Flawless in a barrister's wig: Maxine Peake as Martha Costello in Silk
Show Hide image

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

Getty
Show Hide image

As it turns out, the Bake Off and the Labour party have a lot in common

And I'm not just talking about the fact they've both been left with a old, wrinkly narcissist.

I wonder if Tom Watson and Paul Hollywood are the same person? I have never seen them in the same room together – neither in the devil’s kitchen of Westminster, nor in the heavenly Great British Bake Off marquee. Now the Parliamentary Labour Party is being forced to shift to the ­political equivalent of Channel 4, and the Cake Meister is going with. As with the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn, so with Bake Off: the former presenters have departed, leaving behind the weird, judgemental, wrinkly old narcissist claiming the high ground of loyalty to the viewers – I mean members.

Is the analogy stretched, or capable of being still more elasticised? Dunno – but what I do know is that Bake Off is some weird-tasting addictive shit! I resisted watching it at all until this season, and my fears were justified. When I took the first yummy-scrummy bite, I was hooked even before the camera had slid across the manicured parkland and into that mad and misty realm where a couple of hours is a long time . . . in baking, as in contemporary British politics. It’s a given, I know, that Bake Off is a truer, deeper expression of contemporary Britain’s animating principle than party, parliament, army or even monarch. It is our inner Albion, reached by crossing the stormy sound of our own duodenums. Bake Off is truer to its idea of itself than any nation state – or mythical realm – could ever be, and so inspires a loyalty more compelling.

I have sensed this development from afar. My not actually watching the programme adds, counterintuitively, to the perspicacity of my analysis: I’m like a brilliant Kremlinologist, confined to the bowels of Bletchley Park, who nonetheless sifts the data so well that he knows when Khrushchev is constipated. Mmm, I love cake! So cried Marjorie Dawes in Little Britain when she was making a mockery of the “Fatfighters” – and it’s this mocking cry that resounds throughout contemporary Britain: mmm! We love cake! We love our televisual cake way more than real social justice, which, any way you slice it, remains a pie in the sky – and we love Bake Off’s mixing bowl of ethnicity far more than we do a melting pot – let alone true social mobility. Yes, Bake Off stands proxy for the Britain we’d like to be, but that we can’t be arsed to get off our arses and build, because we’re too busy watching people bake cakes on television.

It was Rab Butler, Churchill’s surprise choice as chancellor in the 1951 Tory government, who popularised the expression “the national cake” – and our new, immaterial national cake is a strange sort of wafer, allowing all of us who take part in Paul’s-and-Mary’s queered communion to experience this strange transubstantiation: the perfect sponge rising, as coal is once more subsidised and the railways renationalised.

Stupid, blind, improvident Tom Watson, buggering off like that – his battles with the fourth estate won’t avail him when it comes to the obscurity of Channel 4. You’ll find yourself sitting there alone in your trailer, Tom, neatly sculpting your facial hair, touching up your maquillage with food colouring – trying to recapture another era, when goatees and Britannia were cool, and Tony and Gordon divided the nation’s fate along with their polenta. Meanwhile, Mel and Sue – and, of course, Mary – will get on with the serious business of baking a patriotic sponge that can be evenly divided into 70 million pieces.

That Bake Off and the Labour Party should collapse at exactly the same time suggests either that the British oven is too cold or too hot, or that the recipe hasn’t been followed properly. Mary Berry has the charisma that occludes charisma: you look at her and think, “What’s the point of that?” But then, gradually, her quiet conviction in her competence starts to win you over – and her judgements hit home hard. Too dense, she’ll say of the offending comestible, her voice creaking like the pedal of the swing-bin that you’re about to dump your failed cake in.

Mary never needed Paul – hers is no more adversarial a presenting style than that of Mel and Sue. Mary looks towards a future in which there is far more direct and democratic cake-judging, a future in which “television personality” is shown up for the oxymoron it truly is. That she seems to be a furious narcissist (I wouldn’t be surprised if either she’s had a great deal of “work”, or she beds down in a wind tunnel every night, so swept are her features) isn’t quite as contradictory as you might imagine. Out there on the margins of British cookery for decades, baking cakes for the Flour Advisory Board (I kid you not), taking a principled stand on suet, while the entire world is heading in one direction, towards a globalised, neoliberal future of machine-made muffins – she must have had a powerful ­degree of self-belief to keep on believing in filo pastry for everyone.

So now, what will emerge from the oven? Conference has come and gone, and amateur bakers have banged their heads against the wall of the tent: a futile exercise, I’m sure you’ll agree. Will Jeremy – I’m sorry, Mary – still be able to produce a show-stopper? Will Mel and Sue and Angela and Hilary all come sneaking back, not so much shriven as proved, so that they, too, can rise again? And what about poor Tom – will he try to get a Labour Party cookery show of his own going, despite the terrible lack of that most important ingredient: members?

It’s so hard to know. It could be that The Great British Bake Off has simply reached its sell-by date and is no longer fit for consumption. Or it could be that Tom is the possessor of his alter ego’s greatest bête noire, one as fatal in politics as it is in ­bakery, to whit: a soggy bottom. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.