In the Critics this week | 30 August 2013

Laura Miller on <em>Downton Abbey</em>, Felix Martin on economics, Ed Smith on the role of genetics in sport and much more.

To kick us off in the critics this week, Laura Miller explores the allure of Downton Abbey across the pond, after ITV’s quintessentially British hit became the most popular drama in the history of the Public Broadcasting Service in the US earlier this year. She explains that while for us it’s the “equivalent of American prime-time soaps such as Dynasty”, for the Americans it is the perfect blend of familiarity and peculiarity. The period is alien: “For Americans, the interlocking, class-defined relationships in a British country house in the early twentieth century are intriguingly particular” and so “the geographic, historical and cultural gulf between modern America and Edwardian Britain gives the milieu of Downtown Abbey an exotic, theme-park quality”. But yet, according to Miller, many characters map very neatly onto American high school stock characters. Miller concludes that Downton enrages many in the UK for its depiction of painfully true class divisions that last a lifetime, but for the Americans it is the more frivolous and short-lived high school era that comes to mind and this is the key to its success.

Economics is the order of the week for Felix Martin in his review of Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much, by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir, and Mass Flourishing: How Grass-Roots Innovation Created Jobs, Challenge and Change, by Edmund Phelps. In his review of Scarcity, Martin puts forwards the pros and cons of behavioural economics and is ultimately impressed by the book, concluding that the authors don’t claim to have all the answers but that “they style their book as an ‘invitation to read about a science in the making’ and it is indeed a succinct, digestible and often delightfully witty introduction to an important new branch of economics."

Mass Flourishing presents a very different economic thesis, rejecting the psychologists in favour or historians. Although Martin notes that the book “might not be to everyone’s taste” and that on first reading the thesis sounds somewhat “simplistic and historically naive”, he concludes that, although uncertain at first, “the more [he] read, the more [his] expectations were confounded and the more [he] found [himself] thinking that its basic thesis had a great deal of truth to it.” He only hopes that the economics curriculum catches up with these valuable works.

Ed Smith reviews David Epstein’s book The Sport Gene: What makes the Perfect Athlete in a very interesting discussion whether it’s talent or hard work that makes an athlete successful. He notes that modern athletes eschew the word “talent” and instead are determined to make it seem that they have achieved everything “purely through exertion and suffering”. But Smith is persuaded by Epstein’s premise that top athletes have a genetic disposition that marks them out from the rest of us; but each sportsperson is different and so homogenisation of training routines is ultimately fruitless. Instead, as everyone has a different optimal training routine, “coaches and physiologists should abandon their tendency to believe that they know best for everyone and instead encourage divergence, irreverence, tinkering and trial and error”.

In music, Kate Mossman unpicks Arctic Monkey’s latest album, AM. Although she hails lead singer Alex Turner as “one of the great lyricists of the twenty-first century”, it is musically that she deems this album to pack its punches as “any thrills to be had lie in the instrumentation and slick, brawny production” in a record that on occasion pleases Mossman so much she “wants to turn [her] iPod up enough to damage [her] ears”.

Helen Lewis discusses the impact and broader significance the of the word “vagina” in her review of The Vagina: a Literary and Cultural History by Emma Rees. She agrees wholeheartedly with Rees’ condemnation of “all the cutesy little-girlisms beloved of advertisers” and concludes that “the word ‘vagina’ is medical enough to sound grown up and blunt enough not to be cutesy. It is still jarring in normal conversation, but you can mention it on the Six O’Clock News. Which, when you think about it, is close to what feminism should be like.”

Also in the critics this week:

  • Philip Maughan gives his view on Mass Observation: This Is Your Photo, a photography exhibition in the Photographers’ Gallery
  • Rachel Cooke passes judgement on What Remains, the new BBC Sunday night detective series
  • Antonia Quirke reviews BBC Radio 3’s The Albertopolis of the South
  • Ryan Gibley is impressed by Sorrentino’s new film The Great Beauty, despite his “very-very-noisily-with-whooping-and-crashing” approach
  • Claire Lowdon reviews Charlotte Mendelson’s Almost English
  • Michael Brooks discusses organ transplants and compatibility in his view on Daniel M Davis’ The Compatibility Gene
  • Olivia Lanig analyses Tim Dee’s Four Fields
  • Leo Robson gives his view on both Alfred Hayes’ My Face for the World to See and Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins

To get hold of a copy of the magazine, visit your local W H Smiths or go to newstatesman.com/subscribe.

 

Highclere Castle, the main filming location for Downton Abbey. Photograph: Getty Images
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Limehouse raises the question of when party loyalty becomes political irresponsibility

Labour's “Gang of Four” are brought to life brilliantly at the Donmar Warehouse.

A star of the Labour Party right wing, exiled from the shadow cabinet for deviating from the dominant orthodoxy, rants about how a decent but weak Labour leader, with an election-losing anti-European, anti-nuclear manifesto, risks letting the prime minister get away with whatever she wants.

Laughter shows that the audience gets what the dramatist Steve Waters is up to. Limehouse takes place on 25 January 1981, when a gentle veteran, Michael Foot, seems to be leading Labour to such sure oblivion at the next election that Dr David Owen has summoned his fellow moderates Shirley Williams, Bill Rodgers and (just back from a stint running Europe) Roy Jenkins to Sunday lunch in his kitchen in east London. This meeting led the “Gang of Four”, as they became known, to make a statement of estrangement from Labour that heralded the creation of the Social Democratic Party.

Waters was inspired by a New Statesman interview in which Rodgers wondered if the left-right divide under Jeremy Corbyn might justify a similar evacuation of the pragmatists now. The debates that the play stages – fidelity to party and national tribes against a fear of political and historical irrelevance – feel hotly topical.

Williams, considering an offer to abandon Labour and teach at Harvard, faced then the dilemma of an Ed Balls or Tristram Hunt now. And Labour members today who fantasise about a new progressive grouping might reflect that, while the SDP briefly seemed a plausible alternative to Thatcherism (winning 7.8 million votes at the 1983 election), the middle-class revolution was squeezed externally by two-party domination and internally by disputes over leadership and direction.

But, for all the parallel relevance, the success of Limehouse ultimately depends on the convincing re-creation of an era and its people. Enjoyable period details include the luxury macaroni cheese to a recipe by Delia Smith that Debbie Owen, Delia’s literary agent, chops and fries on stage to fuel her husband’s discussions with his three wary comrades. Waters also skilfully uses the mechanics of a pre-digital world – having to go out for newspapers, going upstairs to answer a phone – to get one character out of the way to allow others to talk about them.

As a good playwright should, Waters votes for each character in turn. Owen, though teased for vanity and temper, is allowed a long speech that honours his status as one of the most memorable orators in modern British politics. Tom Goodman-Hill samples Owen’s confident baritone without going the whole Rory Bremner.

Playing Jenkins, a man celebrated for both a speech defect and rococo cadences, Roger Allam has no choice but to deliver the voice perfectly, which he does. Waters carefully gives the character an early riff about the “crepuscular greyness” of Brussels, allowing Allam to establish the w-sounds and extravagant adjectives. Actor and playwright also challenge the assumption that for Jenkins both to love fine wine and to advocate social justice was inevitably a contradiction.

Debra Gillett refreshingly avoids the scattiness that caricaturists attribute to Williams, stressing instead her large brain and deep soul, in a portrayal that increases the sense of shame that the Tories should lead Labour 2-0 in the score of female prime ministers. As Rodgers (in Beatles terms, the Ringo of the confab four), Paul Chahidi touchingly suggests a politician who knows that he will always be a bag-man but still agonises over whose luggage to carry.

Unfolding over 100 minutes, Polly Findlay’s production has a lovely rhythm, staging the delayed entrances of Jenkins and Williams for maximum impact. Biodramas about the living or recently dead can be hobbled by a need to negotiate objections of tact or fact. Politicians, however, often purchase even the rudest cartoons of themselves for the loo wall, and the real Owen, Williams and Rodgers laughed warmly during, and strongly applauded after, the first night.

At an impromptu press conference afterwards, a genial and generous Owen astutely observed that what at the time was “a very happy day in our house” has been dramatised as tragicomedy. But, regardless of whether Marx was right about history repeating itself the second time as farce, the possibility that farce is being repeated in Labour Party history has encouraged a compelling play that is sublimely enjoyable but also deeply serious – on the question of when loyalty to party can become disloyalty to political responsibility.

“Limehouse” runs until 15 April

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution