In the Critics this Week

Amanda Levete on the Barbican Centre, Gabriel Josipovici on Michael Hofmann and Will Self on Alastai

In the Critics section of this week's New Statesman, our Critic at Large is architect Amanda Levete, recent winner of a competition to design a new gallery for the Victoria & Albert Museum. Reflecting on the three decades since the opening of the Barbican Centre, she notes that brutalism, at times scorned for its bleakness, was then a mark of aesthetic progress: "The architects' [Chamberlin, Powell and Bon] plans reflected the changing aspirations of a society that had an increasingly complex and optimistic view of the future . . . Their brutalist (from the French béton brut,or 'raw concrete') vision was an extreme reaction to the land-hungry, suburban ethos of the 1950s: a deliberate assassination of a semi-detached mentality." More recently, says Levete, aesthetic opinions of the Barbican have fluctuated: "By 1990 . . . the complex had become unfashionable and unloved. Yet only a few years later, it was rediscovered by the cognoscenti and became popular with architects looking for an inner-city dwelling . . . now, more than half a century after it was conceived, it is truly the vibrant and successful part of the urban landscape that is architects envisaged".

In Books, Gabriel Josipovici reviews Joseph Roth: A Life in Letters, edited and translated by Michael Hofmann. Josipovici acknowledges Hofmann's credentials as a Roth scholar, but questions his judgement in selecting his material: "Hofmann has long championed Roth and has translated ten of his works to date. Here, he translates a volume of letters published in Germany in 1970 and adds his own notes, making this a sort of tour of the life in the company of a passionate but biased and idiosyncratic guide. There are no letters to his mother or his lovers and we learn little about his literary tastes or his artistic aims and ambitions". Ultimately, Josipovici is cynical about Hofmann's inclusion of Roth in the Teutonic literary canon: "[T]o talk about him [Roth] as one of the great German writers . . . is to do a disservice to Mann, Robert Musil and Brecht".

In the Books Interview, Jonathan Derbyshire speaks to Cullen Murphy about his latest book God's Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World. Murphy shows how the Catholic Inquisition's influence remains pervasive in the modern world: "The defining characteristic of the Inquisition was that it had what we think of as modern tools available to it. These include things such as a bureaucratic structure and the ability to collect information, preserve it and then find it again. This kind of ability was relatively new".

Also in Books: Helen Lewis reviews Faramerz Dabhoiwala's The Origins of Sex: a History of the First Sexual Revolution. Especially disconcerting, says Lewis, is the blind eye turned by prominent literary figures to sexual depravity: "Samuel Richardson's treatment of Clarissa Harlowe - whose rape is the central act of perhaps the central text of British 18th-century literature - can be better understood against the context of a society in which women were presumed to enjoy being assaulted." Other reviews: Alan Ryan on What Are Universities For? by Stefan Collini; Amanda Craig on Various Pets Alive and Dead by Marina Lewycka; and Olivia Laing on The Street Sweeper by Elliot Perlman.

Elsewhere in Critics: Ryan Gilbey on Rampart; Rachel Cooke on Homeland; Thomas Calvocoressi on Piet Mondrian and Ben Nicholson; and Alexandra Coghlan on Classical Music. PLUS: Will Self's "Madness of Crowds".

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Man alive! Why the flaws of Inside No 9 only emphasise its brilliance

A man we’d thought destined for certain death reappeared, alive and kicking.​ ​Even as my brain raced, I was grinning.

At the risk of sounding like some awful, jargon-bound media studies lecturer – precisely the kind of person those I’m writing about might devote themselves to sending up – it seems to me that even the dissatisfactions of Inside No 9 (Tuesdays, 10pm) are, well, deeply satisfying. What I mean is that the occasional flaws in Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith’s cultish series, those unlooked-for moments when nothing quite makes sense, only serve to emphasise its surpassing brilliance.

At the end of the final episode of series three, for instance, there came a discombobulating twist. A man we’d thought destined for certain death reappeared, alive and kicking. How had this happened? Were the preceding 28 minutes only a dream? Even as my brain raced, I was grinning. That line about Ron Mueck! In a piece that seemed mostly to be paying topsy-turvy homage to the camp 1973 horror flick Theatre of Blood.

Pemberton and Shearsmith are all about homage: a bit of Doctor Who here, a touch of Seventies B-movie there. Inside No 9’s format of twisty one-offs is a direct descendant of ITV’s Tales of the Unexpected. And yet it is so absolutely its own thing. Only they could have written it; only they could ever do this much (stretch your arms as wide as they’ll go) in so little time (half an hour).

In the episode Private View, guests were invited to the Nine Gallery in somewhere Hoxtonish. This motley crew, handpicked to represent several of the more unedifying aspects of 21st-century Britain, comprised Carrie (Morgana Robinson), a reality-TV star; Patricia (Felicity Kendal), a smutty novelist; Kenneth (Pemberton), a health and safety nut; and Maurice (Shearsmith), an art critic. Hard on their heels came Jean (Fiona Shaw), a wittering Irishwoman with gimlet eyes. However, given that they were about to be bloodily picked off one by one, at least one of them was not what she seemed. “I’m due at Edwina Currie’s perfume launch later,” Carrie yelped, as it dawned on her that the pages of Grazia might soon be devoting a sidebar to what Towie’s Mark Wright wore to her funeral.

Private View satirised a certain kind of contemporary art, all bashed up mannequins and blindingly obvious metaphors. Admittedly, this isn’t hard to do. But at least Pemberton and Shearsmith take for granted the sophistication of their audience. “A bit derivative of Ron Mueck,” said Maurice, gazing coolly at one of the installations. “But I like the idea of a blood mirror.” The duo’s determination to transform themselves from episode to episode – new accent, new hair, new crazy mannerisms – calls Dick Emery to mind. They’re better actors than he was, of course; they’re fantastic actors. But in the context of Inside No 9, even as they disappear, they stick out like sore thumbs, just as he used to. They’re the suns around which their impressive guest stars orbit. They may not always have the biggest parts, but they nearly always get the best lines. You need to watch them. For clues. For signs. For the beady, unsettling way they reflect the world back at you.

What astonishes about this series, as with the two before it, is its ability to manage dramatic shifts in tone. Plotting is one thing, and they do that as beautifully as Roald Dahl (the third episode, The Riddle of the Sphinx, which revolved around a crossword setter, was a masterclass in structure). But to move from funny to plangent and back again is some trick, given the limitations of time and the confined spaces in which they set the stories. In Diddle Diddle Dumpling, Shearsmith’s character found a size-nine shoe in the street and became obsessed with finding its owner, which was very droll. But the real engine of the piece, slowly revealed, was grief, not madness (“Diddle-diddle-dumpling, my son John”). You felt, in the end, bad for having sniggered at him.

If you missed it, proceed immediately to iPlayer, offering a thousand thanks for the usually lumbering and risk-averse BBC, which has commissioned a fourth series. One day people will write learned papers about these shows, at which point, jargon permitting, I might discover just how Maurice managed to live to fight another day.

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 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution