In the Critics this week

Craig Raine on Hockney, Alec MacGillis on the Obamas and Colm Toibin on Alice James.

The Critic at large in this week's New Statesman is the poet and novelist Craig Raine. In the first of a series of essays on the visual arts for the NS, Raine considers David Hockney's "abiding concern with the nature of representation". For Hockney, Raine argues, "photography's hegemony is finished ... For [him], the camera is only a near equivalent to the way we experience reality ... Hockney's aim is to place the viewer inside the painting." The results, Raine thinks, are not uniformly successful, but there are undeniable "high points" in this show. "Allow four hours at least," Raine advises. "There's a lot to look at, a lot to think about."

In Books, the American political journalist Alec MacGillis reviews Jodi Kantor's The Obamas: a Mission, a Marriage. "With a writerly touch, Kantor conveys the oddly regal universe of the White House though the eyes of a couple who, just a few years earlier, had been living in a mid-sized apartment and had 'campaigned in 2008 as being citizens of the real world'". The problem with Kantor's account, MacGillis writes, is that it "assumes a prevailing inside-the-Beltway view of the Obamas' challenges". (Jodi Kantor will be the subject of next week's Books Interview.)

In the Books interview, Sophie Elmhirst talks to Marwan Bishara about his new book The Invisible Arab. Bishara insists that the role of social media in the Arab Spring should not be underestimated. "Technology had an important contribution to make ... [It] allowed the youth to open up to the rest of the world."

Also in Books: Novelist Colm Toibin writes an appreciation of Alice James, sister of William and Henry. "What she and her two eldest brothers shared, what sets them apart and makes their lives of such continuing interest, was the quality and intensity of their self-consciousness." Other reviews: Leo Robson on Hemingway's Boat by Paul Hendrickson; Mona Siddiqui on Heaven on Earth by Sadakat Kadri; George Eaton on Why It's Kicking off Everywhere and Rare Earth by Paul Mason; and Jonathan Derbyshire on The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach.

Elsewhere in Critics: Ryan Gilbey on The Descendants; Rachel Cooke on We'll Take Manhattan (BBC4); Andrew Billen on Travelling Light at the National Theatre; "Test Card", a poem by David Briggs; Antonia Quirke on The Politics of Pandas (Radio 4); and Will Self's Madness of Crowds.

HELEN SLOAN / THE FALL 3 LTD
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The Fall is back - and once again making me weary

Five more episodes to go, after which its “feminist” writer (his word, not mine), Allan Cubitt, should pull the plug on it at last. Plus: Damned.

It is with much weariness that I return to The Fall (Thursdays, 9pm), the creepy drama that still doesn’t know whether it wants to be a horror-fest or a love story. I’ve written in the past about what I regard as its basic misogyny – to sum up, it seems to me to make a fetish of the violence committed against women, a preoccupation it pathetically tries to disguise by dint of its main character being a female detective – and I don’t propose to return to that theme now. However, in its early days, it was at least moderately gripping. Now, though, it appears to be recovering from some kind of nervous breakdown. If in series two the plot was wobbling all over the place, series three has misplaced the idea of drama altogether. Nothing is happening. At all.

To recap: at the end of the last series, Paul Spector, aka the Belfast Strangler (Jamie Dornan), had been shot while in police custody, somewhat improbably by a man who blames him for the demise of his marriage (oh, that Spector were only responsible for breaking up a few relationships). On the plus side for his supposed nemesis, DSI Stella Gibson (Gillian Anderson), before he fell he led them to Rose Stagg, the ex-girlfriend he’d locked in the boot of a car some days previously, and she is going to live. On the minus side, Spector’s injuries are so bad, it’s touch and go whether he’ll survive, and so Gibson may never see him brought to justice. Of course, the word “justice” is something of a red herring here.

The real reason she wants Spector to live is more dubious. As she stared at his body in the ICU, all tubes and monitors, her expression was so obviously sexual – her mouth opened, and stayed that way, as her eyes ran over every part of his body – that I half expected her to reach out and stroke him. Just in time for this nocturnal visit, she’d slipped into another of her slinky silk blouses that look like poured cream. (Moments earlier – think Jackie Kennedy in 1963 – she’d still been covered in her love object’s blood.)

The entire episode took place at the hospital, police procedural having morphed suddenly into Bodies or Cardiac Arrest. Except, this was so much more boring and cliché-bound than those excellent series – and so badly in need of their verisimilitude. When I watch The Fall, I’m all questions. Why doesn’t Stella ever tie her hair back? And why does she always wear high heels, even when trying to apprehend criminals? For how much longer will the presumably cash-strapped Police Service of Northern Ireland allow her to live in a posh hotel? Above all, I find myself thinking: why has this series been so acclaimed? First it was nasty, and then it was only bad. Five more episodes to go, after which its “feminist” writer (his word, not mine), Allan Cubitt, should join Gibson in the ICU, where together they can ceremonially pull the plug on it at last.

Can Jo Brand do for social workers in her new comedy, Damned, what she did a few years ago for geriatric nurses in the brilliant Getting On? I expect she probably can, even though this Channel 4 series (Tuesdays, 10pm), co-written with Morwenna Banks and Will Smith, does have an awfully inky heart. Hungry children, drug-addict parents, a man who can go nowhere without his oxygen tank: all three were present and correct when Rose (Brand) went to visit a client who turned out to be a woman who, long ago, had nicked her (Rose’s) boyfriend. Ha ha? Boohoo, more like.

Damned is basically The Office with added family dysfunction. Al (Alan Davies) is a hen-pecked wimp, Nitin (Himesh Patel) is a snitch, and Nat (Isy Suttie) is the stupidest and most annoying temp in the Western world. This lot have two bosses: Martin (Kevin Eldon), a kindly widower, and Denise (Georgie Glen), the cost-cutting line manager from hell. And Rose has a plonker of an ex-husband, Lee (Nick Hancock). “I’ve been invited to the Cotswolds for the weekend,” he told her, trying to wriggle out of looking after the children. “Is that why you look like a knob?” she replied.

Jerky camerawork, naturalistic acting, a certain daring when it comes to jokes about, say, race: these things are pretty familiar by now, but I like it all the same.

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 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories