I watched the first two episodes of the latest series of Succession with 2,000 other people, at the premiere, in London’s Festival Hall. The following day, I was at a football match between Manchester City and Burnley. The experiences were not without similarities, and whereas I have known since childhood why crowds get excited by football, it was quite something to be part of a similar reaction to a fictional portrayal of a hateful bunch of spoilt kids and ambitious executives scheming around the fading star of a power-crazed and often brutal media mogul.
When writer Jesse Armstrong came on stage to kick things off, it was to the sound of cheering and clapping so loud he looked both taken aback and a little embarrassed. When Brian Cox led his fellow actors out to join him, you’d have thought Cristiano Ronaldo was making his return to Old Trafford.
As the screening itself began, even the title sequence, focused on grainy footage and old photos of the fictional Roy family growing up, was accompanied by excited applause. As the story unfolded, clever lines were met with raucous laughter; surprise storyline twists were greeted with gasps and oohs and aahs; and you had factions within the crowd cheering on the characters on screen as they jockeyed to replace Cox’s Logan as CEO of the media empire he had built. ‘Come on, Shiv,’ from the seat behind me, said with the exact same excited exhorting tone that enters my voice when Burnley get a corner. ‘Ger-ri, Ger-ri’ was likewise an improbable chant at one point in a corner of the auditorium. What became clearer and clearer, as the night wore on, is that Succession is a Phe-Nom-E-Non with a capital P, with the potential to become something of a cult.
The laughter was the thing that took me aback more than anything else. There was I, a fan of Series one and two, and a friend of Brian Cox, with whom I have had long discussions about the positive force of good swearing, and the corrupting influence of media oligarchy, thinking it was a serious drama about power, money, love, hate, treachery and betrayal. I wasn’t alone in finding the experience of watching in a crowd so different to watching at home with a partner and a dog on the sofa. “I am confused,” said a woman we shared a lift with on the way out. “I never realised it was a comedy.”
It isn’t just a comedy. But my God, it is funny. And it has to be. For without that humour, the characters are merely hateful. Armstrong really has created a cast of characters that go beyond simply being people we ‘love to hate.’
So it remains a serious drama about power, money, love, hate, treachery and betrayal, and at the risk of making it into Private Eye’s Pseuds’ Corner, episode two in particular felt like a theatre piece, part Shakespearean comedy, part Shakespearean tragedy, much of it just the four kids in one room, as Kendall tried to win his warring siblings to his side in his battle to “kill off” his father. He goes all geo-strategic on them, confirming their view that he has lost his marbles. Yet he has a point. ‘We are a declining empire inside a declining empire,” he says, so far so Shakespearean. “Amazon is 20 years old, Bill Gates is an old geezer, we detoxify the brand and we can go supersonic.” But it means first getting rid of the “rotten cabal” led and represented by their father. “Rotten cabal is a great name for a rock band,” says Roman, owner of many of the best one-liners, unconvinced.
Yet Kendall can go from these big picture analyses to an almost childlike excitement, as when cousin Greg, who is permanently comic, tells him that “the Pope is following you on Twitter,” only to discover it is “a pope,” not “the Pope.” Then both get so carried away by the adrenaline-pumping thrill of being chased to their car by hordes of media following Kendall’s declaration of war against his father that Greg gushes: “This is like OJ.” The trouble is, the car, victim to the New York traffic, isn’t moving, and in any event, Greg adds: “I mean if OJ never killed anyone.”
I think it was the sheer cleverness of the writing, allied to the superb comic timing of characters we now think, after two series, that we know as real people in our lives, that combined to produce these gales of laughter blowing around Festival Hall. Sometimes, that writing doesn’t even involve a single word. As when we learn that when Logan calls Shiv, a picture of Saddam Hussein fills the screen of her phone.
Brutal dictator with tortured sons he may be, yet how not to love the mock sympathy Logan extends to hapless Connor, the eldest child with absurd pretensions to be US President, who complains he had to get a scheduled flight after being stranded by Dad? “That’s tough,” sighs Logan, who has long forgotten what it feels like to get on an ordinary flight with ordinary people. Yet his eyes also tell you, as they tell his son, that he came from nothing, and their gilded existence is all down to him.
Yet how can you also not hate a man who says so many utterly brutal things to his own children? “Do you want me to ride with you in the car?” asks Roman. “Do you want to suck my dick?” Door slams. Roman looks crushed. Shiv smiles, enjoying the cruelty being inflicted on someone other than herself.
Is it the sheer dysfunction of the seemingly successful family that makes for the fascination? Or it is this looking in on their life of luxury, of private jets and helicopters and the best that money can buy, not least the battles to hire the most expensive lawyers for the fights among themselves? This is not how the other half live, but how the one percent of the one percent lives. And while both Armstrong and Cox insist that the Roys are not based on the Murdochs, it is hard to avoid the parallels. Children vying for attention, power, and jobs in the empire, ever moving up and down in their father’s affections and respect as he thinks beyond the here and now towards legacy. The sense of the family being more like a court. The use and abuse of media interests for political influence. The sailing close to the borders of legality, and sometimes crossing it, which is what inspires the central new storyline of Kendall v Logan. The sense of entitlement, yet mixed with an insecurity born of not feeling appreciated by the wider world.
Cox’s fictional Logan swears more than the real Rupert. Indeed the only Murdoch swearing I recall from various interactions with them came not from father, but son James, much of it directed at Murdoch Sr when, in the presence of Tony Blair, they were arguing about the Middle East. James was more sympathetic to the Palestinian cause than his Dad, whose defence of Israel, and US backing for Israel, provoked an F-word tirade of which Logan Roy would have been proud, and which prompted Murdoch to rebuke his son for “speaking like that in front of the Prime Minister.” We both assured them Tony had heard far worse.
And whereas Murdoch has changed his nationality from Australian to American for business reasons, Logan has a similar fluidity for dramatic reasons. “Everyone seems to have forgotten that in the first series, I was born in Quebec, with a very Canadian brother,” Cox told me a while back. “Then we’re filming one day and someone tells me we are all heading to Dundee, and they tell me why, that Logan is visiting the town where he was born, and I say ‘but Logan was born in Quebec.’ Not any more. Dundee! He was born in Dundee.”
Cox prefers the working-class Dundee storyline, because it supports his central reasoning behind his insistence that Roy is not Murdoch. “Logan Roy made himself. Murdoch was born into it, like Logan’s kids were, like Murdoch’s kids too.” “Is that why he is so horrible to them?” I ask.
“You see him as being horrible to them?” asks Cox. “Vile.” I suggest he resents them having been born into fame and wealth and success, whereas he had to struggle? “Yes, he does. But then he knows they had no choice. He does love them, you know. He really does.”
“So why is he horrible to them?” “He is disappointed in them. But he loves them.” And so, judging by the reaction of the audience, does the growing army of Succession fans around the world, without fully knowing why.
Succession continues on Sky Atlantic and Now on Mondays