life that he regretted the introduction of Page 3 nudes, but there was little such regret felt at the time. It was a natural expression of the cheapness of the age. But it does give the play its particular quality, as the contemporary viewpoint of the first half is replaced by posterity’s shame in the second.
The play ends as it begins, with Murdoch and Lamb at a restaurant table. Lamb has become imprisoned by the monster he has created. Murdoch, however, has moved on. He has bought some land in the Docklands area, he has been investigating computers, he is going to America to get into TV, and he has noted a ‘bird’ in the new Conservative government who sounds promising (Graham gets a laugh from the audience without even having to name Margaret Thatcher). Murdoch is thinking beyond Fleet Street, hot metal, print, and supporting Labour. All that we have seen was just a stepping stone for him.
Early on in the play Stephanie Rahn (the first Page 3 model) says that she has been taking acting classes and is appearing in Tamburlaine. There’s a missed opportunity there. The Christopher Marlowe play Graham ought to have referenced is Doctor Faustus. Murdoch in that final scene is revealed to be a Mephistopheles, who has given Lamb the power and circulation figures that he craved, but at the loss of his soul. The one can never be touched by the limitations that constrain mere mortals; the other cannot help but be chained down by them. But both are in Hell, nor are they out of it.
The real Larry Lamb carried on as editor of The Sun until 1981 (with a mid-70s hiatus), to be replaced by Kelvin Mackenzie, who made the paper far more hard-hitting, eye-catching, uglier but iconic. Lamb was knighted, then became editor of the Daily Express, but in the newspaper world he had lost his way, no longer able to challenge in the circulation wars. He belonged to a more innocent age, sharing in the spirit of Donald Magill postcards and Carry on Camping, more naughty than nasty. But each lives in the age in which they find themselves, and then is judged by the next. Ink is our judgment on the past, because we live with the consequences.
- Ink is sold out at the Almeida, but it moves to the West End and the Duke of York’s Theatre in September 2017
- Roy Greenslade’s 2000 obituary in The Guardian for Larry Lamb, under whom he worked for a time, is qualified in its praise (“Although we fought, and I lacked any sympathy for his leadership methods, I never lost my respect for him as a newspaperman.”)
- The story of The Sun is well told in Chris Horrie and Peter Chippindale’s book Stick It Up Your Punter!: The Uncut Story of the Sun Newspaper