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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

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Harry Potter didn’t cure my depression – but for an hour a day, it helped

These books didn’t cure me. They didn’t even come close. But at my lowest moments, Harry Potter was the only thing I enjoyed.

Just over a year ago, I was on a plane to Japan being violently sick. I had filled exactly two-and-a-quarter sick bags with my half-digested ginger-chicken-and-bread-roll before I decided to think about Neville Longbottom. As the plane rocked from side to side with turbulence, I sat completely stiff in my seat, clutching my armrests, and thinking of Neville. I told my boyfriend to shut up. In an effort to abate my nausea, I distracted myself for the remaining hour of the flight by picturing the peaceful plant-lover over and over again, like a visual mantra. I wasn’t sick again.

I’m telling you this anecdote because this was the only time in my life that Harry Potter acted as some strange and magical cure (even then, the fact there was no inflight meal left in my stomach to throw up had more to do with it). And yet, a few years before this, Harry Potter did help me through my depression. When we talk of Harry Potter and depression – which we do, a lot – we imagine that the lessons of the book can teach us, in a Don’t let the Dementors get you down! way, to not be depressed anymore. What do you mean you want to kill yourself? Banish that beast to Azkaban with your silvery kitty cat Patronus!! For me, it wasn’t like that at all.

In 2013 I was depressed. And Harry Potter helped me through. But it wasn’t magical, and it wasn’t wonderful, and there was no lie-back-and-think-of-Neville instant fix. When I closed the cracked spine of the last book, my depression didn’t go away.

Here’s some context, as plain and painlessly as I can put it. I had just graduated from university and ended my four year long relationship. I was living at home and working three jobs a day to be able to save up to do a six-month journalism course in London (the course was free, but eating is a thing).

Early in the morning, my mum would drive me to the local hospital where I would print out sticky labels and put them on patients' folders, in between sobbing in the disabled toilets. Around lunch, I’d go to work in a catering department, where I printed yet more labels and made sure to order the correct amount of gravy granules and beef. At five, my mum would pick me up and drive me home (thanks mum), and I’d have an hour or so to eat something before going to work in the local steak restaurant for the rest of the night. (On weekends, I had a fourth job - I would wake up early to scrub the restaraunt's toilets. Yay!) 

It sucked – even though there was, at least, a woman in the hospital who liked to do an impression of a Big Mouth Billy Bass fish.

“You’re not just depressed, you’re depressing to be around,” said the boy I was not-dating, two weeks after I said we should stop not-dating and a week after I begged him to start not-dating me again. If I was being dramatic and poetic, I’d say he was the kind of boy who stopped at nothing to make you feel unloved, but if I was being honest I’d say: he was really bad at texting back. Still, tip for anyone wondering what to say to someone who is depressed: Not This.

This wasn’t, exactly, the moment I realised I was depressed. (For a little extra context, note that it was Christmas Eve eve!) For a few months, my tongue had felt constantly burnt. Every moment of every day, my mouth felt like I had just bitten into the chewiest, gooiest molten pizza and burned off all my taste buds. Except I hadn’t. Eventually, Google told me this was a little-known symptom of depression called “burning mouth syndrome”. After ignoring clues such as constant crying, and knowing-the-exact-number-of-storeys-you-have-to-jump-from-to-ensure-you-die, I realised what I was. You know, depressed.

And round about here was when Harry came in. I’d always been obsessed with Potty Wee Potter, from the lilac HP branded M&S fleece I wore as a child, to making my brand new uni mates don pillowcases and bin bags to dress up for a screening of Deathly Hallows, Part 1. But by 2013, I hadn’t read the books for a while. So I started again.

I can’t emphasise enough that these books didn’t cure me. They didn’t even come close. But one of the worst parts of my depression was my anhedonia – which is the inability to feel pleasure in things you previously found enjoyable. I would spend (literally) all day at work, dreaming of the moment I could crawl into bed with a cheese sandwich and watch my favourite show. But the first bite of the sandwich tasted like dust, and I couldn’t concentrate on watching anything for more than thirty seconds. I lost a lot of weight incredibly fast, and there was no respite from any of my thoughts.

Except: Goblet of Fire. Harry needs a date! And Hermione wants a House Elf revolution! Wait, does Ron fancy her? Harry can’t manage Accio and THERE’S AN ACTUAL DRAGON ON THE WAY. The fourth Harry Potter book is now my favourite, because its episodic and addictive structure meant I couldn’t put it down even when I knew what happened next. I couldn’t enjoy anything in my life at that time, and I’m not even sure I “enjoyed” Harry. But the books were a total and complete distraction, like slipping into a Pensieve and floating down into another world where you could lose track of the time before being yanked, painfully, up and out.

I didn’t learn any lessons from the Dementors. I didn’t learn that love would get me through. As valuable as these messages in Harry Potter are, none of them helped me with my depression. What helped me was – and I can say it and you can say it, because 450 million sold copies have said it – insanely good writing. Addictive, un-put-downable writing. All-consuming, time-consuming, just-a-second-mum-put-mine-back-in-the-oven writing. Writing that allows you to lose yourself in the moments you most want to be lost.

That’s not to say, of course, that the messages of Harry Potter can’t help people through dark times – they have and will continue to do so for many years. There is no right way to be depressed, and there’s no right way to stop. But for me, Potter helped me through my anhedonia when nothing else at all could. It wasn’t magic. It was something ordinary in a world where everything had changed.

Now read the other articles included in the New Statesman’s Harry Potter Week.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

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