Reviews Round-Up

The critics’ verdicts on Janan Ganesh, Philip Norman and Anne Applebaum.

George Osborne: The Austerity Chancellor by Janan Ganesh

While George Osborne: The Austerity Chancellor has an "inside feel" owing to the "generous access to the Chancellor’s inner circle" afforded to Janan Ganesh, it is ‘sometimes at the cost of independent judgment,’ writes Peter Oborne in the Telegraph. Perhaps a more pertinent criticism, given the implicit promise of the book’s title, is the omission of a substantial analysis of the Chancellor’s economic views and political manoeuvres: "This book lacks any serious exploration of Osborne’s economic ideas or his relationship with the Treasury." John Hanning, writing in the Independent, begins his review by advising those depressed by David Cameron to steer clear of his chancellor’s biography. After outlining their remarkably similar trajectories, Henning shows how the two differ: "Osborne's heritage – Notting Hill, St Paul's, a mother who works for Amnesty, a father with an ultra-fashionable shop in South Kensington – is much more that of the metropolitan sophisticate than Cameron's." Hanning reminds us on more than one occasion of the author’s relationship with his subject. Osborne is a "close political friend", and Ganesh a "long-standing admirer". Nonetheless, he acknowledges that the author deftly treads the path between "getting access to the subject and a willingness to criticise or chase uncomfortable truths". Read a review of George Osborne: The Austerity Chancellor in the New Statesman later this week.

 

Mick Jagger by Philip Norman

Julie Burchill sees the publication of this Jagger biography as an opportunity to review the rock star himself, bypassing the book almost completely. "It's his attitude to money, I suppose, as much as his idiot-dancing which renders Jagger so unattractive to me; stinginess is the halitosis of the soul, and MJ reeked of it," she writes in the Guardian. It’s obvious where her affections do in fact lie: "Casting the biggest shadow of all, like some epic scarecrow, is Keith Richards, a man whose glamour and charisma increase at the same rate as the wrinkles on that beautiful Red Indian face. Ask yourself if any reigning film star would have dreamed of basing the hero of a hit film on Jagger – as Johnny Depp did on Richards in Pirates of the Caribbeanand you would have to say no." John Walsh, writing in the Independent, identifies the same negative traits that Burchill does (stinginess, misogyny, arrogance) but notes that Norman "radiates sympathy for the old devil". Perhaps this sympathy derives in part from the gentle debunking of aspects of the Jagger legend: "Rather than a randy, rebellious extrovert, [young Mick] was shy and slow to show affection," "he was thought too ugly to succeed," and "he wept over Chrissie Shrimpton". But while these more vulnerable sides of Jagger are revealed, so too is a cold, driving professionalism: "Mick’s robotic ability to go 'on with the show' just seems chilling," wrote Kate Mossman in last week’s New Statesman. ‘It’s hard to believe that, hours after Brian Jones was found dead, he went ahead with a Top of the Pops appearance and then attended a ball at the home of Prince Rupert Lowenstein.[...] This book re-examines the notion of what it takes to be a true 'rock star'."

 

Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944 – 56 by Anne Applebaum

In 1945, the Red Army was briefly welcomed when it marched into eastern Europe. "Yet goodwill towards the liberators soon gave way to horror at the looting, random violence — and worse," writes Peter Conradi in The Sunday Times. Making use of never-before-seen documents from recently opened archives, Anne Applebaum re-examines the Soviet takeover of Eastern Europe. "Iron Curtain is modern history writing at its very best; assiduously researched, it wears its author's considerable erudition lightly," writes Roger Moorehouse in the Independent. "Pending large-scale revelations from still-closed Soviet archives, it sets a new benchmark for the study of this vitally important subject." Moorehouse notes that, in Applebaum’s assessment, communism was always doomed to fail: "Communism contained within it the seeds of its own destruction, not only in its disastrous economic performance, but also in its relentless desire to control every aspect of human activity." "The chief problem was the failure of the Soviet economic model — which created a growing gap in living standards with the West," asserts Conradi. "In this exhaustive and entertainingly written account, Applebaum, a former Pulitzer prize winner, captures well the absurdities of communist life familiar to anyone who experienced the system first hand."

 

George Osborne holds up the Budget Box as he leaves No. 11. Photo: Getty Images.
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What Jodie Whittaker as Doctor Who tells the rest of the world about Britain

If any silly kids’ show can say something about the country's changing view of itself, it’s this one. 

Over the past 54 years, the hero of the TV series Doctor Who has been to the end of the universe, where the stars are going out and civilisation is all but dead. He has seen the Earth die in a ball of flame, and he has been propositioned by Kylie Minogue while standing on the deck of a starship called Titanic.

But next year, he will go somewhere he has never been before: the ladies loo. This Christmas, Peter Capaldi’s 12th Doctor will die and regenerate into Jodie Whittaker, a 35-year-old whose most high-profile role to date was as the mother of a murdered child in the ITV crime drama Broadchurch.

On Sunday 16 July, both social media and the old-fashioned kind were flooded with discussion about the Doctor’s new gender. Inevitably many non-fans were also abroad, demanding to know why anyone should care about the casting in a silly kids’ show. The obvious answer is that, after half a century, this show means a great deal to some of us. But there’s a more practical reason why the decision matters, too: Doctor Who is one of the BBC’s most valuable brands.

The original version of the show, which ran from 1963 to 1989, may have been known for its wobbly sets and aliens made of painted bubble wrap. Since Russell T Davies brought the programme back in 2005, however, it has picked up a global following. In the past few years, it has finally broken America; in 2014, the cast and crew went on a publicity tour, including stops in Australia, South Korea and Brazil. In Mexico, the show is broadcast under the frankly superior name of Doctor Mysterio. All this means that Doctor Who is an opportunity to present a view of Britishness that isn’t based on imperial history, or class politics, or cricket, or cake.

Because of the flexibility of the programme’s format, if any silly kids’ show can say something about Britain’s changing view of itself, it’s this one. And what it has just said is that it’s time men stopped dominating everything.

Regeneration – the process by which one Doctor dies and the next is born, enabling the show to recast its lead – seems so baked into the Doctor Who formula now that it’s strange to think that it wasn’t there all along. Yet, for his three years in the role, William Hartnell was never the first Doctor: he was simply the Doctor.

Hartnell played the character as irascible, patrician and grandfatherly (literally, in the case of his first companion, Susan). He was also imbued with a certain imperial self-confidence. In one early episode, he hit a Frenchman round the head with a spade.

In 1966, however, a new producer decided to recast the role. The standard narrative is that Hartnell was too ill to continue; more likely, since he was both expensive and difficult to work with, he was pushed out. The replacement, Patrick Troughton, made no attempt to impersonate Hartnell. Instead, he played the Doctor as an entirely new man, less grumpy and more funny.

Over the following decades, each new Doctor added something to the character. Jon Pertwee brought action, Tom Baker bohemian silliness, Peter Davison youth. Colin Baker brought a hint of menace and almost got the show cancelled. Sylvester McCoy brought a sense of mystery. In the half-American-funded 1996 TV movie, Paul McGann became the first Doctor – and this seemed quaintly shocking at the time – to kiss a girl.

Most of these men were either great character actors (Hartnell, Troughton, Davison) or flamboyant showmen (Pertwee, Tom Baker). While the show was off the air, though, stories speculating about its return generally attached names from the latter category, such as – and here are two men you rarely find mentioned together – Alan Davies or David Hasselhoff.

It was a statement of intent, then, when Russell T Davies cast Christopher Eccleston as his Time Lord: the show may seem silly but we’re taking it seriously. Since then, playing the Doctor catapulted both David Tennant and Matt Smith to fame and work in Hollywood. In 2013, when we met a previously unseen incarnation of the Doctor, it wasn’t a guest turn for a comedian but the last major role for the late John Hurt.

So what does the choice of Jodie Whittaker as the 13th Doctor say? For one thing, it marks her out as one of the great actors of her generation, capable of comedy and tragedy and delivering convincing technobabble, often in a single line. Perhaps it also suggests that the new lead writer, Chris Chibnall, feels under pressure to shake things up a bit.

But it also says something about how our heroes should look. The box-office and critical success of Wonder Woman has highlighted both the huge appetite for female leads and the shocking lack of them. As a result of Whittaker’s casting, for the first time in Doctor Who, a woman will play the lead, not just his (or her!) companion.

Both Capaldi and Tennant were fans of the programme before they were its star; both became actors in part because they wanted to play the Doctor. It’s a lovely idea that, somewhere out there right now, there’s a little girl who might do the same. 

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder

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