In The Critics this week

David Runciman on Kennedy's last 100 days, Rachel Bowlby on the changing nature of parenthood and Rachel Cooke on the Channel 4 drama Southcliffe.

To kick-start this week’s Critics section is a review to complement our "What if JFK had lived?" cover of two new books about the assissinated president. Political scientist David Runciman begins by commenting on the role luck plays in determining a politician’s legacy: “Luck plays a big part in presidents' reputations – and not just in terms of what happens while they are in office (wars give presidents a boost; financial crises don’t).” He then contrasts the way Lyndon B. Johnson struck gold, while Kennedy’s office was unfortunately placed in times less conducive to political success. As a result, Runciman writes, Kennedy is remembered as “the crowd-pleasing playboy president” who was “brave, attractive and ambitious” but “ultimately ineffectual.”

Runciman then begins a diatribe against Jeffrey Sachs’ To Move the World: JFK’s Quest for Peace arguing that “Sachs is an economist, not a historian”. Runciman criticises two assumptions he believes the book rests on: firstly the idea that “treaties matter” and secondly, more dubiously, the idea that “speeches actually matter”. With reference to Kennedy’s “Peace Speech” of June 1963, he berates Sachs for devoting “too much of his book to analysing Kennedy’s rhetoric line by line talking up its logic, its beauty and its power to move.” Runciman deals the final blow by saying “he provides no evidence that it made the vital difference, beyond how it stirred him as a boy and stirs him still.” His damning indictment of Sachs’ argument draws to a close with the phrase “Sachs is surely right that the world needs another prod in the direction of justice. But the early-1960s oratory without the early-1960s context isn’t going to do it.”

The Cambridge don then moves onto Clarke’s account of Kennedy’s final 100 days in office (JFK's Last Hundred Days: an Intimate Portrait of a Great President), which he says is, when compared to Sachs’ account, a "warts-and-all" portrait. That said, Clarke is still too optimistic about Kennedy’s potential for Runciman’s liking: he argues that it is rare for presidents to achieve in their second-term what they failed to in their first. He goes on: “Kennedy kept talking up what he was going to do – “after 1964” became his mantra in 1963 – but he was also an inveterate ditherer who made sure there was always a get-out clause.” Ending on a realistic note, Runciman finishes with the statement: “Kennedy’s presidency was a mix of good and bad, like most of the others.”

Second up we have Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett, one half of the Vagenda, reviewing Amana Fontanella-Khan’s book Pink Sari Revolution: a Tale of Women and Power in the Badlands of India. Cosslett first describes the media storm created by a young female student’s gang rape in India late last year. The coverage entailed a swift arrest of the alleged perpetrators, who were eventually charged for their atrocious crimes (the girl later died from her injuries in hospital). However, as Cosslett identifies, this is not standard practice for the justice system in India, which is often rife with police corruption, victim-blaming and incredibly intrusive crime-confirmation procedures. Cosslett praises Fontanella-Khan’s book for conveying “not only the sense of injustice felt by these often-abused women, who live in the poorest of regions, but also their will to make things better by fighting, sometimes literally, to be heard.” The book follows Sampat Pal Devi, leader of the Gulabi “Pink” Gang and their struggle for women's empancipation in India. Cosslett concludes that “by the end of the book, it is difficult to view Sampat and her followers as anything less than superheroic”.

Our Critic At Large this week is Rachel Bowlby, author of A Child of One’s Own: Parental Stories. In “Birth Stories” she looks at the changing nature of parenthood, arguing that “over the course of the 20th century, having children became, in most western cultures, more of an active choice than a post-marital expectation.” Bowlby traverses the various new types of parenthood: gay parenthood, single parenthood, step parenthood and argues that there are now multiple interpretations of what exactly “biological parenthood” means. She explores the debates about what forms a “biological connection” between parent and child can take and concludes that “there are many more parental narratives to be told or discovered.”

Finally, Rachel Cooke reviews Channel 4’s latest four-part crime drama Southcliffe. She begins by agreeing that the drama about a murderer who kills 15 people in a small market town ticks all of the boxes and that over at Bafta HQ in Piccadilly ears will certainly be pricking up. Cooke, however, feels that Southcliffe is somewhat far-fetched and potentially “emotionally overloaded”. She concedes that it has certain plus points: the script has some “decent lines, the kind you notice and turn over in your mind afterwards” such as “I feel like a dead pigeon”, said by the murderer’s mother to her son. The criticism finally ends as Cooke decides that “Durkin certainly has an eye for an interesting horizon, for strange weather, for peeling clapboard – but I’m afraid that I don’t buy it at all as the work of art it clearly longs to be. Art simply isn’t this brutal, this laboured, this insistently pedantic.”

In The Critics this week - Amana Fontanella-Khan’s book “Pink Sari Revolution". Photograph: Getty Images.
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Is Danny Baker a “bona fide genius”? Not in his new show

The clichéd decade: Cradle to Grave and Danny and the Human Zoo reviewed.

I’m not qualified to rule on whether or not Danny Baker is, as the newspapers insist, a “bona fide genius”; I gave up listening to the ever more blokeish BBC Radio 5 Live a while ago, and I’m too young to remember the supposedly fantastic pieces he delivered to the NME back in the day (I read that they were even more amazing than those of Tony Parsons, which is saying something, isn’t it?). But I can tell you this: his new autobiographical comedy series, Cradle to Grave (Thursdays, BBC2, 9pm), displays no evidence at all of his talents, brilliant or otherwise. Anecdotes that just peter out. Jokes that fail to hit home. Misplaced nostalgia. Honestly, what’s the point? If you want 1974 – and quite a lot of us seem to, if the performance of Jeremy Corbyn is anything to judge by – you’d be better off treating yourself to a box set of the eternally satisfying Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?.

The series, co-written with Jeff Pope, is based on Baker’s memoir Going to Sea in a Sieve. It’s 1974, and Danny (Laurie Kynaston) is a randy teenager who still lives at home in good old Bermondsey with his ducking and diving docker dad, Fred, aka Spud (Peter Kay), his kindly mum, Bet (Lucy Speed), and his older sister, Sharon (Alice Sykes). A voice-over tells us, in effect, to forget all about the nasty old three-day week and to consider instead the warmth of lovely south-east London. How decent its people are, how eager to try out newfangled consumer goods such as the continental quilts Spud has pilfered and which now fill the hall of his tiny house like clouds. (Correct: he’s basically Del Boy, minus the Robin Reliant, the cocktail bar and, fatally, the workmanlike jokes.)

The denizens of Bermondsey are not, you understand, quite ready for the new world. In this part of London, bomb sites remain, merrily sprouting buddleia and pink willow herb; men are men and women are women. Spud is horrified to discover that his daughter’s new boyfriend wears – wait for it – white plimsolls, though not quite so horrified as Danny is to find a stranger’s ­penis flapping exuberantly against his cheek when he goes up west to see Hair (needless to say, our Danny was in search of naked girls, not sweaty blokes). If you find this kind of thing funny and (I can hardly bear to write the words) “heart-warming”, then you have seven weeks of bliss ahead. Who knows? Perhaps the characters will go on to debate the virtues of the various flavours of Old English Spangles. But I can’t believe that many people will be so easily pleased. Those who are old enough to remember the Seventies will know that the best of the decade’s own comedy was ten times more sophisticated than this, and those who aren’t – those who have never had anything other than a duvet on their bed, and can locate a naked female or even a flapping male member with just one tap of their mobile – will simply watch something altogether more grown-up on Netflix.

Kascion Franklin (centre) on BBC1. Photo: BBC/RED

Unfathomable BBC scheduling (is it having some kind of John Whittingdale-induced nervous breakdown?) treated us to two doses of 1974 as the summer limped to an end. The second loving spoonful came in the form of Danny and the Human Zoo (31 August, BBC1, 9pm), an almost-biopic drama in which Lenny Henry told the story of his painful start in comedy.

My TV critic colleagues have all been most respectful but, lovely as Kascion Franklin’s performance in the lead role was, I couldn’t altogether get with the show. Unlike Baker, Henry certainly wiped the Vaseline from the lens: his version of the Seventies was clear-eyed, particularly in the matter of racism. But his tendency as a writer is to tell rather than show, which becomes wearying, and the narrative he offered us – success on the New Faces talent show, followed by the self-loathing that came of joining the Black and White Minstrels – wasn’t exactly unfamiliar. An unscrupulous manager with bad hair; parents who think their son should get a “proper” job but are secretly oh-so-proud; Mud’s “Tiger Feet” and Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out” on the soundtrack: such TV clichés really should be illegal by now.

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 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses