James Graham on his uplifting 2020 musical: ‘We want to look forward’

How does a playwright attempt to sum up 2020 in five minutes?

The answer, for James Graham, is with a musical short film, shot in lockdown, featuring a community choir and a Macedonian orchestra. Entitled We Begin Again, the film – a collaboration with the Guardian in partnership with the National Theatre – is released online on Thursday.

Graham and composer Jim Fortune decided they wanted to create something anthemic and uplifting, a balm at the end of a torrid year of Covid-19 restrictions and Brexit uncertainty. Tapping into the momentum of climate crisis protests and the Black Lives Matter movement, Graham wanted to look forward to the possibilities of 2021, as well as acknowledge the damage that has been done this year.

“We were talking about what kind of musical creative response we would want to give this time. I think we all instinctively knew we wanted to feel positive and be looking forward,” he said.

The cast forms a “family” featuring a grandmother (Anita Dobson), a dad (Zubin Varla), a mother (Susan Wokoma) and a teenager (Noah Thomas). The short was shot during a two-week period with only a director and one other person allowed to film the cast and choir members.

Working within the confines of song was a new challenge for Graham, who is known for his plays and TV projects that explore topical issues, such as his recent ITV show Quiz and the Channel 4 drama Brexit: The Uncivil War.

“To be totally honest I don’t think I’m naturally suited to that kind of economy of language,” says Graham. “It was like a one-pot dish that you’ve got to pack with flavours and ingredients.”

Graham worked with Fortune to craft a song that was then directed by Amy Hodge and shot by the Guardian’s Noah Payne-Frank. Hodge, who also directed the Guardian’s previous video series Europeans: Dramas from a Divided Union, said shooting during lockdown was “riddled with challenges”.

“In musicals, when talk fails, you have to sing – and so this became a musical short. Working with the NT’s brilliant Public Acts, who make theatre with community participants across the country, we put the community at the heart of the project,” she said. “We hope we’ve made something that can lift everyone’s spirits.”

The film is the latest theatrical video project from the Guardian, which partnered with the Royal Court for 2014’s Off the Page microplay series and Headlong on 2017’s Brexit Shorts, which featured Graham’s play Burn about an internet troll.

Graham is optimistic about what could come next and hopes the song can inspire people who hear it. “Let’s not pretend that the next few years, as we try to recover from this crisis, is going to be all singing or dancing. It’s going to be really hard,” he said.

“But the song is about raising the obvious point that this is an opportunity to approach those challenges in a proactive and positive way.”