As tragic heroes go, former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown's downfall was one of the most public examples of vaulting ambition gone wrong. This is prime material for drama, which award-winning journalist and film maker Kevin Toolis has taken full advantage of in his forthcoming Edinburgh Festival Fringe play, The Confessions of Gordon Brown. While this solo work performed by Ian Grieve is ostensibly about Brown, as Toolis explains, there's a lot more going on beyond the purely biographical.
“The first job I ever had in 1983 was as a parliamentary press gallery reporter,” he says, “then I did a lot of work in Northern Ireland and in the Middle East. I encountered a lot of political structures and a lot of political leaders, in all different shapes and forms, from terrorist organisations, to bureaucracies. I was always very interested in leadership, and who is the leader, and I was always very interested in Gordon Brown. I think the play began when I was listening to BBC radio one night, and someone said that when he was in power, Gordon Brown was a Shakespearian tragic figure, but no-one could actually tell you from which play. He was a combination of Richard the Second, Hamlet, King Lear and Macbeth, which in a way summed up all these different aspects of Gordon Brown's character. He had a reputation as something of a factionalist, some of the things he did were a bit indecisive, but he was also a very good man. He's a much more complex human being than Alex Salmond. I could never do The Confessions of Alex Salmond, or even Tony Blair.
“Who we elect to be leader, and who we choose to become leader are absolute universal traits of society from the beginning of time. In a way you would recognise the same things in every political manifesto. The future's going to be better, our city shall shine upon the hill, we shall be victorious, the pound will remain strong, and tomorrow, crucially, the sun will rise from the east.
“So the play's about Gordon Brown, but it also has a universal quality, I hope, which really looks at
who are these people we've elected leaders, why do we have such faith in them, and why are we disappointed when they turn out to be actually pretty ordinary?”
Toolis has made something of a life study of political structures. His book, Rebel Hearts: Journeys Within the IRA's Soul is regarded as a definitive study of the Irish Republican movement. Toolis has also reported widely on conflicts in the middle east. He has also written scripts for Universal Pictures, and in the 1990s began making documentary films. Toolis co-founded Many Rivers Films, and recently co-produced the feature film, Complicit, a spy thriller involving an attempted British terror plot. As with all his work, The Confessions of Gordon Brown is as much about belief systems than anything. Following I, Tommy, Ian Pattison's comic study of disgraced former Socialist MSP Tommy Sheridan, Toolis' play is the latest play to look at living politicians rather than dead ones.
“It's not an authorised biography,” Toolis says, “and it's certainly not a hagiography. What I did do was to speak to large numbers of members of the Labour Party, significant members of Brown's leadership circle, from Douglas Alexander to Ed Balls to Damien McBride, and to many other people who would be on the fringes of that circle. I read every book there is about Brown, but it's not a documentary. It's an artistic interpretation, both of the man and of the universal king, and aspects of leadership, some of which are ancient, some of which are very modern.”
Given Brown is still very much alive and kicking, if keeping a low profile these days, what, one wonders, would he make of Toolis' play?
“I've no idea,” says Toolis. “Gordon Brown has something of a reputation for being a thrawn king, but the play is empathetic. It's not a hatchet job. It's a dramatic interpretation of a very important issue which transcends Gordon Brown, and is really about what it means to be a leader. There's a relevance there too to what's going on in Scotland right now with the forthcoming referendum. If Scotland goes independent, that will basically be about belief in Alex Salmond as the undisputed leader, who will lead us into the promised land, because we believe that we will, because he is the leader. He may be leading us into catastrophe, so maybe people will come out and not vote for him. The choice of leader, and the faith that the led put in the leader is absolutely crucial. The play examines that in great detail. We [put these leaders on a pedestal, and that's partly a problem with us, because we want to be led.”
The Confessions of Gordon Brown, Pleasance, Edinburgh, July 31st-August 26th
The Herald, July 16th 2013