Research, research, research! We've covered so much ground during the first week of This House rehearsals. As you might expect with a play so steeped in the history of British politics, our first week has been predominantly focused on finding out what the hell was going on between 1974 and 1979 in UK politics. James Graham's brilliant play focuses on the turbulent Labour governments of, firstly the hung parliament of February 1974 and then the slim majority held by Harold Wilson in October 1974, followed by James Callaghan in 1976 and ending with Margaret Thatcher sweeping to power in the now infamous general election 1979.
There are some 66 MPs mentioned in the play and one of the first things we got to grips with was naming each of them. As is protocol in the House of Commons, James uses a device whereby we announce each MP by their constituency - 'The Member for Bromsgrove' or 'The Member for Woolwich West'. These are real people and we wanted to put a face to name. Many of the actors are playing multiple roles, so it's really important for them to know who they are portraying. There are a couple of famous faces that make an appearance in the play, Kenneth Clarke, Airey Neave and Michael Heseltine to name a few. The research we've gathered about all the MPs not only helps the actors to get into the mind of their characters, it also helps the audience to see the whole shape and world of the play develop.
We've had a couple of high profile interesting guests in during the week. Lord Grocott, MP for Lichfield and Tamworth from 1974-1979 and Sir John Randall, MP for Uxbridge and South Ruislip from 1997-2015 (now home to our current Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson). John Randall was also a Whip under Tony Blair's administration. As This House revolves around the Whips and their offices, his insight and anecdotes were invaluable. Interestingly, both Sir John and Lord Grocott identified the Palace of Westminster as the third character in the story of parliament. They described our history and our politics being shaped by the building and the chamber itself being shaped by the people who occupy it.
So on Tuesday we all went down to the Palace of Westminster for a guided tour of the House of Lords and the House of Commons. It was a huge privilege to see the building up close and personal. It's an iconic building that is synonymous with British history. It felt hugely familiar, yet distant at the same time. This House takes place in and around the House of Commons, so all our interests spiked when we entered the Members' Lobby of the Commons. Unlike the ornate and regal Lords, the Commons end of the Palace of Westminster is more basic and modest (though still beautiful). We discovered the Whip's offices, the division lobby, the chamber and the famous 'Black Rod' doors.
It was thrilling and humbling to see the chamber of the House of Commons, a place that has made so many decisions during our history. The cast experienced first hand the atmosphere of the 'arena' and will take this experience back to the rehearsal room as we begin to stage the play in week two.
I'll leave you with some bizarre facts about parliament that we've discovered this week:
You can't legally die in the Palace of Westminster. This would involve a Royal coroner to investigate as the Palace of Westminster is still technically a Royal palace. The guides therefore say, you are immortal for as long as you remain on the grounds of the palace.
Westminster Hall is the oldest remaining part of the building dating back to the 11th century. Apparently a few years ago, they discovered a tennis ball in the wooden beams of the ceiling dating back to Henry VIII.
Charles I was tried in Westminster Hall, as were Lady Jane Grey and Guy Fawkes.
They still check the basement for gunpowder on November 5th each year.
The Queen is banned from entering the House of Commons, a tradition dating back to Charles II.
Big Ben, or the Elizabeth Tower is beginning to tilt. When the London Underground extended the Jubilee line, they built the new line running directly under the tower, weakening its foundation.