In 2002, Glenn Mulcaire, a journalist working for Britain’s News of the World, hacked into the mobile phone of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler, intercepting and deleting messages left by relatives and giving false hope to parents and police that she was alive. The paper’s editor was Rupert Murdoch protegee Rebekah Brooks who went on to edit The Sun, the media mogul’s flagship tabloid, a rag founded, if one believes James Graham’s gripping and entertaining 2017 play Ink, on similarly despicable journalistic practices.
Robert Stanton, David Wilson Barnes, Bill Buell, Tara Summers, Eden Marryshow, Andrew Durand and Jonny Lee Miller in Ink. Photo © Joan Marcus
Love him (and presumably some do) or hate him, Murdoch has dominated international media since his 1969 takeover and turnaround of The Sun, then a failing leftish broadsheet in the stable of the overextended International Publication Corporation. IPC were keen to ditch a two million pound a year loser with a circulation of 800,000 and focus on the Daily Mirror, the company’s long-time golden goose and a paper that regularly shifted five million copies a day. The remarkable rise under editor Larry Lamb of the UK’s notoriously larrikin read, which within a year had outstripped its rivals to become the undisputed daily of choice for the common man, is the subject of Graham’s play, but it is also about a great deal more, not least of which are the consequences of a race to the journalistic bottom that are still with us today.
For all its wildly comical late-60s vibe and its cast of hilariously stereotypical amoral newshounds, Ink takes a perhaps surprisingly even-handed view of Murdoch and his stated aim to give the working man what he wants – be it gossip, giveaways, bingo or increasingly exposed, big-busted women. But even as the newspaper mogul spouts the democratic importance and value of an unfettered market, the dark side is increasingly clear, both in the tabloid’s willingness to exploit the kidnap and eventual murder of Muriel McKay, wife of Murdoch’s own deputy Sir Alick McKay, and the gradual shift towards the first official ‘Page 3’ girl, whose flash of sideboob would celebrate the paper’s first anniversary while sky-rocketing its burgeoning sales over the five million mark.
Jonny Lee Miller as Larry Lamb and Bertie Carvel as Rupert Murdoch in Ink. Photo © Joan Marcus
At the heart of it all are two remarkable performances from actors Bertie Carvel and Jonny Lee Miller. With their mutual ‘father issues’, Murdoch and Lamb made for natural bedfellows: the former, an Australian with several chips on his shoulder who would never be welcomed into the ‘old-boys-networkery’ and ‘gentlemen’s-clubbery’ of an industry then centred geographically on Fleet Street; the latter a colliery blacksmith’s son who had risen through the ranks, but for whom helming a national newspaper was considered a social step too far by a media establishment still dominated by a slew of Peers of the Realm.
Carvel’s rapaciously reptilian Murdoch captures the anti-establishment opportunism, endless insecurities, would-be snobberies and unexpected sexual prurience of the man who would go on to “launch a thousand tits” on an unsuspecting British public. He also does a deft line in man of mystery. With the exception of a famous David Frost interview, Carvel’s Murdoch is camera shy, often absent from where the action is, has few friends and is easily manipulated by his editor who occasionally spikes the paper’s horoscopes to influence the boss.
Bertie Carvel and Kevin Pariseau in Ink. Photo © Joan Marcus
Miller goes with him cheek by jowl, turning in a bravura performance as the man increasingly compromised by his ruthless quest to make a winner out of “Rupert’s shit sheet” while pummelling an institutionalised opposition who had looked down on and underestimated him for decades. As an actor, Carvel is a shapeshifter who won the Olivier for his Murdoch and originated the role of Miss Trunchbull in Matilda the Musical in London and on Broadway. That he makes no attempt at an Aussie accent adds to the veils beneath which his unguessed at Rupert Murdoch lurks. Miller is all fire and northern bluntness, going at staff like a sledgehammer, while hopelessly tongue-tied in the compromising scene where he tries to cajole Stephanie Khan (a refreshingly smart Rana Roy) into becoming the first topless model to feature in a British tabloid.
Among the rest of the hardworking cast of 18, Michael Siberry stands out for his sympathetic and convincing portrait of Hugh Cudlipp, the journalist, editor and IPC Chairman who oversaw the downfall of the Mirror before being eased out of the company (he would go on to become a Labour peer as Baron Cudlipp). Armed with an impeccable Welsh twang – and not all the mostly American cast are as successful in the accent department – he creates a sympathetic portrait of a man of principles who, pitted against the opportunistically self-serving Murdoch and the vengeful Lamb, sees the writing on the wall but is generationally ill-equipped to do anything about it.
Jonny Lee Miller in Ink. Photo © Joan Marcus
Equally convincing is Bill Buell as the vulgar, old-school sports editor Frank Nicklin and Robert Stanton as the finickity Bernard Shrimsley who swallows his graphic design aesthetics to produce the leeriest looking tabloid on Fleet Street. Tara Summers is convincing too as Joyce Hopkirk, the Sun’s no-nonsense women’s editor who persuades Khan, who is of Indian heritage, to change her name to Rahn as it will get her more work (that’s poetic license by the way as on that first Page 3, ‘Rahn’ was a sub-editorial typo). Less clear is why the Broadway run has turned the blunt subeditor Ray Mills (commonly known as BIFFO: Big Ignorant Fucker From Oldham) into a Jamaican complete with dodgy accent.
Ink comes complete with a gobsmackingly elegant set piled oppressively high with desks courtesy of the ever-resourceful Bunny Christie (who also did the fabulous period costumes), a frenetically effective lighting design by Neil Austin and a gorgeously energetic score by Adam Cork that riffs on the period without ever playing to the obvious stereotypes. Rupert Goold’s smart, intricately observed production moves effortlessly to Broadway from Islington’s Almeida Theatre with help from co-presenters Manhattan Theatre Club and producer Sonia Friedman.
The cast of Ink. Photo © Joan Marcus
By the end of the evening, the downward drift is clear. As Murdoch eyes up the Tories (especially “that promising bird in Education”), his conversion, partly aided by his exposure to the ruthless Lamb, is complete. The observation that he’ll “probably outlive us all” seems depressingly prescient. For all its spirit of fun, Ink stands as a well thought through and occasionally chilling testament to what all of us have allowed to happen, with the rank dishonesty of the current occupant of the White House the dispiriting final nail in the coffin.
Ink is running at Broadway’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre until June 23