Reviewed: Solos on Loneliness

First person singular.

Solos on Loneliness
Radio 4

To a programme on loneliness (9 April, 11am), currently being pushed as a “modern condition” – families scattered, too long spent on computers with virtual friends. Yet this half-hour seemed instead to stretch down the decades to any time, any place, so long as there was a clock on the wall and a stove to boil water. These sounds turned up repeatedly. A timepiece ticked as someone spoke about being “embarrassed” by a life reduced to “hellos and goodbyes”. Water boiled loudly as another insisted “you just have to draw strength from being self-contained” (were we to imagine the cooking of a solitary egg?). The sound effects worked.

Anyone who has ever lived alone – I did for ten years – knows that time can both harden and soften a hundred times over the course of a day, and that the most innocuous of noises becomes distorted, giving you a strange, beckoning jolt, sometimes a whole new brain-rhythm. The programme was sensitive to sound in general and to the music of the human voice. One woman, a widow, recalled the times she would wake up with her husband and say, “What shall we do today?” Her inflection altered with the terrible happiness of the memory. A man who had lost family in a bitter divorce spoke about “falling down” a lot (“I need to talk to someone otherwise I will fall down”) and his tone flattened every time he said it, as though physically sinking back.

If the programme seemed at first to baby the issue – the psychosomatic peculiarities of being human reduced to the plain, quiet need for company – when the broadcaster Andy Kershaw talked about his overwhelming loneliness, he brought an enabling anger with him, challenging the world to bring him a more gadding, sybaritic existence (or return him the one that he lost). His loneliness didn’t sound modern. How could it?

A few hours later, The Essay (Radio 3) – 28 episodes in April, considering Anglo-Saxon figures of significance – included the bones of an anonymous smith buried in a field in Lincolnshire (“a lonely place, a marginal place”). The craftsman was found with his tools and holding a bell rung 12 centuries ago by the lone traveller to indicate that although he was that most frightening of things – solitary – he was not a threat. 

Many of us are lonely. Photograph: Getty Images

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 12 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Centenary Special Issue

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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit