In the Critics this week

John Gray on markets and morals, Ferdinand Mount on oligarchy and Bryan Appleyard on the iPhone at f

In the Critics section of this week’s New Statesman, John Gray reviews What Money Can’t Buy, the new book by the Harvard political philosopher Michael Sandel. “In a culture mesmerised by the market,” Gray writes, “Sandel’s is the indispensable voice of reason … He shows that the limits of markets cannot be decided by economic reasoning.” Though Gray is less confident than Sandel that disputes over the limits of markets can be resolved, he suggests that if we do “bring basic values into political life” in the way Sandel urges, “at least we won’t be stuck with the dreary market orthodoxies that he has so elegantly demolished”.

In the Books Interview, Jonathan Derbyshire discusses similar themes with Ferdinand Mount, author most recently of The New Few. Mount says that in that book he “tries to connect the two themes of inequality and oligarchy. As well suggesting that there is a connection between the two, [I] argue that power in every field today, whether it’s a retail chain or a university, is centralised.”

Also in Books: Leo Robson on Skios by Michael Frayn; Robert Irwin on The Arab Awakening by Tariq Ramadan; Liz Thomson on This Land Is Your Land: Woody Guthrie and the Journey of an American Folksong by Robert Santelli; George Eaton on Occupy by Noam Chomsky; and Ben Wilson on The Plantagenets by Dan Jones.

Our Critic at large this week is Bryan Appleyard, who marks the fifth anniversary of the launch of Apple’s iPhone. In 2007, then Apple CEO Steve Jobs declared that his company was going to “reinvent the phone”. “Jobs was right,” Appleyard writes, “he had reinvented the phone – not as a phone, but as a near-universal machine.” There remains an unresolved question, however: do we really want everything this remarkable invention gives us? “Mobile connectivity perpetually seduces us with the call of elsewhere,” Appleyard notes. “It takes us out of the moment.”

Also in the Critics: Ryan Gilbey on Alexsandr Sokurov’s take on Goethe’s Faust; Antonia Quirke on a BBC World Service documentary about Khalil Gibran; Will Self’s Madness of Crowds; Andrew Billen on Love, Love, Love at the Royal Court; Sophie Elmhirst on the joy of small-scale literary festivals; and Hunter Davies’s The Fan.

The call of elsewhere: a man checks his iPhone (Photo: Getty Images)
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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