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Television: Inside No 9; Bunkers, Brutalism and Bloodymindedness

Two of the League of Gentleman offer up a sublime new series, while Jonathan Meades’s films about concrete architecture are his richest yet.

Inside No 9; Bunkers, Brutalism and Bloodymindedness: Concrete Poetry
BBC2; BBC4

This review comes to you from a place of uncharacteristic restraint and patience. Knowing that it wouldn’t be fair to review an anthology series after its first outing – if each programme is going to be different from the last, you need to have seen at least three to know if it’s any good – I was determined to wait before giving my verdict on Inside No 9 (Wednesdays, 10pm).

Oh, it was hard. It stars and is written by Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith, of whom I’m a major fan (they’re the ones from The League of Gentlemen who aren’t Mark Gatiss). So, there was that: simple, mindless adoration. I saw the first episode, “Sardines”, and I thought: this reminds me in a good way of Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected. Then I saw the second episode, “A Quiet Night In”, and it was astonishing … You get the picture.

So far, the address of the title, No 9, has referred to a country pile, a rich man’s minimalist pad and a London flat of the kind that rattles when a bus goes by. What a conjuring trick, squeezing these perfectly formed narratives – characters with proper backstories, scenarios that are complicated and unwind relatively slowly – into just 30 minutes. It helps that Pemberton and Shearsmith are such accomplished actors (so complete are their performances, they seem hardly to be acting at all) and that they’ve signed up so many excellent actors to co-star (Anna Chancellor, Denis Lawson, Gemma Arterton). Yet it’s the writing that’s most amazing: the sheer mechanics of the thing.

 Hot number: Helen McCrory as Tabitha and Reece Shearsmith as Hector in Inside No. 9. Photo: BBC

“A Quiet Night In” was silent: not a word was uttered in 30 minutes. The two characters whose home we were in also remained unaware that only yards away there crouched a pair of inept cat burglars (Pemberton and Shearsmith in balaclavas). The two couples danced around each other, somehow never colliding. I can think of only one other writer in Britain who could pull off such a brilliant and sustained feat of theatre and that’s Michael Frayn.

The most recent episode, “Tom and Gerri”, had all the pair’s grisly hallmarks, quotidian life gradually shading into something more macabre. Tom (Shearsmith) reluctantly invited a tramp called Migg (Pemberton) into his flat. “No, better just … contain it,” he said, when Migg, noticing the disgusted look on his face, asked him if he shouldn’t have lowered his filthy backside on to Tom’s sofa. “Contain it.” Another writer would have had him say: “Just stay put.” When Tom’s colleague came to see him at home – Tom had, by this point, given up work, either because Migg had corrupted him or because he was in the throes of a nervous breakdown – he revealed there had been a staff whip-round for him. “I asked myself: would he rather have money or Body Shop vouchers?” said the colleague, waving an envelope. “Body Shop vouchers” – the genius lies in those three words, the home of useless stuff made from hemp and of Chocomania body lotion.

Grey matter: Jonathan Meades outside Wotruba Church, Vienna. Photo: BBC

While we’re on the subject of genius, Jonathan Meades is back with a series about brutalism (Sundays, 9pm), in which he stands in front of various screamingly ugly buildings while daring his audience to switch to BBC2 to search for something nice about the Georgians. These might be his richest films yet: the TV equivalent of an afternoon spent in the stacks at the Royal Institute of British Architects with a highfalutin soundtrack on your retro, leather-look headphones.

You need to watch each one twice to get all the references (or even half of them). Meades believes the architecture of the 1860s and the 1960s have something in common, the term “Victorian monstrosity” having given way to “concrete monstrosity” some time around 1963. As it happens, I have a special interest in postwar concrete (Alison Smithson, an architect he loathes, is one of the subjects of my recent book). Combine this with my special interest in Meades (which approaches judgement-impairing fandom) and you’ll understand that Bunkers, Brutalism and Bloodymindedness: Concrete Poetry might have been written for me. Crikey, TV is good right now. Anyone who tells you otherwise is either an ass or Grant Shapps.

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 19 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The Space Issue

Davide Restivo at Wikimedia Commons
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Scientists have finally said it: alcohol causes cancer

Enough of "linked" and "attributable": a new paper concludes that alcohol directly causes seven types of cancer.

I don't blame you if you switch off completely at the words "causes cancer". If you pay attention to certain publications, everything from sunbeds, to fish, to not getting enough sun, can all cause cancer. But this time, it's worth listening.

The journal Addiction has published a paper that makes a simple, yet startling, claim: 

"Evidence can support the judgement that alcohol causes cancer of the oropharynx [part of the throat], larynx, oesophagus, liver, colon, rectum and [female] breast"

So what's especially significant about this? 

First, scientists, unlike journalists, are very wary of the word "causes". It's hard to ever prove that one action directly led to another, rather than that both happened to occur within the same scenario. And yet Jennie Connor, author of the paper and professor in the Preventive and Social Medicine department at the University of Otago, New Zealand, has taken the leap.

Second, alcohol not only causes cancer of one kind – the evidence supports the claim that it causes cancer at seven different sites in our bodies. There was weaker evidence that it may also cause skin, prostate and pancreatic cancer, while the link between mouth cancers and alcohol consumption was the strongest. 

What did we know about alcohol and cancer before?

Many, many studies have "linked" cancer to alcohol, or argued that some cases may be "attributable" to alcohol consumption. 

This paper loooks back over a decade's worth of research into alcohol and cancer, and Connor concludes that all this evidence, taken together, proves that alcohol "increases the incidence of [cancer] in the population".

However, as Connor notes in her paper, "alcohol’s causal role is perceived to be more complex than tobacco's", partly because we still don't know exactly how alcohol causes cancer at these sites. Yet she argues that the evidence alone is enough to prove the cause, even if we don't know exactly how the "biologial mechanisms" work. 

Does this mean that drinking = cancer, then?

No. A causal link doesn't mean one thing always leads to the other. Also, cancer in these seven sites was shown to have what's called a "dose-response" relationship, which means the more you drink, the more you increase your chances of cancer.

On the bright side, scientists have also found that if you stop drinking altogether, you can reduce your chances back down again.

Are moderate drinkers off the hook?

Nope. Rather devastatingly, Connor notes that moderate drinkers bear a "considerable" portion of the cancer risk, and that targeting only heavy drinkers with alcohol risk reduction campaigns would have "limited" impact. 

What does this mean for public health? 

This is the tricky bit. In the paper, Connor points out that, given what we know about lung cancer and tobacco, the general advice is simply not to smoke. Now, a strong link proven over years of research may suggest the same about drinking, an activity society views as a bit risky but generally harmless.

Yet in 2012, it's estimated that alcohol-attributable cancers killed half a million people, which made up 5.8 per cent of cancer deaths worldwide. As we better understand the links between the two, it's possible that this proportion may turn out to be a lot higher. 

As she was doing the research, Connor commented:

"We've grown up with thinking cancer is very mysterious, we don't know what causes it and it's frightening, so to think that something as ordinary as drinking is associated with cancer I think is quite difficult."

What do we do now?

Drink less. The one semi-silver lining in the study is that the quantity of alcohol you consume has a real bearing on your risk of developing these cancers. 

On a wider scale, it looks like we need to recalibrate society's perspective on drinking. Drug campaigners have long pointed out that alcohol, while legal, is one of the most toxic and harmful drugs available  an argument that this study will bolster.

In January, England's chief medical officer Sally Davies introduced some of the strictest guidelines on alcohol consumption in the world, and later shocked a parliamentary hearing by saying that drinking could cause breast cancer.

"I would like people to take their choice knowing the issues," she told the hearing, "And do as I do when I reach for my glass of wine and think... do I want to raise my risk of breast cancer?"

Now, it's beginning to look like she was ahead of the curve. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.