He who made the Lamb - Murdoch as saviour
- Ink - at the Duke of York's until 6 January
CASTING RUPERT MURDOCH as hero might be an uncomfortable device in a work exploring Fleet Street on the cusp of its productive peak. Nevertheless, James Graham's Ink plays the Digger as a swashbuckling disruptor driven to sell newspapers by sating reader's tastes, whatever they may be.
The play succeeds because for all its high-octane staging - dancing subs, singing comps and a bare-bottomed photographer - it paints the extraordinary work and moral wrangling of tabloid production as a sophisticated human endeavour.
Its focus is Murdoch's acquisition of the Sun in 1969 - then a failing and inconsequential title. His audacious ambition was for it to overtake the world-beating Mirror. He achieved this in a year by poaching staff, pinching ideas and packaging news with the rumbustious swagger of a savvy tap-room wiseacre.
Murdoch's relationship with his editor drives the narrative. Larry Lamb steered the paper between its purchase by Murdoch and 1981 (with a break), refashioning a lame-duck title into one of the most successful newspapers of all time. Lamb, the the son of a colliery blacksmith in one of the Yorkshire coalfield's bleakest outposts, was clearly fired up by Murdoch. That spark led him to reinvent popular journalism for the post-deference, telly-infused, pop-music era.
He achieved this against a backdrop of creaking hot-metal technology and print-union power. Indeed, the play's greatest spectacle has a Linotype compositing machine rise through the stage to be fed a molten lead waterfall bisecting the mountain of office desks that provide backdrop and set. Its dramatisation of the journey from words to type, via compositing, stone, readers, flong, and rolling presses is a resonant evocation of a lost world of news production. Ink's oily aroma and the pugnacious camaraderie of the newsroom hang over the stalls.
It is the reporting of a kidnapping, and the birth of Page Three that gives the play its depth. In the first the kidnappers appear to have fed off the coverage of their own acts, with tragic results. The latter - a desperate ratings gambit - is the subject of argument and deep discomfort, that is as much about the feelings of the model as Murdoch's dismay at Lamb's reluctant innovation.
This illuminates a larger conflict - between Murdoch's rude populism and the Whiggish paternalism of Hugh Cudlipp, the Mirror editor who thought he was smart to unload the Sun on a hapless Australian. The hints are spare, at best however, of Murdoch's subsequent progress from maverick to monster.
The cast deliver their tale with an ebullient zing and fizz that perfectly matches their subject. Bertie Carve and Richard Coyle's Murdoch and Lamb in particular have a compelling visceral energy, while the booming noise of the entire production gives at least a little sense of a newspaper office in which the presses are rolling. That Graham leaves his audience to tease the morals from his tale is one of its appeals. Murdoch's democratic instincts are clearly attractive, but their consequences troubling. It begs the question of how to distinguish between mass appeal and a race to the bottom?
An early scene sees, Lamb attempting inspire his scratch newsroom. "We will have people writing their own news, so that they can read exactly what most interests them," he announces. Perhaps unsurprisingly the fun of "knickers week" and the serialised "Sensuous Woman" crowd out that endeavour. The irony, of course, is that social media's achievement of exactly that has provided the fresh disruptor at whose door can be laid the steady eclipse of the Sun's power, influence and profitability over the past decade.
Today Fleet Street is merely a metonym and the likely date of ink's last impression on newsprint is the subject of serious debate. Graham's play is a reminder of what a pumped place Fleet Street was. Turmoil in today's media might well be more revolutionary, but its appearance is bloodless by comparison.