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.

Photo: Panayiotis Kyriakou / Eyeem
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The Evolution of Beauty reveals the true power of sexual attraction

Richard O Prum's book mimics the literary output of Charles Darwin.

In 1860, the year after Charles Darwin had published his On the Origin of Species, he privately confessed to a colleague: ‘‘The sight of a feather in a peacock’s tail, when­ever I gaze at it, makes me feel sick!’’ It doesn’t take a genius to work out the cause of Darwin’s nausea.

Natural selection, as he had defined it, was assumed to modify the physical structure and function of a species’ composite parts, so that they were all adjusted to their environmental conditions.

Overall, it was presumed to shape an animal to make it better adapted to its life circumstances.

But how on Earth could such a theory explain something as gloriously impractical as the five-foot-long, eye-spotted upper-tail coverts of a male peacock? Far from leaving the owner skilled at negotiating its environment or better at escaping predators, this ­ludicrous appendage appeared to make it less able to survive. The peacock’s tail seemed the most beautiful and elegant rebuttal of Darwin’s arguments.

At least it did until, according to the author of this remarkable book, Darwin came up with the answer. It was an insight every bit as world-defining as his original theory and he described it in a later book, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871). Darwin argued that another evolutionary force was at play among life in the way that organisms select their prospective partners. Natural selection may lead to the survival of the fittest, but sexual selection, as we now call this other mechanism, does not necessarily make a species better adapted.

Mate choices based on aesthetic criteria, of which the peacock’s tail is a perfect example, can give rise to arbitrary, even maladaptive characteristics. And not only does ­sexual selection lead to the acquisition of such useless adornments, it also has a co-evolutionary impact on the desires expressed by the male peacock’s mate. In short, what helps shape life on Earth is the subjective feelings that operate largely within female organisms.

According to Prum, this is Darwin’s truly ‘‘dangerous idea’’, and one that patriarchal Western scientific culture has instinctively disliked. Prum explores in detail the antag­onisms that sexual selection has aroused over the 150 years since Darwin articulated the idea. While natural scientists from Alfred Russel Wallace to Richard Dawkins may have accepted its existence, they have also sought to collapse its significance and make it a subsidiary element within the general theory of natural selection.

They argue that mate choices may lead to beautiful and bizarre adornments but that these features are also ‘‘honest’’ indicators of the good genes and vigorous health possessed by their male owners.

Prum calls it the ‘‘beauty-as-utility argument’’ and characterises it as a majority view, one to which he has been a lifelong opponent. In The Evolution of Beauty he provides a detailed justification for his position, making his book both an objective description of how sexual selection operates and a form of scientific autobiography.

It also mimics Darwin’s literary output in two crucial senses. Like his great hero did, it has taken Prum decades to assemble the hoard of supportive evidence that underpins his views. He has also articulated his life’s work in prose that is as lucid as the arguments are sophisticated: Darwin couldn’t have put it better himself.

The author is a lifelong birdwatcher and many of his favourite organisms feature strongly in the array of case studies that make up a good deal of the book. But the bird family that launched Prum’s scientific journey is a group of tiny, intensely colourful Neotropical inhabitants called manakins. The males of the group perform a bizarre display that has evolved under a severe form of sexual selection that Prum ­describes as 54 ‘‘distinctive ‘ideals’ of beauty’’.

One of the better-known of these birds is the red-capped manakin, which performs a dance routine said to resemble Michael Jackson’s moonwalk. Another, the blue manakin, often functioning in collaborative teams of up to seven males, does a Catherine-wheel-like flutter past the dowdy female.

In their relatively long lives, as many as 90 per cent of male blue manakins may never get to mate. As Prum points out, these birds ‘‘engage in the most ruthless sexual competition known in nature’’, but it is not a violent transaction conducted with teeth and horns. Appropriately for one of ­Brazil’s best-known birds, it involves a song-and-dance number, of which the super-picky females are the ultimate arbiters.

What makes this book so absorbing is that Prum expands the range of his material to speculate on a panorama of intriguing questions. To give a small sense of this eclectic span, he proposes that sexual selection could have played a very important part in shaping feathers in dinosaurs and in the evolution of flight by their avian descendants, and that it may even have led to the Old Testament story of how God made Adam’s partner from a spare rib. According to Prum, the real bone used to fashion Eve may have been a baculum, a penis bone, which is found in all primates except two – spider monkeys and ourselves.

Prum devotes the last third of his book to considering how mate choices may have been decisive in shaping aspects of human physiology and behaviour. This is likely to provoke much of the attention that the book rightly deserves, because here he dwells on the size and shape of the human penis, the existence of the female orgasm and the evolution of same-sex sexual relationships, all of which are hard to explain through natural selection alone.

Prum’s thoughts on these matters are compelling stuff, but the book’s chief achievement is to challenge our relentlessly anthropocentric perspective. The Evolution of Beauty enables us to see that the most intimate emotions and subjective choices made by mere beasts are decisive subjects for science. And it is these aesthetic sens­ibilities, as owned and operated by other animals, that have fashioned the manifold beauties of our world.

Mark Cocker’s new book, “Our Place”, will be published in 2018 by Jonathan Cape

The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin’s Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World – and Us
Richard O Prum
Doubleday, 448pp, $30​

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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