Reviews Round-up

The critics' verdicts on Melvyn Bragg, Edward St Aubyn and Arthur Phillips.

The Book of Books: The Radical Impact of the King James Bible by Melvyn Bragg

Melvyn Bragg's ode to the King James Bible, on its 400th anniversary, is "elegant, accessible and passionately argued" writes Peter Stanford in The Independent. The Book of Books: The Radical Impact of the King James Bible "tells the history of the King James with the vigour and pace of a storyteller rather than the dry precision of an academic," he writes. Stanford urges even the "most militant non-believers" to read this book, though notes "Bragg devotes a chapter to a devastating attack on Richard Dawkins".

Writing in the FT, John Cornwell suggests that of the many scholars who have celebrated the Bible's birthday with a book "it is left to Melvyn Bragg to claim far-reaching social and political consequences from the KJB in an unabashedly Whiggish class of his own". Though Bragg attributes much British "social and political beneficence" to the influence of the King James, Cornwell imagines he "may not convince all his readers". But for the reviewer's part he is "inclined to accept [Bragg's] final word: that the KJB's impact 'has been immeasurable and it's not over yet'".

At Last by Edward St Aubyn

At Last is the final installment of Edward St Aubyn's sequence on the life of Patrick Melrose: a protagonist who, born to a wealthy family "tettering on the edge of immense wealth... has spent most of his time dealing with the fallout". "A novel of exquisite observation which conveys a movement towards peace" writes Phillip Womack for The Telegraph. "We have reached the pinnacle of a series that has plunged into darkness and risen towards light." Womack applauds St Aubyn's novels for being "uncommonly well controlled", noting as a result "their impact is all for the more powerful". Leyla Sanai for The Independent remarks "St Aubyn is still deliciously wicked in his satire". "The blend of acid wit, intellect and compassion" for which St Aubyn is famed is "plaited through At Last", she writes. It is a novel which alone "enthralls... but in sequence their power is synergistic".

The Tragedy of Arthur by Arthur Phillips

Stephen Greenblatt for The New York Times declares Arthur Phillips's faux-Shakespearian tale a "splendidly devious novel". Constructed around a five-act play "entitled 'The Tragedy of Arthur by William Shakespeare'... we are dealing not with parody but with something else: fraud. This is a full length fake. It is a surprisingly good fake, too". Greenblatt praises both Phillips's "fictional memoir" which serves as the introduction, and the "forged play" itself which "leaves the reader not with resentment at having been tricked but rather with gratitude for the gift of feigned wonder".

David L Ulin, writing for the LA Times, confesses though he's "not much of a Shakespearean, [he'd] say Phillips pulls it off". For Ulin the question of whether the Shakespeare is authentic is "almost entirely beside the point. What's essential, rather, is the saga that surrounds it, a family drama involving (yes) Arthur Phillips, who both is and isn't the author of this book".

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Can we morally justify rape dramas like the BBC’s Three Girls?

Violence against women and girls is often read as “gripping” or “compelling” in both fiction and non-fictional narratives.

Last week, over three consecutive nights, the BBC aired Three Girls: an unflinching drama based on the 2012 Rochdale Grooming Case, which exposed and prosecuted nine men for the trafficking, prostitution and rape of children. It is, of course, a terribly bleak story – one that is important not to shy away from. And yet when I first heard about the docudrama, it made me instinctively uncomfortable. TV has a wider social purpose beyond sheer enjoyment, but is the repeated rape of children appropriate material for primetime entertainment?

Violence against women and girls is often read as “gripping” or “compelling” in both fiction and non-fictional narratives. Child abuse, too, is something our society condemns but has an uncomfortable obsession with reading about in detail - you only need to walk into your local Waterstones to see a true life section crowded with children’s sad faces staring up from bestselling misery memoirs. I’ve written before, at length, about our cultural fixation on murdered, abused and kidnapped women and young girls, and the ethical questions they raise. Do we want to know the specific brutalities of this case because it is important to reckon with the reality of the situation, or because the shock factor fascinates us? Is it inherently unethical to treat the real traumas of children as spectacle? Aside from general distastefulness, what impact does making a drama about these assaults have on the real-word victims? What function does this particular story – with its narrative of the police officers too afraid of being labelled racist to bring the criminals (who were mostly of Pakistani descent) to task – serve in the current political climate?

Andrew Norfolk, the Times journalist who first exposed the Rochdale case and spent years facing its horrors head-on, had concerns over such a topic being turned into television. “When I first heard that the BBC had commissioned a docudrama, my initial shock that the corporation would choose to tackle such a controversial subject was swiftly replaced by wariness,” he explains. But his concerns were not that such a programme would become voyeuristic. “I feared that innate squeamishness would result in a sanitised exercise that shied away from uncomfortable realities.”

“More fool me. Three Girls pulls no punches. It tells a raw, harrowing story in a way that makes for searingly compelling drama,” he goes on, adding that the writers succeeds in turning “such bleak misery into three hours of gripping television drama”.

Norfolk, of course, has first-hand knowledge of the show’s source material, as well as the experience of trying to open the public’s eyes to unspeakable crimes. Viewers will never have this. As someone removed from the reality of the Rochdale case, those familiar words “gripping” and “compelling” make me squirm, especially when paired with such unimaginably damaging experiences for the real life young victims.

The first episode of Three Girls explores the actual abuse at the centre of the Rochdale case. It follows Holly, who meets the headstrong Amber and her vulnerable younger sister Ruby, and starts hanging out with them at a take-away shop, where an older man known only as “Daddy” plies them with free food and vodka to gain their trust. It’s not long before we witness Holly being raped in a grim, long scene. We then see her assaulted again, before watching her perform a “prozzy dance” for her horrified father. It’s unbearably sad watching.

It’s certainly true, then, that Three Girls is “harrowing”, but why is “harrowing” as a concept read as automatically valuable? The Daily Mail called it “spellbinding”; many other outlets saw the first episode’s brutality as “brave”. Some headlines were far more discomfiting: the Huffington Post rounded up the “most disturbing moments” from the drama in a sensational listicle, while the Telegraph and extreme right-wing sites took the opportunity to push their politics with headlines like “How poor white girls were sacrificed on the altar of multiculturalism” and “BBC’s Muslim Rape Gang Drama Skirts Religion Issue”.

But the makers of Three Girls seem more aware than most of the troubling potential for sensationalism a drama about Rochdale might have. In a blog post for the BBC, Head of Drama Hilary Salmon explains how they justified their decision to explore the violence of this particular case due to the story’s capacity for social change.

“There are many true stories that an audience might be interested in reliving through drama but the ones that really resonate and arguably deserve to be made are those which can change an audience’s perception of the victims because, for all the media noise, their true voices haven’t yet been heard.”

“The voices of the children abused and exploited in Rochdale had not been heard,” Salmon continues. “How did they feel while all this was happening to them and how do they feel now?”

She adds that public perception of the young victims was disappointingly regressive:

“[Whistleblowers] worked tirelessly to change the perception of these young girls in the eyes of the authorities just as we have tried to do for audiences through the drama. A perception that the girls were simply displaying a lifestyle choice and didn’t need or want protection. Never mind that they were 13, 14, 15 years old at the time and had such low self-esteem that free chips and alcohol would turn a grubby room at the back of a kebab shop into the equivalent of a clubhouse.”

The first hour of Three Girls asks the audience to confront the realities of the assaults on these young victims. Then it puts its most shocking moments to good use. The following two episodes explore the aftermath of the case: how a culture of disbelief silenced the victims at its centre, and how forcing the children to repeatedly relive the acts, only to be ignored, traumatised them as they became adults. How victim-blaming attitudes saw abused children officially declared criminals, and the babies they bore taken away by child protection services. How it was a culture of demonising working-class teenage girls, rather than the fear of racism, that saw the victims belittled and dismissed again and again.

We see explicit discussions of all these complex problems. The adult moral hearts of the show, NHS sexual health worker Sara and police officer Maggie, constantly condemn the culture of misogyny and classism that allowed this abuse to flourish. There are whole scenes dedicated to exploring how the race of the perpetrators does not reflect Muslim culture as a whole. And, most importantly, the perspectives most frequently and sensitively explored are those of the victims themselves, retrospectively giving them a voice. The script manages to do this without veering into preachy public service announcement territory.

Three Girls a masterclass in how to explore violence against girls without objectifying the victims - an area in which other modern TV series and films are lagging depressingly behind. (I’d still advice viewer discretion in watching the first episode, but the more brutal scenes in the programme serve a specific purpose.) I only hope other writers can hold the same aims. Three Girls shows how you can move beyond just “gripping” and “compelling” to find stories that shift social narratives by changing audience’s beliefs, before they’ve had a chance to look away.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

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