How now: cows in the Cotswold Hills. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Through my Window with Laurie Lee

A 1981 archive recording of the Cider With Rosie author looking at the view from his study in Slad, Gloucestershire.

Through My Window
Radio 4 Extra

An archive recording of Laurie Lee casually considering the view from his study across his hallowed Gloucestershire valley of Slad (21 June, 7.20am), said more about the working of the writer’s mind than the full week of readings from As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, also programmed to mark the centenary of Lee’s birth.

Recorded in 1981 (Lee was 67) the nine-minute, unscripted monologue began with Lee’s delicately West Country-accented voice sounding supremely relaxed – here was someone used to being considered interesting, even when talking in an off-the-cuff, minor way (Lee had years of practice in cheap, postwar restaurants around the BBC, and later at the Chelsea Arts Club). “The view dominates my comfort,” Lee insisted, gazing out of his window, “it’s like looking at the sea; as far as I’m concerned it’s never the same.” When Lee described the “voluptuous claustrophobia” of living in a green valley as one might “inside a bean pod”, all his lush-pretty observations were nicely undercut with his slightly laboured, pipe-smoker’s breathing.

After a while, now and again his voice altered entirely, becoming far more self-consciously expressive and dulcet. This shift always came about when he was casting himself in the light of his own personal legend: the corn-haired country teenager who in 1934 took his violin and walked to London (he could just have easily jumped on a bus). “I was in exile for 20 years,” mused Lee, in this new, liquid voice, “I was wandering the world.” It was fascinating to hear Lee enchanting himself like this.

Back and forth he went between these two distinct vocal melodies, one moment a prose writer simply giving information, the next a prose writer talking like an actor playing a poet. “Who are the wild men living there?” he asked at one point, firmly in enchanted mode, nodding towards the direction of Wales. “As a child I’d see distant plumes of smoke and hear terrible tales . . .” Did those living in the Cotswold hills really fear the Welsh in the 1920s, or was Lee rapturously, romantically muddling his centuries? Does it matter? On radio, these shifts in tone had the quality of a kind of slow motion – waves of strange resonance expanding.

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 18 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Islam tears itself apart

Show Hide image

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