~ Posted by Robert Butler, May 1st 2012
The British establishment never liked him. They said he wasn't "from these shores". They objected to the way he ran his newspapers as a business and held out the offer of lucrative columns or favourable coverage to MPs who might be able to advance his interests. He even went so far as to change his passport. Many objected to his ownership of the country's most prestigious newspaper, saying he wasn't a "proper person" to hold this position. But he was contemptuous of his opponents, including the Press Council. What he noticed, he said, was how people came to him: "People disgrace themselves around me". When his closest adviser told him, "We need the government", he replied, "Not as much as the government needs us."
Of course, all these details are entirely fictional. They come from David Hare and Howard Brenton's play, "Pravda", subtitled "a comedy about Fleet Street", which opened at the National Theatre in May 1985. The central character, Lambert LeRoux, was a newspaper tycoon, who was played, with magnetic ferocity and charm, by Anthony Hopkins. The play itself is no longer in print. But after seeing, this morning, that the select committee on culture, media and sport had concluded that Rupert Murdoch was "not a fit person" to run a major international company, I was curious to re-read Hare and Brenton's depiction. Hadn't they warned us about this sort of thing all those years ago?
At lunchtime I went to the National's archive department and they gave me a box-file which contained the original prompt copy. I could see which lines had been deleted in rehearsals, and which lines had been tippexed over, and where new lines had been typed in. I could remember the wave of laughter that greeted the end of Hopkins' first speech when he told us what he liked about animals, birds and plants ("they fucking get on with it and don't stand about complaining all the time"). It had been a very British night at the theatre—the joke was on the audience. Here was a media mogul from overseas running rings round the rest of us. And it was easy for him because he wasn't playing by the same rules.
If only Hare and Brenton would revisit this subject 30 years on and Hopkins would return to the role. Lambert LeRoux was his most seductive villain before Hannibal Lecter (1991). Imagine him playing LeRoux as an elderly man, when he no longer held the brutalising power that he once did. It is, after all, one of the classic storylines. After "Pravda" opened, it was performed in rep with Hare's production of "King Lear", with Hopkins playing the lead. This time, there'd be no need for his Lear.
Robert Butler is online editor of Intelligent life