Flawless in a barrister's wig: Maxine Peake as Martha Costello in Silk
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BBC1’s Silk: we’ve come a long way since Juliet Bravo

The legal drama in which m’learned ladies aren’t just tolerated but adored.

Silk; Line of Duty
BBC1; BBC2

I love Silk. I love gobby Martha (Maxine Peake) and posh Clive (Rupert Penry-Jones) and the way they look so preposterously good in their wigs. I love snouty Billy the clerk (Neil Stuke), for whom every brief is either a landmine or a Lottery ticket, and nothing in between. I love Caroline Warwick, QC (Frances Barber), who pretends to be as vinegary as a pickled onion but is at heart a sweetie. How fantastic that a mainstream TV show should refuse to punish its female characters for having brains the size of Wales and careers that fill up their lives.

How far we have come. Thanks to Juliet Bravo, in which Anna Carteret starred as a police inspector battling male prejudice in a West Yorkshire mill town, I spent most of the Eighties dreaming that I, too, would one day be addressed as “ma’am” by men with bald patches and beer bellies (a fantasy that turned out to be unexpectedly useful when I began working at a Sunday newspaper). These recalcitrant males would resent my great intellect, but the rules would dictate a certain subservience. Cut to 2014, however, and we have a series in which the men don’t merely tolerate a woman’s cleverness; they adore it. Sometimes – take a cold shower, Clive – it even makes them pant with desire. The power of this should not be underestimated. My advice to readers in possession of a teenage daughter: get her to watch Silk.

The first episode of the new series (24 February, 9pm) opened at the party to celebrate Clive becoming a Queen’s Counsel. Martha, who beat him to it in the QC stakes, arrived late, furious at having lost an appeal, and, on discovering that the party lacked music, promptly attached her iPod to a nearby speaker. She then danced loopily to Joy Division while everyone else sipped their champagne politely and wondered all over again at the life force that is the greatest asset of Shoe Lane Chambers.

“I love it when she loses,” Clive said. “I love it when she dances. She’s so very, very bad at both.” Moments later, he and Martha repaired to a nearby courtroom for a timely snog, though not before she had teased him about his own taste in music, which extends (he went to public school) to Kylie by way of Genesis. Jokes about Genesis, you don’t get those in Call the Midwife.

The party was interrupted by the news that the teenage son of Alan (Alex Jennings), their head of chambers, had been charged with the manslaughter of a police officer who had died during a student demo. Whom would Alan choose to represent his boy in court? Do you need to ask? Sure enough, Martha was soon in the boy’s cell, the slash of crimson on her lips a beacon of hope amid all the grey. If Silk’s plots occasionally strain credulity – and this one did – there is always pleasure to be had in the dialogue. Peter Moffat, a writer who has Baftas in his downstairs loo (or somewhere) and who used to be a barrister, too, has a gift for making his characters sound plausible even when they are about to do something wildly implausible. “What’s he like?” enquired Martha, of the judge she would shortly face. “He’s like a sherbet lemon suppository,” said Clive. This, believe me, is Clive all over. Even his similes sound pleased with themselves.

Over on BBC2, we’re halfway through the new series of Line of Duty (Wednesdays, 9pm). I could drone on for hours about Jed Mercurio’s writing: the daring of it (no easy character for the viewer to side with here) and also the artistic pedantry (his way with police procedure and bureaucracy is beyond extraordinary). But you may still be catching up and I don’t want to give anything away. So all I will say now is: wow, Keeley Hawes. What a moment this is for her. She is mesmerising as DI Lindsay Denton, an officer who might, or might not be, corrupt. Fear, anger, resignation, menace: emotions pass over her (make-up-free) face like passing headlights on a bedroom ceiling. She looks ill, as coppers often seem to be, and there is a heaviness in the way she walks, as if a bomb were strapped to her middle. To be honest, I can’t get enough of DI Denton; when she’s not in a scene, I miss her. But do I want her to be innocent or guilty? Ah, this – as Mercurio surely knows – is a much more difficult question to answer. 

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 26 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Scotland: a special issue

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Women don’t make concept albums: how BBC Four’s When Pop Went Epic erases popular music’s diverse history

Why are the only albums blessed with the grandiose description of “conceptual” the ones made by white men?

Tonight, BBC Four airs a documentary exploring the history of the concept album called When Pop Went Epic: The Crazy World of the Concept Album. Presented by prog rock veteran Rick Wakeman, the programme set out to “examine the roots of the concept album in its various forms”, as well as cycling through the greatest examples of the musical phenomenon.

“Tracing the story of the concept album is like going through a maze,” says dear old Rick incredulously, while ambling round a literal maze on screen, just so we fully get the symbolism. But if the history of concept albums is a labyrinth, Wakeman has chosen a gymnastic route through it, one filled with diversions and shortcuts that studiously avoid the diversity of the format’s history. He imagines the concept album to begin with Woody Guthrie’s 1940s record about poverty and class struggle in America, Dust Bowl Ballads, following on with Frank Sinatra’s Only the Lonely (1958) and The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds (1966), before moving on to big hitters like Sgt Pepper and Tommy. It quickly seems apparent that the first albums blessed with the grandiose description “conceptual” are the ones made by white men, and Wakeman’s history credits them with inventing the form.

What about Duke Ellington’s Black, Brown and Beige (1943-58), a history of American blackness? Miles Davis’s Milestones, a 1958 LP-length experiment with modal harmonies? Sun Ra’s particular blend of science fiction and Egyptian mythology on albums like The Futuristic Sounds of Sun Ra (1961)? When Wakeman reaches what he considers to be the first from a black artist, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On , he notes that it “comes from a musical culture where the concept album was quite alien”.

Certainly, Motown was a towering monument to the power of the single, not the album, but we know that one of Gaye’s greatest inflences was Nat King Cole: why not mention his 1960 concept album, centring  on a protagonist’s varied attempts to find The One, Wild Is Love? Wakeman does recognise the importance of black concept albums, from Parliament’s Mothership Connection to Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, but his history suggest black concept albums begin with Gaye, who is building on the work of his white predecessors.

It takes rather longer for Wakeman to pay his respects to any conceptual woman. 53 minutes into this 59 minute documentary, we discover our first concept album by a woman: Lady Gaga’s The Fame. The only other female artist discussed is Laura Marling, who, perhaps not coincidentally, is also a talking head on the documentary. That’s two albums by women out of the 25 discussed, given cursory attention in the last five minutes of the programme. It feels like a brief footnote in the epic history of conceptual albums.

Jean Shepherd’s Songs of a Love Affair is perhaps the earliest example of a female-led concept album that springs to my mind. A chronological narrative work exploring the breakdown of a marriage following an affair, it was released in 1956: Shepherd has a whole two years on Sinatra. Perhaps this is a little obscure, but far more mainstream and influential works are equally passed over: from themed covers albums like Mavis Staples’ duet record Boy Meets Girl to more conventionally conceptual works.

The Seventies was a decade that did not solely belong to pasty men rambling about fantasy worlds. Female-fronted concept albums flourished, from Manhole by Grace Slick, conceived as a soundtrack to a non-existent movie of the same name (1974) and Joni Mitchell’s mediations on travel in Hejira (1976), to Bjork’s debut, an Icelandic covers album (1977), and Heart’s Dog & Butterfly (1978).

The Eighties were no different, featuring gems like Grace Jones’ Slave to the Rhythm (1985), which pulled a single track into a wild variety of different songs; the Japanese distorted vocal experiment Fushigi by Akina Nakamori (1986), and Kate Bush’s playful faithfulness to A and B sides of a record, producing “The Ninth Wave” as a kind of mini concept album on Hounds of Love (1985).

Wakeman skips over the Nineties in his programme, arguing that conceptual works felt hackneyed and uncool at this time; but the decade is peppered with women making thematically unified works from Madonna’s Erotica (1992) to Hole’s mediations on physical beauty and trauma, Live Through This (1994) and The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998).

Since then, women arguably led the field of conceptual albums, whether through the creation of alter egos in works like Marina and the Diamonds’ Electra Heart, Beyoncé’s I Am… Sasha Fierce or through focusing on a very specific theme, like Kate Bush’s 50 Words for Snow or in their storytelling, like Anaïs Mitchell’s Hadestown and Aimee Mann’s The Forgotten Arm. Wakeman includes no black women artists in his programme, but today, black women are making the most experimental and influential conceptual records in modern pop, from Janelle Monáe and Kelis to Erykah Badu, and, of course, Beyoncé. It’s no coincidence that Lemonade, which would have been considered an abstract conceptual album from a male artist, was immediately regarded as a confessional piece by most tabloids. This issue extends far beyond one documentary, embedded in the fabric of music writing even today.

Of course, concept album is a slippery term that is largely subjective and impossible to strictly define: many will not agree that all my examples count as truly conceptual. But in his programme, Wakeman laments that the phrase should be so narrowly defined, saddened that “the dreaded words ‘the concept album’ probably conjure up visions of straggly-haired rockers jabbering on about unicorns, goblins and the end of the world”. Unfortunately, he only confirms this narrative with a self-serving programme that celebrates his musical peers and friends, and ignores the pioneers who would bring variety and colour to his limited classification. 

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.