Never Had It So Good by Howard Brenton, BBC Radio 4, 1 January 2009
This documentary brought together Howard Brenton and Jeremy Irons, writer
and director of the hit 2008 play Never Had It So Good, and Lord Stockton, grandson of the former Prime Minister
Harold Macmillan, to discuss the way in which 'Supermac' had been portrayed in Brenton's work. As a writer previously associated
with the Left, Brenton's decision to write about Macmillan seemed rather surprising; the author explained that he wanted to
write about the Conservative Party, and had been drawn to Macmillan on account of the politician's sense of humour. On one
occasion Macmillan admitted that he could not give good speeches as he had trouble with his teeth.
Macmillan's political life was coloured by his traumatic experiences in the trenches
during the First World War. His personal life was equally turbulent; having had a homosexual affair during his youth, he entered
into a loveless marriage. His wife Dorothy had a well-publicised affair with Lord Boothby, but Macmillan hadn't the heart
to divorce her. However he managed to rise above these troubles and seize power with a mixture of iron will and political
Brenton admitted that he was fascinated by Macmillan the man - someone who was perfectly
happy making policy U-turns, so long as he profited from them. Never Had It So Good portrayed him as a Judas Iscariot-like
figure, particularly during the Suez Crisis of 1956, when he opposed the then Prime Minister Sir Anthony Eden and thereby
secured Eden's downfall. Lord Stockton admitted that this facet of his grandfather's character had been accurately represented
in Brenton's play.
Sometimes Brenton embellished the facts - as, for example, in the way he showed
Macmillan being scandalised by Peter Cook's satirical impersonation of him in Beyond the Fringe. In truth Macmillan
understood that Cook was a product of changing times, as Britain adjusted to the experience of the post-colonial period. Patrician
politicians like Macmillan were gradually perceived as anachronisms, and out of touch with contemporary events. Brenton admitted
that he had altered the facts as a way of apologising for the fact that he had opposed Macmillan during his student days.
But now the wheel had come full circle; in an interesting coda to the documentary
Brenton and Irons explained that Never Had It So Good had proved extremely popular with the kind of middle-aged audiences
who grew up during the 1960s, and who now yearned for the kind of stability and order associated with the Macmillan era. This
was especially evident in late 2008, as Britain lurched towards the worst economic crisis it had experienced in two decades.
This was a fascinating programme, proving beyond doubt that Brenton (once the enfant
terrible of the British theatre at the time of The Romans in Britain (1981)) had now taken his place as a denizen
of the Establishment. The producer was Kevin Dawson.