x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

A glimmer of sympathy as I stepped into Murdoch's shoes

Rupert Murdoch's appearance in front of a parliamentary committee last week makes plain that the man with a fearsome business reputation has finally been brought low

'You couldn't make it up" is a phrase that used to be trotted out regularly when I was growing up, usually by my parents about some unlikely news story or twist of fate.

I've been reminded of this, not just because the phone-hacking scandal engulfing Rupert Murdoch and News Corp is barely credible, but also because I happen to be playing the man in a new play being staged in London about the events leading up to the 2003 Iraq war.

In truth, my moment as Mr Murdoch is only a brief telephone conversation conducted from offstage with the onstage prime minister, but it is a pivotal moment of the evening with Mr Murdoch promising the all-important backing of his media empire should Mr Blair decide to invade.

Such is, or was, Mr Murdoch's influence on public opinion. No British prime minister would have dared take such a step without his personal endorsement. Thus, even though my facsimile is heard and not seen, the portrayal has to sound authentic if the drama is to convince.

When I began rehearsals a few weeks ago I had preconceptions about how to portray the man, instincts confirmed by research.

Mr Murdoch is an impressive figure, but such is his fearsome business reputation and iron grip on swathes of the British media that he is regarded by many with barely disguised hostility. Here, I knew, was a man not to be trifled with.

And there he was, in interview after interview, a knowing smile stretched across otherwise implacable features, answering questions in a gently threatening Australian twang, suggesting both menace and unshakeable self-belief. I moulded my portrayal accordingly.

But after Mr Murdoch's appearance in front of a parliamentary committee last week to answer questions about the phone hacking furore, I've had to reappraise my interpretation. Because, from the moment he entered the committee room on Tuesday, it was clear something had changed.

Could this really be him? Stooped, contrite, he was shepherded tenderly to his chair by his wife.

"This is the most humble day of my life," he murmured.

At times he struggled to comprehend the queries put to him by the inquisitors, and in one particular instance there was a pause of nearly 10 seconds between the question and his response.

Once upon a time, such a delay would have been interpreted as a sign of polite contempt. Now his language was tinged with uncertainty: "I don't think so"; "I can't remember"; "If it was so I have no recollection of it." Hardly forceful phrases from the world's most powerful media mogul.

Worse still, Mr Murdoch suffered the final ignominy of having a foam pie pushed into his face by a nearby spectator, a comedian called "Jonnie Marbles" who has made something of a habit of carrying out asinine stunts on the pretext of making political protests.

How on earth Mr Marbles managed to smuggle in a plate and a tin of shaving foam amid such tight security is anyone's guess. His missile may only have landed a glancing whack before he was beaten back by a well-timed blow from Mr Murdoch's wife, yet her husband's understated reaction to the attack suggested little more than weary acceptance.

The result of all this - the inquisition, Mr Murdoch's evident discomfiture and the pie - was that suddenly I felt sorry for him. He no longer seemed the tycoon of popular perception, but an elderly man who was genuinely struggling to come to terms with the whole sorry mess.

At the next evening's performance I did not significantly change my portrayal, but for the first time I imbued my lines with a touch of genuine sympathy for my character.

Although our production has safely opened to enthusiastic audiences, several people have pointed out that when compared with the themes of Murdochgate being played out nightly on our evening news, the political shenanigans of the run-up to the Iraq war as portrayed in our nightly drama seem almost harmless.

Just think - the world's most feared businessman finally brought low, then having a pie pushed in his face before being rescued by his adoring wife. Now that really would make a great drama.

Except, of course, you couldn't make it up.

 

Michael Simkins is a writer and actor based in London