The Hour: series 2, episode 3

So many storylines, you won't know where to look.

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

Thematic unity, that's what this episode lacked. Last week the script so perfectly tied together the personal and the professional, with our characters struggling to cope with the actions and ideas of fascists both at home and at work, that this week's attempt to move on several different storylines all in the space of the hour (geddit?) felt somewhat choppy and unsatisfying.

But then, feeling unsatisfied is really what The Hour is all about - the longing glances, the unspoken rules, the desire for freedoms that don't yet exist. And in this instalment, we discovered that in the case of Randall and Lix, portrayed once again so superbly by Peter Capaldi and Anna Chancellor, their unsatisfied longing stems from the brief period during the Spanish Civil War when they were in love and had a child.

They have A PAST. Who knew? Photograph: BBC

I always knew Lix was going to turn out to be more than just the older female character who has a ready stash of witty put downs and is never without a bottle of whiskey in her desk. Now, it has been revealed, she has A Past she'd rather forget, but Randall (in what we can only assume is a middle-aged onset of sentimentality and guilt) is going to force her to confront said past by relentlessly hunting down their daughter. I'm not going to lie, a part of me hopes that the missing daughter (implausibly) turns out to be Bel (after all, surely Randall and Lix's child has to be some kind of groundbreaking journalistic wunderkind?) As a coda to the whole plot, Anna Chancellor’s distraught, swallowed sobs in the lift after her confrontation with Randall were beautifully portrayed. Give the woman a Bafta, stat.

Elsewhere in this fragmented episode, Hector made the return journey from the low point he arrived at last week. Sure, his wife now can't bear to be touched by him and he has an embarrassingly drunken altercation with his only powerful government source at a Christmas party, but by the end of the episode he does his first decent on-air interview since the second series began – interrogating his former army colleague-turned-police-chief Commander Stern.

Stern-faced Comander Stern appearing on The Hour. Photograph: BBC

Which leads me to the strangest decision in this episode – the unmasking of Stern, who was the real culprit of the beating that put Hector in a police cell for a night. I was all set for a few episodes of the viewer gleefully knowing whodunit, while Bel and Freddie charged around closing the net around him. Except that Freddie put it together in about fifteen minutes, and five minutes after that had flattered Stern into appearing on The Hour so that Hector could stick the knife into his brother in arms. I sincerely hope that the writers have got a couple more decent plot twists up their sleeves – otherwise, it was absurd to give away so much so soon. I will, however, say that having Stern’s unmasking hinge upon the provenance of the ugliest ornament I’ve ever seen (which he won at random in a BBC raffle) was supremely elegant. I did feel sorry for Stern’s mistress, Kiki, though. Bel got chips and roses from her ITV beau – an ugly ornament and not getting beaten up seems like a poor offering by comparison.

It wouldn’t be The Hour if they hadn’t managed to cover the taboo-breaking social issue of the day – this week, it was the Wolfenden Report and the debate - or lack of it - about decriminalising homosexuality. As Lix put it, voice dripping in sarcasm, "An actual homosexual on The Hour. That would be... novel." In the same discussion, Bel firmly nailed her liberal colours to the mast, saying “Adultery, fornication, lesbianism are all considered sins. But male homosexuality is considered both a sin and a crime... It falls to us to ask why" while Hector the alcoholic curmudgeon weighed in with "no home secretary wants to go down as the man who legalised buggery". Quite. And so they did try and debate it on The Hour, although the attempted discussion about blackmail and private sexual liaisons was rather overshadowed by the aforementioned interrogation of Commander Stern by Hector. I have hopes, though, that this issue will return to be dealt with again in a later episode – perhaps with slimy government apparatchik McCain at the centre of his own scandal, for a change.

Bel and her ITV opposite number got friendly after the Christmas party. Photograph: BBC

To my fury, Freddie’s wife Camille appeared only in her knickers and a large jumper yet again, even after she’d done some excellent detective work of her own in Soho. Sort it out, costume department - we get that she's supposed to be French, gamine and bohemian now. To my utter delight, though, Bel is finally getting some action of her own, snogging her ITV admirer in the stairwell after the BBC Christmas party. Although if he succeeds in stealing away her presenter, their budding relationship might not bloom... One day, I'd like to see Bel have a relationship with someone who isn't intimately involved in her work. One day.

A classic mid-series episode, then. I can only hope that our patience with the criss-crossing storylines and somewhat exposition-heavy dialogue in this episode will be rewarded in weeks to come.

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

Bel Rowley, producer of "The Hour". Photograph: BBC

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

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Will they, won't they: Freya’s ambivalent relationship with plot

Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed in Anthony Quinn’s Freya.

Freya is a portrait of a young woman in her time (post-Second World War through to the 1950s), place (London and Oxford) and social class (upper middle). Her father is an artist, Stephen Wyley, one of the principal characters in Anthony Quinn’s last novel, Curtain Call, which was set in 1936. We meet Freya on VE Day, assessing her own reflection: dressed in her Wren uniform, leggy, a little flat-chested, hollow-cheeked, with a “wilful” set to her mouth. And even though her consciousness is the constant centre of this novel, the feeling that we are standing outside her and looking in is never quite shaken. Quinn invests intensively in the details of the character’s life – the food and drink, the brand names and the fabrics, the music and the books around her – but he can’t always make her behave plausibly in the service of the story.

In fact, the novel has an altogether ambivalent relationship with plot. For the first two-thirds of the book there’s not that much of it. Freya is one of those young women for whom peacetime brought a tedious reversion to the mean expectations for her sex. When she goes up to Oxford, she realises that, despite her accomplishments in the navy, “she was just a skirt with a library book”. Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed. Quinn makes heavy use of elision – telling us that something is about to happen and then jumping to the aftermath – which would be an effective way to suggest Freya’s frustration, if it weren’t so schematic.

Granted, it’s preferable to dodge the obvious than to have it hammered home, but at times Quinn can be remarkably unsubtle. When a character mentions a fictional writer, he glosses this immediately afterwards, explaining: “He had named a famous man of letters from the early part of the century.” Presumably this clunking line has been inserted for fear that we readers won’t be able to draw the necessary conclusions for ourselves, but it’s superfluous and it jars. Quinn also has his characters make self-conscious asides about literature. Arch observations such as “The writer should perform a kind of disappearing act” and “It’s unfathomable to me how someone who’s read Middlemarch could behave this way” make me wonder whether students of physics might not have more intriguing inner lives than those studying English literature.

And then there is Freya’s sexuality, which is set up as the animating mystery of the novel, but is laid out quite clearly before we’re a dozen pages in. She meets Nancy Holdaway during the VE celebrations and the attraction is instant, though also unspeakable (a critical plot point hinges on the repression of homosexuality in 1950s Britain). The will-they-won’t-they dance extends through the book, but it’s hard going waiting for the characters to acknow­ledge something that is perfectly obvious to the reader for several hundred pages. It’s not as if Freya is a fretful naif, either. She takes sexual opportunity at an easy clip, and we learn later that she had flirtations with women during the war. Why become coy in this one instance?

Nor is she otherwise a reserved or taciturn character. Forging a career in journalism as a woman demands that she battle at every step, whether she would like to or not. “But I don’t want to fight,” she says, later on in the narrative, “I only want to be given the same.” However, she rarely backs away from confrontation. At times her tenacity is inexplicable. In one scene, she is about to pull off a decisive bargain with a figure from the underworld when she defies the middleman’s warnings and launches into a denunciation of her criminal companion’s morals, inevitably trashing the deal. It’s hard to swallow, and makes it harder still to imagine her keeping her counsel about the great love of her life.

When the plot at last springs to life, in the final third, there is almost too much to get through. Quinn introduces several new characters and a whole mystery element, all in the last 150 pages, with the romance still to be resolved besides. After the languorous pace so far, it’s an abrupt and not quite successful switch. Quinn hasn’t got the Sarah Waters trick of mixing sexual repression with a potboiling historical plot, nor Waters’s gift for scenes of disarming literary filth. (Freya announcing that “she finger-fucked me till I came” is unlikely to join ­Fingersmith’s “You pearl!” in the fantasy lives of the bookish.) Freya is a novel about intimacy and honesty, where telling the truth is paramount; but it doesn’t seem to know its own heroine well enough to bring us truly close to her.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism