Blessed are the cheese joke makers! The Pythons reunite on stage. Image: Alamy
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Everyone expects the Spanish Inquisition: Monty Python and their loyal superfans

While it’s generous and sensible to give the fans what they want, the familiarity of the material starts to feel weird.

Former members of great cultural juggernauts are doomed to spend their later lives on the interview circuit being asked if they have definitely ruled out a reunion. Despite the death of Graham Chapman in 1989, Monty Python still has sufficient members and friendship for a run of ten nights at the O2 in London and they’ll be fine as long as their various post-surgical scars can withstand the effort. The arena is most often booked by musical super-brands, so it is the perfect choice for this event, as Palin, Cleese, Jones, Idle and Gilliam are comedians with a rock band’s following and a rock band’s problem: the greatest hits or the new material?

There are a few fresh routines here – including a lightly anti-tabloid satire with Palin as the host of a TV game show called Blackmail, in which contestants pay to maintain their privacy – but the running order mainly consists of the No 1 hits, including in the second half a medley of “Spam”, “dead parrot” and “cheese shop”.

Other beloved material that is either logistically or medically impossible onstage – the football match between well-known philosophers, the fish-slapping dance – is taken from the DVD box sets and played on giant screens – though Cleese, who has expressed orthopaedic and artistic objections to doing “the ministry of funny walks” again, has managed to veto that routine, except in a brief quotation of stiff, high-kicking limbs from the Arlene Phillips dance troupe, who intermittently give the boys time to change costumes and catch their breath.

While it’s generous and sensible to give the fans what they want, the familiarity of the material starts to feel weird. Just as Rik Mayall, a comedian who made his name by projecting a tangible sense of danger, came to be given in his obituaries the sanitising tag of “national treasure”, so the Pythons, whose early work was famed for its strangeness, have become performers who warmly fulfil expectations. The most graphic illustration of this process is that their “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition” gag is so well loved that this Inquisition was not only expected but demanded by the audience who, recognising the couple of lines of dialogue before the pope’s interrogators burst into a suburban living room, roared its relief in the manner of rock audiences hearing familiar opening notes.

League of gentlemen: the Pythons at the O2

League of gentlemen: the Pythons at the O2

While the Pythons were never politically radical, they did upset the TV establishment with their surrealism and bum jokes, so it’s odd too to feel such warmth pouring into the great bowl of the O2. The early sight of the face of the late Graham Chapman on one of the screens induces the sort of ecstatic applause that would be matched among the English dead perhaps only by Diana, Princess of Wales.

Terry Gilliam tries to inject some disrespect by having Chapman’s head kicked into space by the celebrated Python foot, while in one of the musical routines, a couple of cock cannons fire sperm into the sky – but the fans didn’t want naughty boys. They had come to worship messiahs. When Cleese forgot his lines in the cheese shop scene – and Palin, with characteristic niceness, leaned across to help – there was more or less an “Aaaah!” from the auditorium.

And yet there is something undeniably touching about seeing them all, at the end of the night, side by side as septuagenarians in white tuxedos and black cummerbunds that, in some cases, are under considerable strain – though, at 71, Palin remains so trim and lithe that he sometimes resembles a kindly youth escorting his grandads and their civil partners on a night out.

Even so, there’s a double edge to the evening, in which gags about what a rip-off the whole thing is – a jokey merch-o-meter on a screen clocks up the sales of memorabilia – coexist with stalls asking, in all seriousness, for £20 for a thin, paperback programme. And celebrity guest cameos in person or on screen – Stephen Fry, Stephen Hawking – add to the sense of a memorial service that five of the six subjects have been able to attend. The surreal has become the so sweet. Everyone is hoping for the Spanish Inquisition. Blessed are the cheese joke makers!

Silent running

Harold Pinter introduced to British theatre a particular sort of silence and the dramatist Richard Bean is pioneering another noiselessness, in which the audience, rather than the performers, is given pause.

The “Bean silence” descends whenever the playwright makes a joke about some liberal shibboleth. There was a tangible chill in the stalls during much of his play about immigration, England People Very Nice, and also during his comedy about climate-change science, The Heretic.

It happens several times during Great Britain, his new work about tabloid bad behaviour, which opened suddenly at the National Theatre this month after secret rehearsals during the phone-hacking trial. A media-heavy crowd loved the gags against the Mail and the Sun but went solemn at jokes about disability or race. Pinter became a darling of the theatre. You suspect that Bean, unusual among dramatists in not bothering about whom he upsets, never will.

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 02 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, After God Again

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Paula Hawkins: a pulp-feminist follow-up on The Girl on the Train

Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion in misogyny. 

A couple of years ago, Paula Hawkins, an Oxford graduate with a run of chick-lit novels to her name (well, to her nom de plume Amy Silver), became the latest example of various splashy phenomena. Most obviously, The Girl on the Train, her first thriller, made Hawkins an out-of-nowhere, book-clubtastic, “movie rights gone in a flash” sensation, on the model of E L James. It also made Hawkins, who had formerly worked at the Times, one of those journalist-turned-juggernaut figures, like Robert Harris and Gillian Flynn, a beacon of light to every deadline-haunted hack.

Not so publicised was the kind of writer the book showed Hawkins to be. The Flynn comparisons were perfunctory, the overlap limited to shared use of multiple narrators and that not uncommon word, “girl”. A puff from Stephen King was a little more in tune with Hawkins’s sensibility, a taste for the Gothic intensities that lurk beneath the everyday; but King’s praise – it kept him up all night – still missed her strangest virtue: not the gift for making people turn a lot of pages and feel foggy on the next day’s commute, but for using the mystery thriller form as a back-door polemic, every revelation bringing an adjustment of world-view, every twist of the plot putting a spin on what we thought she thought. More striking than Hawkins’s late success or old career was her emergence as a new practitioner of feminist pulp, the sub-subgenre in which men destroy and women suffer, whose most recent classic had been Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones and whose presiding genius – its queen for fifty years and counting – is the hydra-headed literary combustion engine who usually signs herself Joyce Carol Oates.

Hawkins’s new novel, Into the Water, serves to make things clearer. It enables her readers to sketch a Venn diagram to identify what was incidental to The Girl on the Train – what merely helped to grease the wheels – and what she is obsessed with. Why call it an obsession and not a crutch, a formula, the hardening of habit? Not because what Hawkins is up to conflicts with readability – clearly that isn’t the case – but because she is building novels more intricate, more packed with implication, than readability demands.

Like The Girl on the Train, the new novel centres on a female victim with alleged deficiencies as a woman and mother. The body of Danielle “Nel” Abbott, a writer and photographer, is discovered in the part of a lake known as “the drowning pool”. Nel wasn’t much liked by the other local women. She had ideas above her station. She was a “slattern”. In fact, Nel’s death goes unmourned by everyone except her wild 15-year-old daughter, Lena, who is convinced her mother jumped, but for a good – withheld – reason. To Nel’s unmarried sister, Jules, who ignored a number of phone calls and messages, and who has travelled from London to watch over Lena and identify the body, Nel’s death is the final insult, another way of upsetting her existence.

Into the Water follows its predecessor in applying laser scrutiny to a small patch, but there are signs of growth and greater ambition. Last time the setting was a pair of houses on Blenheim Road, Bucks. Here it is the community of Beckford, a village in or near Northumberland, several hours’ drive from anywhere civilised – “if you consider Newcastle civilised”, in the words of one character. The Girl on the Train had three female narrators describing events, in mildly jagged order, that occurred across a single summer. The new novel features testimony from five characters, including Jules, Lena and the brother of Lena’s dead best friend, and provides close access, in the third person, to another five, including the best friend’s mother. Alongside these ten voices are sections narrated by Jules in 1993 – her experiences carry echoes of Stephen King’s Carrie – as well as passages from Nel’s unfinished manuscript: a photographic history of the Beckford lake called The Drowning Pool, containing a prologue and descriptions of three previous deaths, dating from 1920, 1983 and 1679.

The book isn’t free of cliché – the phrase “out of the woods” is not a reference to the rural setting – and some of Hawkins’s devices border on cheating. At various points a narrator starts talking about a previously shrouded incident soon after it has been revealed elsewhere, as if the characters were in cahoots, conspiring how best to frustrate the reader. There’s much recourse to the undefined event, the word “it”. (What?!) The outsider figure, Detective Sergeant Erin Morgan, is severely restricted in her role as a conduit for backstory. “Have you not seen any background on this?” her superior asks. No, she hasn’t. But Erin “should have been given the files”. Well, she wasn’t.

But most of the time, the novel is plausible and grimly gripping, and Hawkins plays fair. Characters aren’t only lying to us, they are often lying to themselves, or else they’re misinformed. The reader always knows more than any one character but never knows all that a character knows, and Hawkins trusts that the promise of enlightenment is sufficiently seductive to deliver information by the drip.

So, Into the Water is on a par with The Girl on a Train – and of a piece with it, too. Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion not just in patriarchal structures, but in misogyny. The blame lies with men, who react with violence and psychological abuse to the perceived threat of a woman’s independence. But one of the main products of this mistreatment is that the female characters overlook the role played by such damage when considering other women’s behaviour and subscribe instead to a male-sanctioned narrative of stubborn irrationality or wilful coldness.

Hawkins seems more engaged with the second part of the equation, the way that women see themselves and each other. The radicalism of The Girl on the Train and Into the Water depends partly on the persuasive depiction of figures such as (in Girl) the pathetic drunk and the unrepentant home-wrecker, and in the new novel the money-grabbing mystic, the joyless spinster, the trouble-making man-eater. Then Hawkins exposes the truth behind the cardboard, the way these images have been constructed and perpetuated. Her plotting works as an ambush and also as a rebuke. “You didn’t believe that nonsense, did you?” she seems to be saying. “Oh, you did – and here’s why.”

The effect is less patronising than perhaps it sounds. The rebuke is aimed at the reader not as a citizen but as a participant in the thriller tradition. After all, the victim who deserved it is a familiar character: we have little trouble believing the type. Hawkins has set herself the challenge of adding a third dimension to the dramatis personae bequeathed by Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler. We are accustomed to characters shifting shape as a story develops. The obvious suspect – twitchy, tattooed, alibi-less – was all along a Good Samaritan; the spotless widow has a cellar full of skulls. Hawkins goes further, showing how narrative presumptions betray unconscious beliefs, upending clichés of other people’s making. You might dismiss her as a killjoy if she wasn’t so addictive. 

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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