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 assistant editor of the New Statesman.

David McNew/Getty Images
Show Hide image

The Wood Wide Web: the world of trees underneath the surface

Mycorrhizal networks, better known as the Wood Wide Web, have allowed scientists to understand the social networks formed by trees underground.

In 1854, Henry David Thoreau published Walden, an extensive rumination on his two years, two months and two days spent in a cabin in the woodlands near Walden Pond. It was situated on a plot of land owned by his friend, mentor and noted transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Thoreau’s escape from the city was a self-imposed experiment - one which sought to find peace and harmony through a minimalistic, simple way of living amongst nature. Voicing his reasons for embarking on the rural getaway, Thoreau said, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life.”

Walden cemented Thoreau’s reputation as a key figure in naturalism; his reflections have since been studied, his practices meticulously replicated. But in the knowledge that Thoreau’s excursion into the woods was a means to better understand how to integrate into society, curious minds are left to wonder what essays and aphorisms Thoreau would have produced had he known what the botanists of today know of nature’s very own societal networks.

As scientists have now discovered, what lies beneath the ground Thoreau walked upon, and indeed beneath the ground anyone walks upon when near trees, is perhaps the most storied history and study of collaborative society in something which is now known as the mycorrhizal network or the “Wood Wide Web”.

Coined by the journal Nature, the term Wood Wide Web has come to describe the complex mass of interactions between trees and their microbial counterparts underneath the soil. Spend enough time among trees and you may get a sense that they have been around for centuries, standing tall and sturdy, self-sufficient and independent. But anchoring trees and forestry everywhere, and therefore enjoining them into an almost singular superoganism, is a very intimate relationship between their roots and microbes called mycorrhizal fungi.

Understanding the relationship between the roots of trees and mycorrhizal fungi has completely shifted the way we think about the world underneath them. Once thought to be harmful, mycorrhizal fungi are now known to have a bond of mutualism with the roots – a symbiotic connection from which both parties benefit.

Despite the discovery being a recent one, the link between the two goes as far back as 450 million years. A pinch of soil can hold up to seven miles worth of coiled, tubular, thread-like fungi. The fungi release tubes called hyphae which infiltrate the soil and roots in a non-invasive way, creating a tie between tree and fungus at a cellular level. It is this bond which is called mycorrhiza. As a result, plants 20m away from each other can be connected in the same way as plants connected 200 metres away; a hyphal network forms which brings the organisms into connection.

At the heart of the mutualistic relationship is an exchange; the fungi have minerals which the tree needs, and the trees have carbon (which is essentially food) which the fungi need. The trees receive nitrogen for things such as lignin – a component which keep the trees upright, and various other minerals such as phosphorus, magnesium, calcium, copper and more. In return, fungi get the sugars they need from the trees’ ongoing photosynthesis to energise their activities and build their bodies. The connection runs so deep that 20-80% of a tree’s sugar can be transferred to the fungi, while the transfer of nitrogen to trees is such that without the swap, trees would be toy-sized.

It’s a bond that has resulted in some remarkable phenomena. Suzanne Simard, an ecologist at the University of British Columbia, has researched into these back and forth exchanges and has found that rather than competing against one another as often assumed, there is a sort of teamwork between the trees facilitated by the mycorrhizal fungi.

In one particular example, Simard looked at a Douglas fir tree planted next to a birch tree. Upon taking the birch tree out, there was a completely unexpected result: the fir tree – instead of prospering from the reduced competition for sunlight – began to decay and die. The trees were connected underground via the mycorrhizal system, transferring carbon, nitrogen and water to one another, communicating underground, talking to each other. As Simard says in her TED talk, “it might remind you of a sort of intelligence.”

It has been documented that trees share food not just with trees of the same species, but with trees of all kinds of species, forming a social network which some have come to describe as a socialist system. Growth rates are positively affected while seedlings face greater chances of survival. There is in fact a group of plants – the mycoheterotrophic plants of which there are around 400 species – which wouldn’t survive without the mycorrhizal network. These plants are unable to photosynthesise and are therefore heavily dependent on other plants for carbon and minerals.

Over the years, Thoreau has had his fair share of critics who deemed his trip to the woods nothing more than an exercise in self-indulgence and narcissism. Perhaps if Thoreau had the chance to head back to Walden Pond with the knowledge of the Wood Wide Web at hand, he would fully understand that no one man is an island, as no one tree is a forest.