In the Critics this Week

An attack on Gove's education reforms, Vernon Bogdanor on David Runciman, and Tom Watson plays Batman: Arkham Origins.

The book section this week begins with Vernon Bogdanor’s review of The Confidence Trap: a History of Democracy in Crisis from World War I to the Present by David Runciman. Bogdanor explains that the path to democracy has been a difficult one, and that it hasn't always been certain that representative democracy would represent a global norm. However, as waves of democritisation have swept over the globe on the 20th century, Runciman sets himself the difficult task of "analysing the crises facing modern democracies and how they have been overcome". The eponymous 'Confidence Trap' is the tendency for democracies to rest on their laurels:

…because democracies are so adaptable and know that they are adaptable, they allow problems to escalate. Confident that they will be able in the end to meet the problems, they defer resolving them… comforted by the knowledge that the system remains resilient.

Bogdanor is initially impressed; Runciman illustrates Alexis de Tocqueville’s theory about democracy in a "fresh and convincing way". Nonetheless, from the introduction onwards the book loses its steam and the structure of the book, a "tour d’horizon of seven crises of democratic uncertainty", fails to impress. The crises “amount to little more than a dusting over fairly familiar episodes from 20th century history and on occasion lack perception.” All in all, Bogdanor is left unimpressed; the book fails to address, according to the reviewer, the real confidence trap: "the tension in many advanced democracies between the inherited forms of democracy and the new ideological forces of modern society".

Educational reform is the name of the day in Francis Beckett’s review of Peter Mortimore’s book Education Under Siege: Why There Is a Better Alternative. This is a book that challenges the reactionary policies of Michael Gove and New Labour’s education secretaries. Beckett is thoroughly impressed by Mortimore’s prose and seems even more impressed and surprised by his restraint to descend into polemic. In relation to Gove adopting a history curriculum that, in his words, "portray[s] Britain as a beacon of liberty", Beckett writes:

As a historian, I’m horrified by this. History teaching worth the name doesn’t celebrate anything, any more than mathematics does; nor does it portray Britain in a particular way. That sort of history teaching belongs in Hitler’s Germany or Stalin’s Russia, not here. Mortimore, again, is more restrained than I am…

Ultimately, Beckett produces an illuminating review on a crucial ongoing debate.

Our critic at large this week is Craig Raine who has looked at the work of Paul Klee at the Tate modern. He finds both magic and mechanism in the paintings:

In Klee, function meets fantasy. We learn from the Tate’s unusually helpful and interesting catalogue that when Klee was 50, his birthday celebrations included hiring a Junkers aeroplane to fly over his house and parachute down presents from students and colleagues – somehow an appropriate conflation of technology and whimsy, of magic and machinery.

The review brilliantly depicts the plurality of Klee’s methodology: his invention of the oil-transfer drawing, the use of pointillism and the fine watercolour sprays at the edges of drawings. Raine produces an insightful review to an extremely interesting artist.

The “single actor” movie is the crux of Ryan Gilbey’s review of Gravity, a film in which the majority of screen time is taken up by Sandra Bullock’s character Ryan Stone. Gilbey sees this type of performance - an extended soliloquy - as the pinnacle of any actor's career. He notes that “such films are partly about the currency of the star” but goes on to argue whether Bullock “will be vital in bringing to the movie a type of viewer not statistically attracted to science fiction extravaganzas". That type? "female."

For Tom Watson, games represent nostalgia, and a comfort blanket. However, the new Batman game Arkham Origins was none-too-comforting and left him frustrated and grumpy. While being impressed by the combat system and Batman’s entire tech he just found the game too hard. "Cognitive science may be rebalancing the argument in favour of video games being good for humanity, but I’m afraid Batman: Arkham Origins is not."

This week’s critics section also features:

  • A review of Morrissey's Autobiography by Andrew Harrison
  • Douglas Hurd’s critique of Robert Harris's An Officer and a Spy 
  • Fiona Sampson on The Village Against the World by Dan Hancox and The Train in Spain: Ten Great Journeys Through the Interior by a book by Cristopher Howse
  • Norman Mailer: a Double Life written by J Michael Lennon analysed by Daniel Swift
  • Yo Zushi examination of Paul Robeson: a Watched Man by Jordan Goodman
  • Radio 4's Open Country reviewed by Antonia Quirke
  • Rachel Cooke looking at the depiction of Iceland on BBC2
Francis Beckett is not a fan of history according to Gove. (Oli Scarff/Getty Images)
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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

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 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit