If the BBC's The Hour was an ersatz Mad Men, then what is ITV's Breathless?

This was a pale imitation of a pale imitation - but I loved it.


OK, this could be complicated. If the BBC’s drama The Hour was an ersatz Mad Men, then what is ITV’s Breathless (Thursdays, 9pm)? It’s a pale imitation of a pale imitation, that’s what. Still, I liked it. No, scratch that: I loved it. You have to love a series whose writers’ pitch was clearly: “This is Mad Men on a budget with doctors and nurses.” The chutzpah of it! Also, the slight campness. “You’ll find London full of temptations,” says Matron Vosper (Diane Fletcher) to Angela Wilson (Catherine Steadman), a pert new nurse recently transferred from Portsmouth. “And this hospital is no exception. Try not to make a fool of yourself.” If Leslie Phillips had appeared from behind the nearest curtain, a part of me wouldn’t have been surprised.

It is 1961 and things are about to change: Betty Friedan, the Pill, all that. For the time being, though, girls still wear pearls and contraception remains a tricky business. A lot of women want nothing more than to get hitched and keep house. And if you’re in the market for a husband, where better to work than a hospital bulging with dashing, well-paid, highly sexed doctors?

Angela’s sister, Jeanie, is about to tie the knot with a junior doctor called Dr Truscott (Oliver Chris), a union that will see her moving up in the world about a thousand notches. She has done her last shift on the wards – married women don’t work, or not in this version of the early Sixties (in fact, many did) – and is already socialising, slightly uncomfortably, with her new peers, among them the queenly Elizabeth (Natasha Little), the wife of her husband’s boss, the gynaecologist Otto Powell (Jack Davenport).

I liked the way these relationships were drawn, the attention the writers (Paul Unwin and Peter Grimsdale) have given to social class: think of Breathless as a medical pyramid with Otto at the top. Ah, yes, Otto. Davenport, who can often be something of a plank on screen, is so well cast here: his expression when he told a newly married man that his wife was still, alas, virgo intacta was (to pinch from those voice-overs he does for MasterCard) priceless, only the merest hint of a curl at the edges of his mouth. But beneath his smooth exterior – I’ve seen conkers and even silk handkerchiefs that look rougher – kindness lurks and perhaps a touch of righteousness. For by night, Otto dashes about London helping rich girls out by giving them illegal abortions.

I’ve just written a book about this period and the way women’s lives were then, and although I don’t buy every detail in Breathless – in the Powells’ kitchen, there’s a Tuscan-style wine rack that’s straight out of the Magnet sale – its heart seems pretty authentic to me. I’m glad the series acknowledges that not all terminations at this time were Vera Drakestyle backstreet; they weren’t. You just had to know the right people and be able to afford to put the right number of banknotes in the brown envelope.

The pragmatism and low-level ruthlessness of its female characters is also just right: leftover Forties stoicism combining with late- Fifties glamour and consumerism to produce women whose placid, lipsticked exteriors tell only half the story. Like ducks, they sail along, all the while paddling furiously. They are fragrant opportunists, because they have to be. Their sisterliness lies, at this moment in history, in turning a blind eye to such things as a pregnancy before marriage. So, I will keep watching, in spite of the feeling that this is a copy of a copy. There’s something soothing about drama set in a time when so much went unsaid. And the clothes are fantastic, if, like me, you’re in the market for ogling paste earrings and a good swing coat.

Image: 'Breathless', ITV

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 11 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Iran vs Israel

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis