A chat with Jonathan Maitland, author of Dead Sheep
by Andrew Wilson
It was Denis Healey, then-Chancellor of the Exchequer, who famously said in 1978 that being attacked by Geoffrey Howe in Parliament was “like being savaged by a dead sheep.”
Jonathan Maitland has a rather more affectionate metaphor for describing Howe’s relationship with his wife, the formidable Elspeth, and his boss Margaret Thatcher: “A panda between two lionesses.”
It’s a perfect soundbite to publicize his new play, which opens at the Park on April 1. A journalist by trade (Radio Four, ITV), Maitland explains why he found the story of Howe’s takedown of Thatcher in 1990 such an engaging subject for a play.
“Geoffrey’s speech was not what he wanted to do,” he says, “but it was a wonderful assertion of decency, integrity and bravery. He realized he’d been as loyal as he possibly could, the last Thatcherite standing... It was an honourable political betrayal, for the highest stakes imaginable.”
At the time, Thatcher had been in power for 11 years. Howe had been her Chancellor of the Exchequer and Foreign Secretary as well as her friend, but she had become increasingly dismissive of him in private, and had demoted him to lesser positions. Howe’s November 1 speech to Parliament, criticizing her position on Europe, was the beginning of the end for Thatcher; by the end of the month she resigned as Prime Minister.
“The timing was crucial,” Maitland says, reflecting on the speech’s devastating impact. Television had just begun bringing parliamentary proceedings to a huge potential audience, Thatcher’s hold over Cabinet was now “wobbling”, and nominations for the leadership of the party were due to close a few days after Howe spoke. Timing today is also important for the play, he notes, with the May 7 election during the run of the play, and the ongoing fascination with Thatcher.
Maitland’s research for the play, his first, drew from a variety of sources, including Howe himself and journalist colleagues who covered Westminster over the years. One of his best sources was Howe’s private secretary, Sir Stephen Wall, whom he describes as “helpful, interested, and interesting. As well as some personal information, he supplied some crucial sartorial details.” Park audiences should watch for a replica of the distinctive jumper that Howe used to wear on Sunday mornings: Maitland confides, “My mother-in-law is actually knitting it now.” (Sir Stephen Wall will participate in a special Q and A session with the playwright and producer immediately following the 15:00 matinee on Thursday April 2. There will be more matinee Q&As on April 16, 23 and 30, and on May 6 at 19:30.)
Asked about casting Spitting Image’s Steve Nallon as Thatcher, Maitland describes it as inspired. “There have been lots of films and plays about Thatcher played by very good actresses,” he says, “and when (actor and impressionist) Alistair McGowan suggested Nallon to me, I thought oh no, people will say it’s a caricature. But I slept on it and changed my mind. Steve actually inhabited her, studied her, psychologically stalked her for 30 years, and he’s extraordinary, mesmeric in the part.”
“And Elspeth (played by Jill Baker) is a fantastic character,” he adds, underlining that the story is as much personal as political. “Essentially it’s about this decent bloke who’s being given a hard time by his boss, while his wife tells him ‘Why do you put up with all that from her?’”
One of the striking features of the play is a kind of Greek chorus made up of Cabinet Ministers, who have some of the wickedest lines. “That was Steve Nallon’s idea, actually” says Maitland, again quick to give credit. Since younger audiences won’t remember the events, Maitland originally wrote in radio bulletins to provide crucial background information. “Coming from radio myself, that was my first choice. But then sitting and listening to a series of bulletins isn’t theatre – it’s radio.”
During our interview, Maitland takes a moment to confer with sound designer Tristan Parkes. They are “auditioning” explosions to represent the IRA bomb that killed Howe’s Cabinet colleague, Ian Gow. The journalist in Maitland is only too aware that different bombs make distinct sounds, and he wants to make sure that explosion sounds authentic. But they have an alternative, Parkes reports: one of Maitland’s BBC colleagues, Kathy Clugston, has recorded a news bulletin for them, which has just arrived on Parkes’ Macbook.
“Amazing timing,” says Maitland, “I only asked her to do it this morning!”
Sound designer Tristan Parkes discusses explosions with Jonathan Maitland