Artists for Brexit talk to Julie Burchill and Jane Robins about Brexit, class, controversy and their new play, People Like Us.
Did the Brexit vote happen because we were all just a bit bored?
Julie Burchill: If becoming tired of holding still while people with power over you humiliate you and tell you it’s all for your own good can be included in the definition of boredom, yes.
How did you feel on 24th June 2016?
Jane Robins: I felt elated – I guess it was the thrill of insurrection. Also, for so long I’d felt powerless where the EU was concerned – because of the total lack of democracy. On 24th June I felt like singing that sixties anthem, ‘Power to the People.’ It was surreal because, all around me, the chattering classes were in a state of deep shock and grief. They thought the ‘bad people’ had won.
JB: I wanted to get drunk and kiss sailors! But I couldn’t find any in Brighton, so I just got drunk. It felt like an old-fashioned Labour victory, back from when I was a child.
What triggered the decision to write a play based on Brexit and how did the collaboration come about?
JR: In the weeks after the vote I noticed that Leavers were taking a lot of flak personally. Were scared to ‘come out’ at work, were subjected to a relentless tirade on social media by people who assumed that half the voting population were inward-looking, bigoted, racist. There was an assumed moral high-ground by Remainers that was overwhelming. Society had become so strange – and I thought the situation would make a good play. I befriended Julie on Facebook, and in no time had asked if she would like to co-author it. She took about ten seconds to make up her mind. Might have been less.
JB: It was Jane’s idea and fortunately for me she was too busy with her novel to do it alone. It was one of the best days of my later life when I met her!
Photograph courtesy of Paul Tierney
Tell us about People Like Us.
JB: In deepest North London, a civilised book group is reduced to feral savagery when the Brexit vote goes the *wrong* way…
JR: We’ve created an English drawing room drama, driven mad by Brexit. Our five characters are friends who have been attending the same book group for years – during their last meeting before the vote Brexit is in the air, and they are genial and funny – the assumption being that Remain would win and the status quo would survive. We have a failed novelist, a weary lesbian classics teacher, a clapped-out TV producer, a sexy young French environmentalist and a brand manager who wishes he was Stephen Fry. Someone for everyone.
The vote happens – and they all react in their different ways, testing the boundaries of friendship. And that’s what People Like Us is about really. Friendship. The theme is mega-serious, but we dare to hope that the play is mega-funny.
To what extent were the personalities of the characters informed by your personal experiences following the referendum?
JB: I fell out with a few Remainer mates but it didn’t last long. I’m too much fun to shun!
You actually present both sides of the leave and remain voice in the play. Do you have some sympathy for those who voted to remain? If yes, does that sympathy diminish as you read constant demands for a second referendum, or “People’s Vote”?
JR: To some degree, I feel their pain. I'd be upset too if I thought that our liberal values of tolerance, open-mindedness and freedom had been taken away. Of course, I think that those values are safe and sound, and that Remainers have just got us wrong. I wanted to put their pain into the play in a way that wasn’t totally alienating for Remain voters – and our Remain ‘characters’ are some of our strongest. Also, I wanted my Remain friends to enjoy the play, along with us Leavers. We’ve no idea whether we’ve achieved that, and will have to wait for the reviews.
As for the Second Referendum people – that’s not most Remainers. That’s the moneyed, powerful undemocratic hard-core. I don’t have sympathy for rich and powerful people trying to overturn a clear democratic mandate for change.
JB: No, I don’t have any sympathy for them. I truly believed my side would lose, and I was totally prepared for that - I even went to bed before the vote came in because I thought there was no point in waiting up. No Brexiteer would EVER have dreamt of calling for a second referendum - it’s typical of Remainer entitlement that they’re still stamping their feet in fury.
On some level, do you get a perverse pleasure in reading abuse from remain voters?
JR: The everyday abuse - which hasn't stopped in two years - is both toxic and boring. An unusual combination. But I’ve been greatly entertained by the bonkers tweets from A C Grayling, Alastair Campbell and Andrew Adonis. Sadly, like practically all Leavers, I’ve now been blocked by Graying and Adonis, so don’t get to see their latest ravings.
JB: I’ve always got a kick from being verbally abused, both privately and publicly - I’m one of those rare types who can dish it out and take it with impunity, and I’m very fortunate that my chosen profession has enabled me to make a handsome living from it.
Photograph courtesy of Yvonne Doyle
The country appears to have descended to stereotyping and dumping people into silos because of their political beliefs, not just on Brexit but on other societal issues. How did we end up so lazy and tribal?
JB: I think we were probably tribal all along and social media super-enabled it - a perfect storm of primitivism and technology.
Why do you think so many artists are not only pro-EU, but often very vocally so?
JB: Because their lives are very pleasant and that’s really all they care about, despite their altruistic speechifying.
When did the arts become so ‘establishment’?
JB: Because they’ve never let their own thinking be challenged. People who don’t subscribe to the liberal consensus have been shut out of the arts; you can see this most grotesquely on Radio 4, where especially on comedy panel shows LITERALLY EVERYONE THINKS THE SAME about every single political issue. If you only hear your own views ceaselessly reflected back to you, you become smug. And when you’re smug, you become the Establishment.
Is there something satisfying about being on the fringe in the creative community on the EU issue?
JB: I’ve always been unconventional ever since I was a child, so it just feels like business as usual!
What would you like to see artists doing in support of Brexit?
JB: Just put your best foot forward and look on the bright side. Nobody likes a moper.
You have both had successful careers as authors and journalists. Julie, you have written for, among others, The Sunday Times and The Mail on Sunday. Jane, you are a former journalist with The Economist, The BBC and The Independent on Sunday. Do you think that journalism has changed in recent years? Has the media become too dependent on its need for “clicks”?
JB: As a lifelong controversialist I’d be a bit of a hypocrite to condemn clickbait. And of course newspapers sell less mainly because of the internet. But I do think that a lesser reason is that journalism is so filthy with nepotism and has become a smug middle-class cul-de-sac now that bright working-class kids find it very difficult to enter. Will there be another Keith Waterhouse, another Caitlin Moran, another me? Not while the dull spawn of journalistic dynasties continue to use up all the column inches.
How, if at all do you think the media has contributed to the Brexit debate? Is there any news organisation that you believe to be pretty much balanced in its reporting on Brexit?
JB: Most of the coverage has been shameful - there are few sights more risible and repellent than media-ocrities protecting their privilege. The Spectator and Spiked! have been brilliant exceptions.
You’ve written extensively about ‘class’ in British society. To what extent was this a driver in your decision to support the Brexit vote?
JB: Very much so. I’m reasonably rich and successful now but I was brought up in a Communist household in which the greater good - and NOT the Great and the Good! - was the highest priority. And that’s what I think Brexit will bring - not just for us, but for the working-class of other countries who have suffered under EU rule.
Will you be collaborating again? What do you plan to write about next?
JR: We don't have plans to collaborate again – as we’re both very focused on our next projects. I’m a novelist. My current novel, a twisty psychological thriller, is called White Bodies and is OUT NOW. I’m working on my next novel – a psychological thriller in a literary setting. Actually, play-writing comes into it – as it begins at a play-writing Summer School in a remote West Country mansion.
JB: I think of our relationship as being like a lovely holiday romance - with Brexit as Love Island. I’m already halfway through a musical I’m doing with other people. But I hope we can still be friends!
Photograph courtesy of Mat Smith Photography
Finally, what do you think of Artists for Brexit? Are we the dark forces of evil’s “useful idiots”, as Matthew Parris called us, or are we simply part of the smallish bunch of artists who don’t see the creative world as intrinsically linked to a political trading bloc?
JB: Both, I hope - it will be quite the novelty to be a useful idiot after a lifetime of being a useless smarty-pants.
JR: It's because of Matthew Parris and those like him, that Artists for Brexit is needed! Continuity Remain has so much power and money, we have to stand together to resist them. Including their attempt to shut down voices like ours in the arts. United we stand!
People Like Us by Julie Burchill and Jane Robins
Union Theatre, 204 Union Street, London SE1 0LX
Tuesday 2nd October – Saturday 20th October 2018, 7.30pm
Book tickets here!