Dominic West as Hector Madden, dozing in his police cell. It wasn't a good week for him. Photograph: BBC
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The Hour: series 2, episode 2

A morality tale featuring a delicious blend of vice, corruption, pornography and cooking.

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!

Catch up on last week's instalment here

This was a morality tale. In fact, because this is The Hour and nothing is ever straightforward, it was several morality tales at the same time. You could take your pick, really: fascists and free speech; pornography and corruption; innocence and loyalty - this episode had it all.

The main business of this episode was Hector’s spectacular fall after his drunken, lecherous pride. He ends up languishing in a cell after being (wrongfully) accused of beating up a Soho callgirl. The use of contrast here was superb – at the start, he’s the bumptious dinner party host, swilling down cocktails and rolling his eyes at his wife. Twenty minutes later, we see him in a police interview, hands shaking so much he can’t even put a cigarette between his lips.

The breakout performance of this episode was undoubtedly Oona Chaplin as Hector’s long-suffering wife, Marnie. Rather than dash straight down to the police station to try and exonerate him, she suddenly finds a spine and spends the night on her own at home before successfully auditioning for some producers to get her own cookery show. It’s a delicious bit of plotting – not only has Hector been humiliated by his arrest, he’s now not even the most popular television personality in his own house. When she does finally turn up to take him home, it’s a different Marnie wrapped in that expensive fur coat. No more will she put up and shut up with Hector’s antics – she’s going to drive the car if she wants to, while firmly telling him that theirs is now a marriage for appearances only. I look forward to Marnie discovering feminism next week, taking a lover who actually likes her, and finally giving Hector the boot.

Marnie: soon-to-be professional domestic goddess. Photograph: BBC

As I mentioned last week, The Hour has really struck lucky when it comes to its scheduling. The news agenda might have moved on now from the perpetual “BBC in crisis” stuff of ten days ago, but when Anna Chancellor’s Lix declares exasperatedly “Is this what we have to look forward to? Continuous controversy?” you can’t help feeling she’s on to something.

The controversy she refers to is Freddie’s determination to interview a fascist on The Hour. The debate the programme’s journalists have about it is strikingly similar to the arguments made when BNP leader Nick Griffin appeared on the BBC’s Question Time in 2009 – Bel and Hector feel its “playing into Mosley’s hands to let them join the debate”, while Freddie thinks they shouldn’t patronise their viewers, and rather “give him the rope to hang himself if he wants”. In an example of how The Hour rather neatly blends the personal drama with the political storylines, the fascist Freddie interviews just so happens to be the one that’s been terrorising his wife, and the “immigrant” who gives the other side of the story is Hour secretary Sissy’s boyfriend, and Freddie’s lodger. The latter, Sey Ola (whose struggle between love of freedom and hatred of his persecutors is portrayed brilliantly by Adetomiwa Edun) eventually delivers the standout speech of the episode – telling Freddie that it’s because the fascists have the freedom to say such hateful things about him that he knows British democracy is strong, and that it’s where he wants to make his home. Next time someone makes the “no platform” argument, I think they should be required to watch that clip and reconsider their position.

After a slightly whiney start last week, this was a good episode for Romola Garai’s Bel. She did some serious investigating of the Soho pornography scene, flirted extensively with her opposite number on ITV’s Uncovered (who turns out to be a widower who can be prevailed upon to bring her chips late at night), and makes friends with Freddie again – most of which she achieves while wearing a very clinging and extremely attractive emerald green cocktail dress. This excellent little snippet of dialogue gives me hope too that Abi Morgan has plans for the future of Bel and Freddie’s complicated relationship:

“Where have you been?”

“Buying pornography. You?

“Picking up fascists.”

“Marvellous.”

A slightly more disappointing aspect of this week's episode was the readiness with which the woman accusing Hector revealed her real motive - she was actually trying to punish her lover, the deputy commissioner of police, the stern-jawed Commander Stern. His corruption notwithstanding, I felt as if we should have had to guess at that for at least another episode, but perhaps it was important to reveal it now in order to facilitate greater plot machinations in the future. The jury's out on this one.

Commander Stern, looking stern. Photograph: BBC

Incidentally, my prayers for more of Ben Whishaw and less of his beard were answered this week. We even got to see him, clean-shaven, do the journalistic equivalent of shadow-boxing, practicing his presenting skills on invisible interviewees. Lovely stuff, although his French wife is starting to grate slightly. For the second time in two episodes she appeared mostly on screen wearing just her knickers and an over-large jumper. I think this is supposed to tell us that she is “bohemian”, compared to the English women who keep their stockings on at all times.

Another interesting revelation this week – Peter Capaldi can do sex appeal. His languid, drawled “You’re wearing a cocktail dress – have I missed the party?” and Bel’s blushing reaction perhaps sets up an intriguing new relationship, although I must admit I’d much rather see more of him arguing with Anna Chancellor.

Yes, Peter Capaldi can do brooding sex appeal. I was surprised too. Photograph: Getty Images

Chancellor remains, for me, the best actor in this thing, and she also delivered the line that neatly wrapped all the morality tales together:

“Heroes or villains, we’re all somewhere in between. The good do bad things and the bad are sometimes kind to their mothers.”

Meanwhile, a newly-liberated Hector returns to his favourite Soho haunt and demands a table “at the front – I've got nothing to hide.”

So, the moral of the story? Nobody ever learns their lesson.

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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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

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