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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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear