Bloody Difficult Women: Press Gazette review of play by Tim Walker

Review: Paul Dacre's vagina monologues as imagined by Tim Walker debuts at Riverside Studios

Paul Dacre play

Former Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre (as played by Andrew Woodall) is the villain and comic star turn of new play Bloody Difficult Women written by journalist Tim Walker.

The scenes involving Dacre could aptly be described as The Vagina Monologues – leaning as they do on his reputed fondness for a certain four-letter expletive.

The play offers a behind the scenes look at Gina Miller’s fight to stop Theresa May invoking Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty triggering Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union without a vote in Parliament.

After May and Miller, the third central character in the play is Dacre who was editor of the Daily Mail in 2016 and 2017 when the action was set.

May is presented as a PM so awkwardly obsessed with winning Dacre’s support and approval that she held a special 60th birthday party purely on the pretext of having him there.

(This detail is imagined by Walker, but we do know that May attended a party to mark Dacre’s 25th year as editor and that he was also the only media figure to receive hospitality from May during her first six months in office, a private dinner at Number 10.)

The Dacre of the play is a man obsessed with getting Brexit over the line and who feels proudly responsible for the country’s narrow vote in favour of Leave in 2016.

Press Gazette’s analysis suggested highly partisan pro-Brexit coverage in the Daily Mail, Sun and Telegraph may have been pivotal in swinging the vote.

The scenes set in the offices of the Daily Mail imagine Dacre’s mounting fury as Miller’s legal case sought to thwart the will of the British people (as he would see it) or uphold democracy and the rule of law (as she saw it).

An imagined conversation sees a Dacre lieutenant ask why they are required to dig up dirt on Miller. Dacre replies: “It’s our job to keep every one of these c**ts in line and this woman is seriously out of line.”

The dramatic high point of the play comes when (in November 2016) Miller won her case against the government and three High Court judges ruled  Parliament should have the final say on triggering Article 50 and Britain’s exit from the European Union.

“Three f**king c**ting judges versus 17.4m people,” fumes Dacre.

What to go with as a headline?

“Bastards… no, too short… traitors?… No, needs a two deck headline with real punch. Get this down you c**t – enemies of the people.”

What about the lawyers?

“I decide what goes in this paper, not the lawyers.”

Later on in the play, events take on a darker tone as Miller complains about receiving threats in the post and below the line on unflattering Mail Online stories.

The Dacre character muses about whether “Enemies of the People” will become his epitaph, as the 1939 front page “There Will Be No War” was for Daily Express editor Arthur Christiansen.

“We’ve got to call these moments in history right,” he says.

Late on in the play a defeated-looking Dacre shares the news with a colleague that he is being moved upstairs with his beloved Daily Mail placed in the hands of “Geordie c**ting Greig”, the Remain-supporting editor of the Mail on Sunday. Greig attended the play’s opening night at Riverside Studios in Hammersmith (as did Gina Miller) but there was no sign in the audience of Dacre.

Catching up with playwright Walker afterwards I ask him whether he has had the play legalled? “Yes.”

He worked at the Mail himself so how sure is he about the fruitiness of the language? (Choice phrases coming from the Dacre character include, “I want her skeletons disinf**kingterred” and “f**k me sideways with a Flymo”.

Walker said: “I worked at the Mail for a decade but interestingly Dacre only swore at men on over £100k. Always courteous to women or people lower down the rungs. He expected a lot of his senior people. No one was intimidated by his swearing. It was just his way. Commonplace in all newsrooms once.”

Does he think that Enemies of the People front page helped hasten Dacre’s departure as editor?

“There was speculation that the Enemies of the People headline worried Rothermere but I was assured it was not a factor in him stepping down so the Dacre character says it was long planned and connected to his birthday.”

Dacre’s return as editor-in-chief of the Mail titles prompted a late rewrite of the final scene, which imagine Miller and May meeting in the present day and musing over the actions of a mutual enemy, Boris Johnson

Overall, Bloody Difficult Women is great fun and a must-see for media watchers and political anoraks with Andrew Woodall’s Paul Dacre scenes well worth the price of admission on their own.

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Author: Dominic Ponsford

Dominic Ponsford is the editor of Press Gazette