The Hour: series 2, episode 6

An ending both satisfactory and unsatisfactory.

WARNING: Don't read ahead if you haven't watched the series finale of The Hour yet - contains spoilers! You can catch up on the previous instalment here

We all knew it would happen eventually. We knew there would come a moment when Soho gangster and Hour villain-in-chief Rafael Cilenti would stop using shadowy, suggestive threats to manipulate and intimidate those around him, and start using his fists. But I for one certainly didn’t anticipate that the casualty of that transition would be Ben Whishaw’s quirky, beautiful face.

It was with brutal shocks like this that the second series The Hour came to a close last night. Having set up so many parallel plots (see here and here for my enumeration of what they all were) there was a danger in this finale that the viewer was yanked through endings for all of them in succession, leaving the episode choppy and the audience exhausted. But this pitfall was avoided by giving this episode a strong central storyline of its own, meaning that each little story acted out its ending in the margin. Some of them were just the lightest of scribbles, too - we discovered that Isaac's radio play was heavily based on his colleagues at The Hour, and that Sissy and Sey struggled to find witnesses for their wedding because of racial prejudice, or that government press officer McCain finally stopped spinning for corrupt politicians and managed to transform himself into a proto-PR agent.

The Hour on air. Photograph: BBC

And that main action? A breathless rush to the finish line as The Hour team attempted to prove the connection between the corruption and vice in the West End and the arms race profiteering going on at the heart of the government. Freddie succinctly made the case for why they were seeking to make this connection early on, saying “These are men who decide policy, and they’re lying and deceiving their wives. Why should they get to decide what else goes on?” Hector and Commander Stern, old comrades-in-arms, each implicated in the story, both finally faced their own failings. Hector went on to publicly acknowledge his involvement with the club, interview the woman who falsely accused him of beating her on air, and even forgiving his wife for getting pregnant with another’s man’s child (which, given his own repeated adultery, was really the very least he could do). Stern, seemingly without the same support network, committed suicide in his car.

Before Freddie dashed off to try and save their story, he finally crossed the line in his relationship with Bel. She’d just had a bust up in the corridor with Bill, her ITV bloke, who had stormed off declaring her to be “impossible” and saying that their relationship “wasn’t going anywhere”. We should have known, really, when Freddie leaned in to kiss Bel that all would not be permitted to end happily for them – more on that in a second.

Despite everything, the show-stealing performance once again came from Peter Capaldi and Anna Chancellor. They finally received news of their long-lost daughter, only to discover that she and her foster parents had been killed in an air raid during the war. On reading the documents, Chancellor sobbed, frozen in a twisted posture in her chair by the weight of her sadness, while Capaldi yelled at her to get out of the room. When she refused, telling him to “do what he needed to do”, he exploded into his hitherto only hinted-at obsessive compulsive disorder, lining everything up neatly on his desk before throwing it all into chaos and collapsing on top of it, head on his arms in devastation. Eventually, after initially fighting her off, he allows Lix to hold him – and that’s how we leave them.

Anna Chancellor and Peter Capaldi stole the show. Photograph: BBC

Once again, the personal and the political were merged as The Hour arrived at its climax. Freddie sacrificed his own safety in order to get the key witness for their story to the studio in time, but as Cilenti and his goons pummelled his face and torso, you couldn’t help feeling he was doing it for Bel as well – proving to her that he won’t let her down, personally or professionally. The terrified, perfect face of Kiki DeLaine exposing the corruption and vice on air was inter cut with the horrifying spectacle of Ben Whishaw’s bloody, battered face (I know from the outcry on my Twitter feed that I was far from the only person strongly tempted to throw things at the television during this sequence).

They dumped him on the grass outside the studio, and for a few heartstopping moments while we watched Bel crying in her office, rereading the love letter she never sent him, we couldn’t tell if he was alive or dead. Then he began to whisper “Moneypenny, Moneypenny” and she somehow heard the hated nickname and started running to his side, only for the programme to end before she got to there. Not for The Hour, the fond sickbed reconciliation and an implied future for the characters.

No – only a cut to a black screen, followed by the credits and our lingering doubts, that with Ben Whishaw’s burgeoning film career, The Hour will even have a third series.

I’ve really enjoyed blogging this series of The Hour and chatting to you all in the comments and on Twitter. If you’d like to read back through the whole series blog, you can do so here.

Leave his face out of it! Photograph: BBC

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism