The Hour: series 2, episode 4

Plots are thickening all over the place.

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

The plot thickens. All over the place, alternatively heartbreaking and silly, plots were thickening up before your very eyes in this episode.

For instance, we finally got a bit of background on Commander Stern, apparent woman-beater and corrupt cop - during the war Hector caught him beating a prostitute, but let it go because "it was war-time". Now, we're watching Hector's friendship and loyalty for his old comrade-in-arms slowly degrade as he processes what the early hints of violence have developed into. Of course, being Hector, he's still being cowardly about it - allowing Bel and Freddie to do all the leg-work, falling for slimy government apparatchik McCain's tricks, potentially endangering important sources who have spoken out against Stern with his vacillation - but he's getting there. Slowly. Even his wife thinks so - for the first time in ages, she could actually bring herself to make eye contact with him.

McCain: so slimy. Photograph: BBC

We saw more of the sinister nightclub owner Mr Cilenti in this episode for the first time, and we're definitely supposed to lay all the evils in the world at his door. He coerces his girls into performing honey-traps on famous and important men so he can blackmail them, apparently orders murders at the drop of a hat, and - let's not forget - wantonly breaches the terms of his premises' entertainment license. Clearly a rotter, then.

However, I'm just not quite convinced. I can't help feeling this could turn out to be like in the first series when the shady Mr Kish was drifting around the BBC, definitely behaving like a communist spy, only for the plot to twist away, leaving him innocently dead at the bottom of a stairwell. Also, it seems that Cilenti stalks people around London, leaving small origami swans around the place in an attempt to intimidate them. That's less the action of a terrifying crime baron (I mean, aren't body parts or straightforward threats to cut you up more traditional?) and more the action of a misunderstood paper-folding enthusiast, I reckon.

Once again, Anna Chancellor and Peter Capaldi managed to steal the show with their long-lost child subplot. Capaldi's Randall has now tracked down their 19-year-old daughter. When he tells Lix that the information is on its way, she does her very best to hold it together, typing, smoking and talking all at the same time. It's only when he leaves her office that she falls back in her chair, leaning so far back that not even the camera can see her face, and allows herself to sob. Later, when they read the letter together explaining who and where their daughter is now, their gruff exchanges and desperate grasping for each other's hands was enough to rend your heart in two. As much as I love Freddie and Bel (more on that in a second), Chancellor and Capaldi have just managed to vault themselves into position as the best thing about The Hour. I can only hope that their subplot is given the time it obviously deserves in future episodes.

Freddie and Bel, then. You could be forgiven for experiencing serious déjà vu for series one in this episode, as their will-they-won't-they tension of old re-emerged. Freddie's wife Camille was permitted to wear trousers for the first time in ages as she yelled at him about how he loved Bel and his job more than her, before "going away for a few days". Meanwhile, Bel seems to be getting along well enough with her devastatingly handsome ITV chap, but he did drop a few hints about how she "can't be a journalist forever", leading us to think that he's already cast her in the role of his adoring second wife, who stays at home and cooks rather than running a major news programme. I like him a lot less already.

Freddie and Bel: will they actually get it together, ever? Photograph: BBC

Predictably, the moment at which Bel and Freddie almost talked about their relationship, the news burst through and interrupted. More next week, I'm sure, but not too much - relationships like this based on professional and personal tension are always better when you don't know everything about them.

Two honourable mentions for more minor characters thickening in their own little plots - cheery Hour dogsbody Isaac, who is suddenly getting his plays performed on the radio and turning up vital details in the police corruption investigation, and McCain, who seems to be descending into a panic over his personal life. Early on in the episode, he tells us that he's been taking his "distant cousin Vera" to the theatre (beard alert) but then later on we discover he's been touting government ministers to television programmes because he's being blackmailed about his liaisons with men by Cilenti. One to watch.

Of course, amid all this character development, The Hour's writers couldn't resist slipping in a tiny bit of knowing satire, having Randall say:

"This is the BBC, not the MoD. Contracts cannot just be ignored."

Quite.

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

Anna Chancellor as Lix Storm. Photograph: BBC

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

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Putin's vote-winning trick? He makes power personal

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular. Yet President Putin is immune to voter's discontent.

A week before Russia’s parliamentary elections, the central square in Ekaterinburg – the fourth-largest city in Russia, a thousand miles east of Moscow – was packed with people, huddling close on a wet September night. They faced a stage decorated with a poster imploring the crowd to vote for “ours”, meaning United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party.

Yet it wasn’t politics for which thousands of people had braved the rain – it was music. During the perestroika and glasnost years of post-Soviet openness, Ekaterinburg was the cradle of the Russian rock scene. The home-grown bands Nautilus Pompilius, Chaif and Agata Kristi sang about freedom and change. Thus, this free concert to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the legendary Sverdlovsk Rock Club was bound to draw a crowd, and United Russia latched on to that.

A message from Dmitry Medvedev, the United Russia leader, praising local rock bands for their bravery “in those days when freedom was in deficit”, was read to the assembled fans. If freedom was a powerful word thirty years ago it has little impact on Russians today. Turnout in the election on 18 September was less than 50 per cent (and only 41.5 per cent in the Ekaterinburg region), a sign of the general political apathy. Before they went to the polls, it was hard to find anyone who was enthusiastic about voting.

“Why should I bother with voting? The result is clear: United Russia will, as always, win,” says Vyacheslav Bakhtin, who owns a small construction company in Ekaterinburg. He added: “Elections are the last thing on my mind. My business has been suffering for the last two years. We couldn’t even afford to go on a family vacation this summer.”

The Russian economy is struggling because of low oil prices, trade embargoes and geopolitical concerns. There have been public spending cuts, and the free float of the rouble led to currency devaluation and high inflation (7 per cent in August). Unemployment is rising and the base interest rate is 10.5 per cent.

There are many reasons for Russians to want a change in government, yet it appears that people do not see the link between their daily struggles and Putin’s policies.

Anna Mikhailova has recently returned from a tour of the Golden Ring of Russia (a circuit of medieval cities to the north-east of Moscow), where there is a stark contrast between the restored onion-domed churches and the crumbling villages.

“People live in poverty in crammed kummunalki [Soviet-style communal flats with several families sharing one kitchen and bathroom],” she tells me. “But they still talk about Putin the Saviour, standing up for Mother Russia.”

Apart from United Russia, 13 parties were judged eligible to stand, but the range of choice was an illusion. Olga, who requested anonymity for her own safety, explained. “We have one party – United Russia – a few pseudo-opposition parties, the Communists, the LDPR and Fair Russia who support Putin’s cause, and a bunch of nobodies that people don’t care about.”

Indeed, Gennady Zyuganov, who has led the Communist Party since 1993, campaigned under the slogan “Ten Stalinist punches against capitalism”. But although he criticised Medvedev, he didn’t touch Putin. The populist leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Vladimir Zhirinovsky, another political dinosaur, actively endorses Putin’s foreign policy.

If there is discontent among voters, Putin is immune to it. On the eve of the elections, United Russia’s popularity slid to just 30 per cent of total respondents in one poll, though it scored 50 per cent among those who said they were definitely going to vote. Medvedev’s own approval rating fell to 48 per cent. His message to the elderly that state pensions wouldn’t increase, and his advice to teachers to get jobs in the private sector if they weren’t happy with their state salaries, might have had something to do with it. Yet Putin’s popularity remained consistently high, at 82 per cent, according to independent pollsters the Levada Centre.

Alexey Volkov, a 40-year-old business manager, says he voted for the Communists. “I voted against United Russia, the apparatchiks stifling the president,” he explains. “Putin, on the other hand, is the best ruler since Alexander III [Russia’s emperor at the end of the 19th century].”

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular and considered ineffective by the Russian people. Over the past 16 years, presidential power has expanded hugely. Since Russia adopted its new constitution in 1993, successive presidents have introduced legislation to stretch the office’s authority. In his first term as president, Putin acquired 219 new rights and duties, and as his successor Medvedev enjoyed an additional 114 responsibilities. These range from educational appointments to federal government decisions.

As predicted, United Russia topped the ballot with 54 per cent of the vote. Putin’s party claimed 343 of the 450 seats (up from 238 in 2011). The same four parties will form the Duma. The Yabloko and PARNAS parties, seen by voters as a token gesture of protest against the Kremlin, gained negligible support, with 2 per cent and 0.7 per cent, respectively.

It is ultimately Putin’s victory. In the eyes of the majority, he has restored Russia’s strength abroad, revived the defence industry and army, and reinvigorated the country with patriotism. The latter was accomplished via manipulation of the media, which has reinstated the West as the enemy and focused attention on foreign affairs at the expense of the social and economic agenda at home.

Still, with the low turnout, only 26 per cent of eligible Russians voted for Putin’s party. Though that was enough to tighten the president’s grip on the Duma, nationwide the elections paint a picture of a dejected Russia just beginning to feel discontent with the status quo. It is not yet enough to unseat Putin, but as the old Russian saying goes: a drop of water can cut through stone.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times