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.

Breathless
ITV

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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The Jewish lawyers who reinvented justice

Two new books explore the trials of Nazis – and asks how they changed our conception of justice.

In August 1942, Hans Frank, Hitler’s lawyer and governor general of occupied Poland, arrived in Lvov. “We knew that his visit did not bode well,” a Jewish resident later recalled. That month, writes Philippe Sands, Frank gave a lecture in a university building “in which he announced the extermination of the city’s Jews”.

Frank and other leading Nazis were tried at Nuremberg after the war. It was, writes Sands, “the first time in human history that the leaders of a state were put on trial before an international court for crimes against
humanity and genocide, two new crimes”.

For Sands, this is the story of some of the great humanitarian ideas of the 20th century. A T Williams, however, is more sceptical. For him, the search for justice after 1945 was a wasted opportunity. “It began,” he writes, “as a romantic gesture. And like any romance and like any gesture, the gloss of virtue soon fell away to reveal a hard, pragmatic undercoat.” Did the trials of 1945 and beyond provide any justice to the victims? How many more deaths and tortures were ignored and how many perpetrators escaped?

Together these books ask important questions. Were the trials and the new legal ideas – international human rights, war crimes, genocide – among the crowning achievements of our time, the foundations of how we think about justice today? Or were they, as Williams concludes, “an impersonal and imperfect reaction to human cruelty and human suffering”?

Williams won the Orwell Prize for political writing in 2013 for A Very British Killing: the Death of Baha Mousa. His new book reads as if it were several works in one. Each chapter begins with the author visiting the remains of a different Nazi concentration camp – intriguing travelogues that might have made a fascinating book in their own right. He then looks at what happened in these camps (some familiar, such as Buchenwald and Dachau; others barely known, such as Neuengamme and Neustadt). The single reference to Nikolaus Wachsmann’s KL: a History of the Nazi Concentration Camps, published last year, suggests that it came out too late for Williams to use.

A Passing Fury starts with an atrocity at Neuengamme, near Hamburg, where, in the last days of the war, the concentration camp’s inmates were put to sea by Nazis in the knowledge that they would almost certainly be killed by Allied bombers. Williams buys a pamphlet at the visitors’ centre on the site of the camp. It informs him: “Almost 7,000 prisoners were either killed in the flames, drowned or were shot trying to save their lives.” His interest in the subsequent trial leads him to look at other Nazi trials after the war. His central argument is that these were not a victory for rational and civilised behaviour – the widespread assumption that they were, he writes, is simply a myth.

Williams has plenty of insights and is especially good on the Allies’ lack of manpower and resources in 1945. There was also enormous pressure on the prosecutors to gather information and go to trial within a few months. The obstacles they faced were huge. How to find witnesses and make sure that they stayed for the trials, months later, when they were desperate to be reunited with their families or to find safety in Palestine or the US?

The lawyers also felt that they were “operating in a legal void”. These crimes were unprecedented. What should the SS men and women be charged with? “They needed new terms,” writes Williams, “a completely fresh language to express the enormity of all that they were hearing.” This is exactly what the Jewish lawyers Hersch Lauterpacht and Raphael Lemkin, who play major roles in Sands’s book, were providing – but they are almost completely absent here.

Williams is also troubled by what he sees as flaws in the British legal system. Defence lawyers focused ruthlessly on the inconsistencies of witnesses, forcing them to recall the most terrible ordeals. One particularly devastating account of a cross-examination raises questions about the humanity of the process. The disturbing statements of British lawyers make one wonder about their assumptions about Jews and other camp inmates. “The type of internee who came to these concentration camps was a very low type,” said Major Thomas Winwood, defending the accused in the Bergen-Belsen trial. “I would go so far as to say that by the time we got to Auschwitz and Belsen, the vast majority of the inhabitants of the concentration camps were the dregs of the ghettoes of middle Europe.”

Williams has put together an original polemic against our assumptions about these trials, including those at Nuremberg. Sands, a leading lawyer in the field of war crimes and crimes against humanity, presents a completely different view of Nuremberg and the revolution in justice it introduced. His is a story of heroes and loss.

Lvov is at the heart of Sands’s book. Now in Ukraine, the city changed hands (and names) eight times between 1914 and 1945 – it is known today as Lviv. This is where his grandfather Leon Buchholz was born in 1904. Leon had over 70 relatives. He was the only one to survive the Holocaust.

In 1915, Hersch Lauterpacht came to Lvov to study law. He became one of the great figures in international law, “a father of the modern human rights movement”. Six years later, in 1921, Raphael Lemkin also began his law studies in Lvov; in 1944, he coined the term “genocide” in his book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe.

Both Lauterpacht and Lemkin, like Leon, lost members of their family during the Nazi occupation of Poland. Sands interweaves the stories of these three Jews and how their lives and their ideas were affected by what happened in Lvov. This is an important question. We forget how many of the greatest films, works and ideas of the postwar period were profoundly affected by displacement and loss.

East West Street is an outstanding book. It is a moving history of Sands’s family and especially his grandparents but, at times, it reads like a detective story, as the author tries to find out what happened to his relatives, tracking down figures such as “Miss Tilney of Norwich”, “the Man in a Bow Tie” and “the Child Who Stands Alone” – all involved in some way in a mystery surrounding the author’s mother and her escape from pre-war Vienna. But Sands’s greatest achievement is the way he moves between this family story and the lives of Lauterpacht and Lemkin and how he brings their complex work to life.

There is a crucial fourth figure: Hans Frank, the Nazi lawyer who was responsible for the murder of millions. Sands uses his story to focus his account of Nazi war crimes. Frank was brought to justice at Nuremberg, where Lauterpacht and Lemkin were creating a revolution in international law. Lauterpacht’s emphasis was on individual rights, Lemkin’s on crimes against the group.

This is the best kind of intellectual history. Sands puts the ideas of Lemkin and Lauterpacht in context and shows how they still resonate today, influencing Tony Blair, David Cameron and Barack Obama. When we think of the atrocities committed by Slobodan Milosevic or Bashar al-Assad, it is the ideas of these two Jewish refugees we turn to. Sands shows us in a clear, astonishing story where they came from. 

This article first appeared in the 19 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Huckster