Guy Henry as Randolph (centre) with the cast of New Worlds. Photo: Channel 4
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New Worlds on Channel 4: Meet the poodle-haired rock gods of the Restoration

New Worlds, like The Devil’s Whore before it, fancies itself as a political drama. Why must it be silted up with all this Jean Plaidy-ish stuff?

New Worlds
Channel 4

Look back at the cast of The Devil’s Whore, Channel 4’s 2008 civil war epic, and the jaw drops: Dominic West, Michael Fassbender, Andrea Riseborough. I’m almost tempted to buy the box set and watch it all over again. The sequel – called New Worlds (Tuesdays, 9pm), which makes it sound more like a think-tank report than a sexy drama you’d stay in to watch – has a far less starry cast. On the plus side, it’s the Restoration now, so the wigs are amazing and every woman comes with creamy, overflowing breasts pretty much as standard. It’s like a Joan Collins convention gone wrong.

Let me try to set the scene. It’s the 1680s and Charles II (Jeremy Northam, enjoying himself mightily) has been on the throne for 20 years. Angelica Fanshawe, widow of the Leveller Edward Sexby, is now played by Eve Best (previously this was Andrea Riseborough’s role) and she has remarried: her husband is a Catholic but he is a good man, so this is OK.

In the kingdom, there is much turmoil. Judge Jeffreys (Pip Carter) is eagerly tracking down traitors, the better to keep his creaking rack busy. The people fear that Charles will be succeeded by his Catholic brother, James, under whose heel they would rather not live, so plotting abounds. Some are throwing their weight behind Charles’s bastard son, the duke of Monmouth, but others still long for a republic. Angelica Fanshawe, for instance, has been secretly sending money to New England, where Puritans are hiding the last of the regicides, William Goffe. Jeffreys regards her house in Oxfordshire as a nest of vipers, “sedition spread over its fields like dung”, and has dispatched a spy to investigate.

Is that everything? No. I’ve left out the peasants, who are hungry. Their land enclosed, they must work in the clay pits that produce the bricks for Charles’s extraordinary palaces. “Hear that?” says Abe (Jamie Dornan), an inhabitant of the forest that abuts the Fanshawe estate. “That’s the sound of chaos.” Abe misses Edward Sexby and has the hots for his daughter, Beth (Freya Mavor), whose political eyes he has opened, having taken her to gawp at the poor on their way to work.

It’s all rather exciting and the dialogue can at times be very good (it’s co-written by Peter Flannery of Our Friends in the North). But the whole thing has been ruined for me by the intrusion of various 21st-century love plots. New Worlds, like The Devil’s Whore before it, fancies itself as a political drama. It presents the viewer with a verbal dreamscape of equality whenever it can; when it comes to our early revolution, we sense pride and even longing on the part of its creators. So why must it be silted up with all this spoony Jean Plaidy-ish stuff? (For the benefit of younger readers: before there was Philippa Gregory, there was Jean Plaidy.)

Was it the money men who insisted there be stolen love letters and illicit across-the-class-divide snogs? Was it they who decreed that everyone must be beautiful, fragrant and white of teeth? (Beth, in particular, looks as though she has strolled out of an ad for Alice Temperley’s range for John Lewis.) One moment, we’re in some fetid cell with Jeffreys, his luxuriant wig wobbling with delight as a man’s eyes begin to bleed; the next, we’re peering through the gloom at Abe and Beth getting it on. Beth seems unbothered that Abe the poacher is more Harry Styles than Robin Hood; when he whispers to her that her heart will “tell her how to live”, she laps it up. Angelica should give her a good slap for historical inaccuracy and never mind about her risky new political views.

It probably goes without saying that the king, Monmouth and all the other poodle-haired rock gods of the Restoration are portrayed as stupid, vicious and somewhat camp. This is entertaining but I do think Flannery might have made them just a bit more nuanced. Or funny. Or properly, cleverly dirty, in the manner of John Wilmot, earl of Rochester. This goodies-and-baddies stuff is for kids, isn’t it?

No wonder I nearly fell off my seat when the action shifted to Massachusetts, where Goffe and his supporters were busy contending with some pretty angry Native Americans. Cromwell’s old faithful made a mighty earnest speech about their stolen land, it’s true, but when the Algonquin finally poured through the settlement gates they looked, to a man, terrifyingly like Keith Flint from the Prodigy.

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 10 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Tech Issue

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The lute master and the siege of Aleppo

Luthier Ibrahim al-Sukkar's shop was bombed; when he moved, militants came for him. Over WhatsApp, he told me what's next.

Aleppo was once a city of music, but this year the 400,000 residents who inhabit its eastern suburbs can hear nothing but the roar of Russian warplanes, and ear-shattering blasts from the bombs they drop. To the north, west and south, the city is encircled by ground troops from the Syrian armed forces, Hezbollah and Iran. Most residents are afraid to flee, but soon, now that supply lines to the city have been cut off, many will begin to starve. We have reached the crescendo of Aleppo’s suffering in year five of the Syrian civil war.

One clear August morning in 2012, in the early weeks of the battle for the city, a man approached a street corner shop and found a hundred shattered lutes scattered across the floor. Ibrahim al-Sukkar, the engineer who had made the lutes (Arabs know the instrument as the oud), was overwhelmed. He wandered between the tables of his workshop and peered up at the sky, suddenly visible through holes in the roof. He wept on the floor, amid the dust and ash.

Some of the wooden shards that lay around him had been lutes commissioned by musicians in Europe and America. Others were to be used by students in Damascus and Amman. Each oud was built for a specific purpose. In every shard Ibrahim saw a piece of himself, a memory scattered and charred by government bombs. He packed his bags and headed for Idlib, a few hours to the west, where he set up shop a second time. A year later, his workshop was destroyed again, this time by Islamist militants.

It was at this point that Ibrahim came to a stark realisation – he was a target. If barrel bombs from government helicopters could not succeed in destroying him, the Islamists would. The cost of sourcing materials and getting goods to market had become unmanageable. The society that had inspired his desire to make musical instruments was now trying to lynch him for it.

The 11 string courses of an oud, when plucked, lend the air that passes through its bowl the sounds of Arabic modes known as maqamat. Each one evokes an emotion. Hijaz suggests loneliness and melancholy. Ajam elicits light-heartedness and cheer. An oud player’s competence is judged by his or her ability to improvise using these modes, modulating between them to manipulate the listener’s mood. The luthier, the architect of the oud system, must be equal parts artist and scientist.

This is how Ibrahim al-Sukkar views himself. He is a trained mechanical engineer, but before that he was a lover of classical Arabic music. As a young man in the Syrian countryside, he developed a talent for playing the oud but his mathematical mind demanded that he should study the mechanics behind the music. Long hours in the workshop taking instruments apart led him to spend 25 years putting them together. Ibrahim’s ouds are known for their solid construction and, thanks to his obsessive experimentation with acoustics, the unparalleled volume they produce.

Ibrahim and I recently spoke using WhatsApp messenger. Today, he is lying low in the village where he was born in Idlib province, close to the Turkish border. Every so often, when he can, he sends some of his equipment through to Turkey. It will wait there in storage until he, too, can make the crossing. I asked him if he still felt that his life was in danger. “All musicians and artists in Syria are in danger now, but it’s a sensitive topic,” he wrote, afraid to say more. “I expect to be in Turkey some time in February. God willing, we will speak then.”

Ibrahim’s crossing is now more perilous than ever. Residents of Idlib are watching the developing siege of Aleppo with a sense of foreboding. Government forces are primed to besiege Idlib next, now that the flow of traffic and supplies between Aleppo and the Turkish border has been intercepted. And yet, to Ibrahim, the reward – the next oud – is worth the risk.

I bought my first oud from a Tunisian student in London in autumn 2014. It is a humble, unobtrusive instrument, with a gentle, wheat-coloured soundboard covering a cavernous, almond-shaped bowl. Some ouds are decorated with rosettes, wooden discs carved with dazzling patterns of Islamic geometry. Others are inlaid with mother-of-pearl. My instrument, however, is far simpler in design, decorated only with a smattering of nicks and scratches inflicted by the nails of impatient players, and the creeping patina imprinted by the oils of their fingers on its neck.

My instructor once told me that this oud was “built to last for ever”. Only recently did I discover the sticker hidden inside the body which reads: “Made in 2006 by Engineer Ibrahim al-Sukkar, Aleppo.” 

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle