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. She writes a weekly podcast column.

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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

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 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear