Dominic West as Hector Madden, The Hour's presenter. Photograph: BBC
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The Hour: series 2, episode 1

The BBC drama about a BBC news programme is back, and it's never felt more relevant.

WARNING: This blog is for people watching "The Hour" on Wednesday nights on BBC2. Don't read ahead if you haven't watched it yet - contains spoilers!

Not far into this, the first episode of The Hour’s second series, slimy political aide Angus McCain declares that “A lie has no legs. A scandal - now, that has wings.” All slicked-back ginger hair and hinted-at homosexuality, actor Julian Rhind-Tutt imbues the lines with the malice and seediness that those who followed drama’s first series so avidly - mainly me, it’s true - have come to expect from him. His beloved Prime Minister Eden might be gone, but McCain wants to show from the outset that he still wields power in the shadowy world of Westminster. And in uttering these words, he’s also setting up a series’ worth of plot points, and reassured us that writer Abi Morgan has chosen not to mess with a successful formula.

The Hour has never bothered with loud showy cliffhangers or even let its characters raise their voices that often. No - The Hour specialises in creeping realisations and barely-seen glances that flick to and fro, while the discussion of important social issues gets scribbled in the margins of a densley-written script. Just like in the last series, when a high-up BBC executive was eventually found to have turned traitor and started recruiting for the Soviets, McCain has promised us from the outset a scandal so big and juicy that almost everyone will pretend it never happened at all.

Morgan could never have known when putting together The Hour’s second series that it would air in a week when the real-life BBC has been engulfed in scandal that hinged on investigative journalism gone awry and management failures. The Jimmy Savile affair and the Lord McAlpine debacle are hardly equivalent to having Soviet spies wandering around the corporation's canteen drinking tea, but it still feels more topical than a drama should to be watching Romola Garai’s producer character wrestling with issues of sourcing and news management, and fretting that ITV’s competitor programme, Uncovered, has stolen her idea for a hard-hitting investigative news show and is delivering it better than she is.

If the last series was all about espionage, this one appears to be all about vice - specifically, Soho gangland vice. Dominic West’s Hector Madden has got rather too big for his boots since his eventual success as The Hour’s presenter, and has started frequenting West End clubs where extremely deferential tabloid paparazzos take his picture and callgirls encased in cream satin corsets do their level best to entice him away to hotel suites (he doesn't resist very hard).

Meanwhile, the crime rate is through the roof and the government is spending vast sums on nuclear weapons rather than policemen. In an example of the kind of scene The Hour has always excelled at, one of Madden’s girls sits on the edge of the bath inspecting her battered face and bruised body - the result of a morning-after visit from a mysterious man. Next evening, she’s sweeping her fringe over her split eyebrow, powdering her cut lip and singing in a cabaret while powerful men smirk at her over their champagne saucers.

Hector gets cosy with a Soho "actress" when he ought to be out doing journalism or at home with his wife. Photograph: BBC

Peter Capaldi has joined the cast this series as the new head of news (replacing the one who is now in prison for being a Soviet agent) and proves in his first few scenes that even without the swearing and with the addition of a severe side parting, he knows how to steal a scene. The slight frisson between him and Anna Chancellor (playing the maverick foreign desk editor, Lix Storm) has promise that hopefully will be explored in future episodes. We might mourn the ending of the The Thick Of It, but all is not lost - Malcolm Tucker never got to say lines like “I grieve for the croissant” while mournfully holding a plate of burnt toast.

For me, at least, there was an alarming lack of Ben Whishaw in this episode’s first half, but once he made his grand entrance - stubbing a cigarette out on a BBC noticeboard and being late for his first news conference since being fired, all the while sporting a rather ragged beard - he more than made up for it. Freddie dashed about the place, pounding out the scoops, accusing ministers of not caring about murder victims, providing a refuge for a colleague’s persecuted Nigerian boyfriend, and even revealing that while the show has been off air, he's acquired an unexpected new French wife, who appeared wearing just a jumper and wielding a kitchen knife. He still calls Romola Garai's character "Moneypenny", though - a running joke that's even better now that we know that Ben Whishaw is also Q in the new James Bond film.

Ben Whishaw as Freddie Lyon, the hard-hitting journalist who returned to The Hour as co-host in the first episode. Photograph: BBC

Last series, much of the criticism of The Hour complained that it didn't seem to know what kind of programme it was - newsroom drama or political thriller. I never understood why it had to be either/or, since Morgan's scripts seemed to weave the two together quite deftly. This second series opener has demonstrated that once again it's going to try and blend the two genres, but with a domestic political plot rather than a foreign one. A promising start.

Still, more Ben and less beard would be nice next week.

I'll be blogging "The Hour" each week - check back next Thursday morning for the next installment, or bookmark this page

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era