Puff piece: solo piping at the Highland Games in Dunoon. Photo: Getty
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Better with the sound turned low: BBC Radio Orkney’s Pipeline

Highlights from day one of the Northern Meeting solo bagpipe competition. 

BBC Radio Orkney’s weekly show Pipeline (Saturdays, 9.05pm) was devoted, this episode, to giving the highlights from day one of the Northern Meeting solo bagpipe competition. Since the bagpipe is not an instrument that fully lends itself to a quiet night in, Pipeline is always best approached with the sound turned low. Even then, prepare to be harried for 55 minutes by the mental image of mottled-kneed pipers with cream kilt hose going into ghillie brogues without the intervention of discernible ankles.

The star of the show was Callum Beaumont, who played an untitled tune (among a clutch of old songs rather George R R Martinishly known among the piping fraternity as “the nameless ones”) that went on for 12 minutes and 38 seconds, only to be dismissed by the piper afterwards as “very short”.

You can rely on pipers to be economical with their responses. When, later in the show, the presenter Gary West pointed out, “That’s a lot of tunes you’ve had to get under your belt in the last few months. How on earth did you go about that?” Beaumont replied with devastating finality, “Hard work.” And then, like a steelworker pulling his mask down in a foundry, added, “Hard work through the winter.”

The chat between the music on Pipeline is soothingly despondent. Rarely do you get the feeling that the life of even a star piper is much fun. Gary likes nothing more than talking about Angus MacKay, Queen Victoria’s piper at Balmoral, who suffered from desolating mental health issues and wound up in an asylum in Dumfries from which he wandered out one day in 1859 only to drown in the River Nith. “A bad end to a great career,” he admitted, equably.

West’s level of fandom is pitched just right. You suspect that he is someone whose response to bagpipes stops at admiration rather than love; because of this, he never sounds weird, even after 15 straight minutes of a Mr Liddell playing what sounded like a repeated and astonishing scream of brakes liable to give even the god of thunder a migraine.

“Another chance there to hear Stuart playing ‘The Pap of Glencoe’,” said Gary, evenly, as though all this were perfectly normal.

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 09 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Anxiety nation

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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