In the Critics this week

Richard J Evans on Michael Gove, Amanda Foreman on Lina Prokofiev and A L Kennedy interviewed.

In the Critics section of this week’s New Statesman, Richard J Evans, Regius professor of history at the University of Cambridge, examines Education Secretary Michael Gove’s new draft national curriculum for history. Evans notes that this has been “greeted with dismay by history teachers at every level, from primary schools to universities, and from every part of the political spectrum”. The latter point is particularly important. Even the conservative historians who had previously rallied to Gove’s cause – that of focusing the curriculum on “supposedly key personalities and events within the British past” – were dismayed, Evans notes. The new curriculum, which appears to be the work of Gove alone, “tells pupils what to think”. It is, Evans argues, “preparation for Mastermind or a pub quiz; it is not education … If he really wants more rigour in education, Gove should tear up his amateurish new curriculum and start listening to the professionals.”

This week’s lead book reviewer is the historian Amanda Foreman. She reviews The Love and Wars of Lina Prokofiev by Simon Morrison. Morrison, Foreman argues, has “told the story of a woman who was a desperate little nobody when she was married, and became a courageous heroine when she was single”.

Also in Books: Nicholas Timmins, former public policy editor of the Financial Times, reviews God Bless the NHS by Roger Taylor (“[Taylor] manages to grapple with … some of the most difficult issues in modern health care”); Sophie Elmhirst reviews The Book of My Lives by Aleksandar Hemon (“Hemon tries to work out what to call his life throughout these essays. He doesn’t come up with an answer”); Amanda Craig reviews Kate Atkinson’s latest novel Life After Life (“I would be astonished if it does not carry off at least one major prize”); Vernon Bogdanor reviews Mr Speaker: the Office and the Individuals Since 1945 by Matthew Laban (“Given the centrality of the speakership to the Westminster system, it is surprising that so little has been written about it”); Max Liu reviews How Literature Saved My Life by David Shields (“Shields wants to forge a literary form that can articulate experience and assuage loneliness”).

In the Books Interview, Philip Maughan talks to A L Kennedy about her new book On Writing. Writing, Kennedy tells Maughan, is like “walking out across a great, white wasteland, making little black marks”.

Elsewhere in the Critics: Ryan Gilbey reviews Lee Daniels’s film The Paperboy (“no one in The Paperboy gives a hoot about anything not related to sex. This movie is in heat”); Rachel Cooke reviews A History of Syria with Dan Snow on BBC2 (“In Syria, your enemy’s enemy is your friend”); Antonia Quirke listens to Baroque Spring on Radio 3 (“who cares for Purcell’s words?”); Andrew Billen reviews The Audience with Helen Mirren and Patrick Marber’s repurposing of Arthur Pinero’s Trelawny of the Wells at the Donmar (“mostly [The Audience] gets by, and gets its laughs from, libelling prime ministers”); Alexandra Coghlan reviews the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s performance of Brecht and Weill’s Threepenny Opera as part of the Southbank Centre's "The Rest of Noise" festival (“I wonder whether a better dramatic compromise could have been found than the semi-staging offered by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, London Philharmonic Choir and Vladimir Jurwoski”).

PLUS: "Obit", a poem by Blake Morrison, and Will Self’s Real Meals.

Education Secretary Michael Gove (Photograph: Getty Images)
Show Hide image

Bertie Carvel's diary: What would the French think about infidelity to Doctor Foster?

The joy of debuting a new series, Rupert Murdoch's squeamishness and a sting in the tail.

According to the adage, the first thing an actor does when he gets a job is to go on holiday. And so, having finished our sold-out run of James Graham’s Ink at the Almeida and with the show (in which I play a young Rupert Murdoch) about to transfer into the West End, I’m packing my bags.

But before I can skip town, I’ve one more professional engagement: the press launch of series two of the BBC drama Doctor Foster, which we finished filming at Christmas. I’ve now seen the final cut of all five episodes, and I’m excited to share it with an audience. There’s no substitute for seeing other people’s reactions at first hand, especially with a show that got people talking so much first time around, and it’s electric to sit in a cinema full of expectant journalists and commentators and feel the room respond. Nothing beats this: to put so much into making a thing and then experience an audience’s unmediated, reflexive reaction. When it goes well, you feel that you’ve shared something, that you’ve all recognised something together about how things are. It’s a unifying feeling. A sort of bond.

Cheating spouses

Handling the interviews has been tricky, when there’s so little one can say without giving the plot away. (The first series began with Suranne Jones’s character Gemma, a GP, suspecting her husband Simon of having an affair.) What’s more, lots of the questions invite moral judgements that I’ve tried my best to avoid; I always think it’s really important not to judge the characters I play from outside, but simply to work out how they feel about themselves, to zero in on their point of view. There’s a sort of moral bloodlust around this show: it’s extraordinary. People seem to want to hear that I’ve been pilloried in the street, or expect me to put distance between myself and my character, to hang him out to dry as a pariah.

While I’m not in the business of defending Simon Foster any more than I’m in the business of attacking him, I am intrigued by this queer mixture of sensationalism and prurience that seems to surface again and again.

Shock horror

Oddly enough, it’s something that comes up in Ink: many people have been surprised to find that, in a story about the re-launch of the Sun newspaper in 1969 as a buccaneering tabloid, it’s the proprietor who considers dropping anchor when the spirit of free enterprise threatens to set his moral compass spinning.

I’ve never given it much thought before, but I suppose that sensationalism relies on a fairly rigid worldview for its oxygen – the SHOCKERS! that scream at us in tabloid headlines are deviations from a conventional idea of the norm. But what’s behind the appetite for this sort of story? Do we tell tales of transgression to reinforce our collective boundaries or to challenge them?

For me there’s a close kinship between good journalism and good drama. I’m reminded of the words of John Galsworthy, who wrote Strife, the play I directed last summer, and who felt that the writer should aim “to set before the public no cut-and-dried codes, but the phenomena of life and character, selected and combined, but not distorted, by the dramatist’s outlook, set down without fear, favour, or prejudice, leaving the public to draw such poor moral as nature may afford”.

So when it comes to promoting the thing we’ve made, I’m faced with a real conundrum: on the one hand I want it to reach a wide audience, and I’m flattered that there’s an appetite to hear about my contribution to the process of making it; but on the other hand I think the really interesting thing about the work is contained in the work itself. I’m always struck, in art galleries, by how much more time people spend reading the notes next to the paintings than looking at the paintings themselves. I’m sure that’s the wrong way around.

Insouciant remake

En route to the airport the next morning I read that Doctor Foster is to be adapted into a new French version. It’s a cliché verging on racism, but I can’t help wondering whether the French will have a different attitude to a story about marital infidelity, and whether the tone of the press coverage will differ. I wonder, too, whether, in the home of Roland Barthes, there is as much space given to artists to talk about what they’ve made – in his 1967 essay, “The Death of the Author”, Barthes wrote that “a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination”.

No stone unturned

Touring the villages of Gigondas, Sablet and Séguret later that evening, I’m struck by the provision of espaces culturels in seemingly every commune, however small. The French certainly give space to the work itself. But I also notice a sign warning of a chat lunatique, so decide to beat a hasty retreat. Arriving at the house where I’m staying, I’ve been told that the key will be under a flowerpot. Lifting each tub in turn, and finally a large flat stone by the door, I find a small scorpion, but no key. I’m writing this at a table less than a yard away so let’s hope there won’t be a sting in this tale.

Ink opens at the Duke of York Theatre, London, on 9 September. More details: almeida.co.uk

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear