James Graham on his FT film exposing the ‘creeping data state’

The Covid-19 pandemic has so scrambled our lives that we have barely blinked when the state has told us how many people can attend a wedding, where we can travel or even whether we should hug each other. This normalisation of the abnormal, during the moral panic of a national healthcare emergency, is the subject of People You May Know, a short film written by the playwright James Graham and commissioned by the Financial Times.

One of Britain’s most inquisitive and versatile playwrights, Graham says he has long been worried about the expansion of the “creeping data state” and has an almost “existential anxiety about privacy on all levels, emotional, philosophical, political, social”. Those concerns were first explored in his play Privacy (2014) in response to the revelations of Edward Snowden, the US security contractor turned whistleblower, who described how “the architecture of oppression” of the surveillance state had been built, if not yet fully utilised. 

In his new FT film, Graham investigates how the response to the pandemic has enabled the further intrusion of the data state and what it might mean for us all. “The power of drama is that it allows you to take a few more stepping stones into the imagined future,” he says in a Google Meet interview. 

James Graham says that during lockdown he ‘started to feel more scrutinised than I ever have before’ © Andrew Crowley/Camera Press

Set a short time into that imagined future, the film revolves around the interrogation of a junior barrister, played by Lydia West (star of the recent Channel 4 drama It’s A Sin), about her behaviour during lockdown, as monitored by her internet-connected devices.

“I saw this film as a play on film rather than either a film or a play,” Graham says. It involves two people talking about big ideas, which we normally associate with the theatre. But the camera lens also captures so much more than a static audience: close-up shots of facial reactions conveying emotions as well as cutaways to outside events. We see two individuals playing a game with each other, with the subject under surveillance trying to hide her secret thoughts and feelings from an interrogator from a private software firm, played by Arthur Darvill. “That felt very, very exciting,” says Graham.

What particularly intrigues him, in the infancy of our algorithmic age, is how much of human behaviour can be predicted through data and what remains unique to the individual. For example, by analysing how people interact with its services, Facebook knows when a teenager is becoming politically radicalised, when a married woman’s relationship is deteriorating, when a middle-aged businessman starts suffering from early onset dementia.

Lydia West in ‘People You May Know’
Lydia West in ‘People You May Know’

“It’s murky, icky stuff and it’s exciting, wonderful stuff,” Graham says. In principle, some of our collective data could be used for the public good by helping to combat the pandemic or helping marginalised groups to assert their identity, he observes. But his concern is that such benefits are unlikely to materialise if data remains in the commercial domain and is primarily used to make money. 

“We’re allowed to be selfish,” he says. “As a society, we’re allowed to say, ‘I want all the good things that come with technology but I don’t want civil war or my society to collapse or injustice to increase.’ I think it’s completely reasonable to embrace the positives but question the negatives.”

Although Graham has for years been banging on about the issue of privacy to friends, he admits it is inherently a dry and cerebral subject that rarely triggers an emotional response. But he suggests there are occasional flashpoints that illuminate how algorithms are steadily encroaching into our lives, as we have been seeing during the latest crisis. One such incident occurred last summer when British A-level students poured on to the streets to protest against the automatically generated grades they had been given. “I was weirdly, vaguely encouraged by school kids in the street chanting the words ‘Fuck the Algorithm!’,” he says.

A scene from ‘People You May Know’
A scene from ‘People You May Know’

Whenever he (legally) left his own house for a jog during lockdown, he wondered whether his neighbours might think he was going out too much. That gnawing sense of being observed and publicly judged and shamed made him think that London was beginning to resemble communist-era East Berlin. “Even though we’re now locked down in our private spaces, in many ways I started to feel more scrutinised and under surveillance than I ever have before,” he says. 

Just as our private lives have become increasingly atomised during the crisis, so our public realm has also shrunk, Graham says. Theatres, cinemas and pubs are only now beginning to reopen and many high streets have turned into urban deserts. This erosion of social infrastructure is the theme of a television drama that Graham is writing for the BBC, which begins shooting in June, about the former mining community of Ashfield in north Nottinghamshire. He says he loves the people in the town, who are full of “vibrancy and warmth and love”, but adds that it is a very different community than it was 30-40 years ago because of the disappearance of the comedy club circuit, the marching bands, the adult learning classes. 

But there have also been times during the crisis when the country has pulled together again, reflecting a fundamental human desire to share and experience things as one. People stood on their doorsteps to applaud NHS workers while the prime minister enjoyed “Morecambe and Wise-style Christmas viewing figures” for his television broadcasts. One cultural event that became a shared collective experience was the ITV adaptation of Graham’s play Quiz, dramatising the controversy over whether Charles Ingram cheated on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? 

Matthew Macfadyen as Charles Ingram and Michael Sheen as Chris Tarrant in ITV’s adaptation of Graham’s play ‘Quiz’, dramatising the controversy over whether Ingram cheated on ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?’
Matthew Macfadyen, left, as Charles Ingram and Michael Sheen as Chris Tarrant in ITV’s adaptation of Graham’s play ‘Quiz’, dramatising the controversy over whether Ingram cheated on ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?’ © Alamy Stock Photo

Graham says he was delighted by the texts and messages he received from viewers saying it was the first TV drama in years that all the family had watched together in the same room at the same time. His excitement about having prompted a national conversation was only tempered by the surreal experience of only being able to follow it “in my pyjamas looking at my phone”.

As a writer, Graham has frequently explored the shadowlands between fact and fiction, depicting other living characters such as Prince Charles in the Netflix series The Crown, Dominic Cummings in the television drama Brexit: The Uncivil War and Rupert Murdoch in his play Ink. Graham says he was vaguely terrified when Murdoch himself came backstage after one performance in the West End — although the press magnate spent most of his time complaining about Facebook rather than discussing the play. Graham acknowledges there are dangers of misrepresenting living people and sticks to an unspoken rule that he will never change any character’s biographical details. But, arguing that artistic truth is different from documentary truth, he cites his favourite quote by Picasso: “Art is a lie that makes us realise truth.”

As Graham’s FT film shows, the pandemic has given artists fresh subjects to explore and new opportunities to seize. He hopes that release from lockdown will lead to a flourishing of new forms of art, but fears that many of the most creative artists have been hit hardest by the lockdown and that theatre managers may well play safe and revert to the most conventional fare. 

“When people think about ambitious art, they think you’re going to do something really pretentious and naff and vaguely German, like the story of the economic crisis with hand puppets or whatever. But it’s not about being experimental for experiment’s sake,” he says. In his view, the theatre has a “singular opportunity of invention when briefly the walls have come down and the hierarchical structures have exploded.” It is an opportunity not to be missed.

‘People You May Know’ is at

James Graham’s new play ‘Best of Enemies’ opens at London’s Young Vic later this year, 

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