In the Critics this week

In the Critics section of this week's NS, a host of contributors tell us their favourite book of the year, Andrew Harrison explains the politics of Doctor Who and Rachel Cooke is enamoured by Last Tango in Halifax.

This week’s issue of the New Statesman begins with the “Books of the year”. Contributors and friends of the publication have been asked to choose their favourite reading from 2013. We feature contributions from John Gray, Ali Smith, Ed Balls, Stephen King, Rachel Reeves, Sarah Sands, William Boyd, Alan Rusbridger, Lucy Hughes-Hallett, Simon Heffer, Andrew Adonis, Craig Raine, Felix Martin, Frances Wilson, John Burnside, Jesse Norman, Alexander McCall Smith, Richard Overy, Jason Cowley, Mark Damazer, Lionel Shriver, Jemima Khan, Geoff Dyer, Laurie Penny, Vince Cable, Alan Johnson, Leo Robson, Jane Shilling, John Bew, Ed Smith, Richard J Evans, David Baddiel, Michael Rosen, John Banville, David Shrigley, Chris Hadfield, Tim Farrin, Toby Litt, David Marquand, Robert Harris, Michael Prodger, Michael Symmons Roberts and Sarah Churchwell.

Have you ever wondered about the politics underlying Doctor Who? It may not be as simple as you think. In fact, it may not even be a singular political message, as Andrew Harrison explains: “Doctor Who has had plenty of nasty things to say about our society over the years but the politics and ethics of its hero has proved as malleable as its core cast.” Harrison traces 50 years of Whovian politics and assigns its political randomness to the constant reinvention of its creative team and authorship. This is a show that isn’t afraid to discuss apartheid, Thatcherism, depersonalisation through technology, tax worries and liberal interventionism. In its modern form the show is “more personal, less didactic but alive to the notion that the personal is political.” So Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor is a commendation of the common people and David Tennant’s Doctor shows that “sometimes the solution is worse than the problem – a very Noughties fate.” Nonetheless, it remains that the Doctor is “the last great Enlightenment figure: egalitarian, ever curious and dedicated to reason and principle that the sonic screw-driver is mightier than the sword.”

Rachel Cooke rejoices in the BBC drama Last Tango in Halifax. She argues that whilst it may be easy to dismiss the show,

Sally Wainwrights’s drama about late-life love in the north of England – a huge hit for the BBC – is amazingly well-written and superbly acted, and reaches places and feelings ignored by quite a lot of television, which is mostly predictably metropolitan in its impulses. It’s also peculiarly gripping.

Cooke admires the complexity that derives from its simple premise – two childhood sweethearts reuniting as septuagenarians – as the show addresses the anxiety and embarrassment from their grown up daughters and even the role of social class has to play. Most of all, she is impressed with the familiarity garnered by the show’s attention to detail. This is visuals and script working harmoniously together to become “terribly touching.”

However, Cooke does dismiss the new series of Borgen coming to BBC4. She writes: “My strong feeling is that if Borgen was in English, the Twittering classes would hoot with laughter at its wooden dialogue, its circular, talky plotlines and its plodding zeal for compromise.”

Opera has been going through a bit of a revival recently with the injection of several well acclaimed theatre-makers. The most recent of these is Complicite’s The Magic Flute. Alexandra Coghlan asks why John Berry, English National Opera’s artistic director, and the Met’s Peter Gelb are introducing these directors who are not well versed in the ways of Opera. She finds the answer in the sentiment that “directors with no background in opera” are “fresh pairs of eyes untainted by its tradition.” Yet, she is quick to note that music must remain central, there has to be “an instinct for that peculiar relationship at opera’s core”. When it comes to the production of The Magic Flute, however, Coghlan feels that the emotion has been lost from Mozart’s opera. The special effects and innovative stage design make it truly “magic” but lacks “humanity”. She concludes that Opera “is learning so much from theatre, but there are still, it seems, just a few things that opera can teach it in return.”

This week’s Critics section also features:

Whovian politics: cybermen don't seem to like traffic wardens. Photo: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images.

Book talk from the New Statesman culture desk.

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The radio station where the loyal listeners are chickens

Emma Hills, the head chicken trainer at Giffords Circus, knows what gets them clucking.

“The music is for the chickens, because of course on the night the music is very loud, and so it needs to be a part of their environment from the very start.” Emma Hills, the head chicken trainer at Giffords Circus, is standing in the sawdusty ring under a big top in a field outside Stroud as several rare-breed chickens wander freely around boxes and down ramps. They are the comic stars of the summer 2017 show, and Emma is coaxing them to walk insouciantly around the ring while she plays the early-morning show on Radio 1.

It’s the chickens’ favourite station. There seems to be something about its longueurs, combined with the playlist, that gets them going – if that’s the word. They really do respond to the voices and songs. “It’s a bit painful, training,” Emma observes, as she moves a little tray of worms into position as a lure. “It’s a bit like watching paint dry sometimes. It’s all about repetition.”

Beyond the big top, a valley folds into limestone hills covered in wild parsley and the beginnings of elderblossom. Over the radio, Adele Roberts (weekdays, from 4am) hails her listeners countrywide. “Hello to Denzel, the happy trucker going north on the M6. And van driver Niki on the way from Norwich to Coventry, delivering all the things.” Pecking and quivering, the chickens are rather elegant, each with its fluffy, caramel-coloured legs and explosive feather bouffant, like a hat Elizabeth Taylor might have worn on her way to Gstaad in the 1970s.

Despite a spell of ennui during the new Harry Styles single, enthusiasm resumes as Adele bids “hello to Simon from Bournemouth on the M3 – he’s on his way to Stevenage delivering meat”. I don’t imagine Radio 1 could hope for a better review: to these pretty creatures, its spiel is as thrilling as opening night at the circus. Greasepaint, swags of velvet, acrobats limbering up with their proud, ironic grace. Gasps from beholders rippling wonder across the stalls.

Emma muses that her pupils learn fast. Like camels, a chicken never forgets.

“I’ve actually given up eating them,” she admits. “Last year I had only two weeks to train and it was like, ‘If they pull this off I won’t eat chicken ever again.’ And they did. So I didn’t.” 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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