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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Broken and The Trial: From Sean Bean playing a priest to real life lawyers

A surprisingly involving depiction of a clergyman provides the saintly contrast to the sinner being judged by a real jury.

I was all set to scoff at Broken, Jimmy McGovern’s new series for BBC1 (30 May, 9pm). A drama about a Catholic priest and his impoverished parish in a “major northern city”, it sounded so hilariously McGovern-by-numbers (“Eh, lad, give us the collection bowl – the leccy wants paying”) that on paper it could pass for a spoof. Even funnier, Sean Bean, late of Game of Thrones, was to play the clergyman in question.

Naturally, I adore Bean, who comes from the major northern city that is Sheffield, as I do, and who is so terribly . . . virile (though when I interviewed him in a car park behind King’s Cross Station a few years ago, and a security guard in a high-vis jacket approached us furiously shouting the odds, he ran and hid in his trailer, leaving yours truly to face the music). But let’s face it: he’s not exactly versatile, is he? The idea of him in a cassock, or even just a mud-coloured cardigan, made me laugh out loud.

Settling down to watch the series, however, I soon realised that no scoffing would be taking place. For one thing, Broken is hugely involving, its Dickensian plot (no spoilers here) as plausible as it is macabre. For another, in the present circumstances, its script seems to be rather daring. Not only is Father Michael Kerrigan shown – cover my eyes with the collected works of Richard Dawkins! – to be a good and conscientious priest, but his faith is depicted as a fine and useful thing. If he brings his besieged parishioners solace, he is sure to be carrying vouchers for the food bank as well.

The flashbacks from which he suffers – in which his mammy can be heard calling him a “dirty, filthy beast” and a spiteful old priest is seen applying a cane to his hand – are undoubtedly clichéd. But they are also a device. Forty years on, he is happy to nurse his dying mother, and his love for God is undimmed: two facts that are not, of course, unrelated. How weirdly bold for a television series to set its face against the consensus that denigrates all things Christian as it never would any other faith.

I don’t for a minute buy Anna Friel as Christina, the gobby, broke single mother Kerrigan is determined to help. Even when covered in bruises – a bust-up at the betting shop – Friel manages to look glossy, and she never, ever quits acting (with a capital A), which is a drag. But Bean is such a revelation, I was able to ignore the voice in my head which kept insisting that a Catholic priest as young as he is – in this realm, “young” is a couple of years shy of 60 – would surely be Polish or African (I’m not a Catholic but I am married to one, for which reason I occasionally go to Mass).

He plays Kerrigan, whose overwhelming desire to be kind sometimes makes him cack-handed, with great gentleness, but also with an uninflected ordinariness that is completely convincing. Part of the problem (my problem, at least) with Communion is the lack of rhetorical passion in most priests’ voices, something he captures perfectly. One other thing: Line of Duty fans need to know that Adrian Dunbar – aka Ted Hastings – can also be seen here wearing a dog collar, and that he looks almost as good in it as he does in police uniform.

On Channel 4 The Trial: A Murder in the Family was an experiment in the shape of a murder trial in which the defendant – a university lecturer accused of strangling his estranged wife – and all the witnesses were actors but the lawyers and “jury” were real. Over five consecutive nights (21-25 May, 9pm), I found it pretty tiresome listening to jury members tell the camera what they made of this or that bit of evidence.

Get on with it, I thought, longing again for the return of Peter Moffat’s Silk. But I adored the lawyers, particularly the lead ­defence barrister, John Ryder, QC. What an actor. Sentences left his mouth fully formed, as smooth as they were savage, his charm only just veiling his mighty ruthlessness. Drooling at this performance – which was not, in one sense, a performance at all – I found myself thinking that if more priests came over like barristers, our dying churches might be standing room only.

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 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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