Sad-eyed lady: Maggie Gyllenhaal as Nessa Stein
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A walking target: The Honourable Woman on BBC2

Nothing on telly is going to be this good for some time to come.

The Honourable Woman
BBC2

I saw the first episode of Hugo Blick’s new eight-part series, The Honourable Woman (Thursdays, 9pm), a while ago; the BBC held a ritzy screening in a hotel at which poor Maggie Gyllenhaal appeared in full evening dress only to be greeted by the sight of dozens of TV hacks (and a few minor celebrities) looking mildly crumpled in their jeans. At the time, I was gobsmacked by it. I watched open-mouthed, anxiety and amazement combining to induce in me, once the hour was up, the kind of hunger hotel canapés could do nothing to assuage (I ate six as I ran for the door and then headed swiftly in the direction of the nearest steak). But would it hold up on a small screen?

In your service, I watched it again a few days ago and, yes, I was every bit as gripped. The second episode – I watched that in your service, too – contains one or two bum notes (the first has none). But the momentum, richness and complexity are maintained. The Honourable Woman will win every award going and when it ends in the final days of summer, its fans, who will be legion and messianic in its cause, will have to take up needlepoint or mah-jong. Nothing on telly is going to be this good for some time to come.

Nessa Stein (Gyllenhaal, with a very good British accent) is a vastly rich and influential woman. She runs a multinational business empire, inherited from her father, Eli, a “lion of Israel” who was assassinated when she was a girl, but she also does good works: terror, she believes, thrives in poverty, for which reason she is determined to lay fibre-optic cables all over the West Bank, the better to connect all the hospitals and schools that she helped to build. Thanks to this, she has just been ennobled by the British government and is now known as Lady Stein of Tilbury in the county of Essex.

However, she has enemies and dangerous secrets; both are about to make their presence felt in her life. This is inescapable. In one sense, her elaborate security detail and even the sealed panic room in which she sleeps – it lies at the centre of her stuccoed London house, a prison cell inside a gilded cage – are utterly futile. On her alabaster forehead, just beneath her gamine fringe, there is a target. Someone, somewhere, will surely hit it soon.

Assassinations, kidnappings, MI6, the FBI, flashbacks to Rafah in the Gaza Strip – such a lot is going on and yet Blick’s script never feels overloaded. He makes demands of the viewer with long speeches, opaque conversations and teasing, highly choreographed sequences in which characters move deliberately around London like chess pieces on a board but the suspense is always enough to keep you onside.

Every detail is perfect (Blick directed, too), from the stoop of Nessa’s father in the old home movies she watches to the way she eats her TV supper, her salad plucked between thumb and index finger. People under-react rather than overreact to horror, fear having invaded their hearts so long ago; they’re weary with it, dead behind the eyes. And all of this is shot through with a kind of bottomless plangency, for we know that even if things do turn out right for Nessa, her brother, Ephra (Andrew Buchan), and their Palestinian friend Atika (Lubna Azabal), the situation will never be resolved – or not in my lifetime. As our new baroness likes to joke at fundraising dinners, if a bunch of earth-destroying aliens asked the Israelis and the Palestinians to give up their arms, well, it would be the little green men you’d wind up feeling sorry for.

The performances – with the exception of Janet McTeer, who appears in episode two and seems to think she’s in Johnny English with Rowan Atkinson, are extremely fine. The quiet solemnity of Buchan’s and Gyllenhaal’s performances suggests both their characters’ great privilege (they seem embarrassed by their incredible wealth) and their miserable fates (a lifetime worrying about what might happen in the moments between the front door and the back seat of a bulletproof Mercedes). And special plaudits must go to Stephen Rea as an about-to-be-retired British spy. He puts in a master class in the patrician, the pernickety and the downright peculiar.

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 02 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, After God Again

BBC/Chris Christodoulou
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Proms 2016: Violinist Ray Chen was the star of a varied show

The orchestra soaked up his energy in Bruch's first violin concerto to end on a triumphal note. 

Music matters, but so does its execution. This was the lesson of a BBC Symphony Orchestra and BBC Symphony Chorus programme which combined both a premiere of a composition and a young violinist’s first performance at the Proms. 

The concert, conducted by Sir Andrew Davis, opened with Tchaikovsky’s symphonic fantasy The Tempest, a lesser-known sibling to his Romeo and Juliet overture. The orchestra got off to a fidgety start, with some delayed entries, but fell into line in time for the frenetic chromatic runs that drive the piece. The end, a muted pizzicato, was suitably dramatic. 

Another nature-inspired piece followed – Anthony Payne’s composition for chorus and orchestra, Of Land, Sea and Sky. Payne drew on his memory of watching of white horses appearing to run across water, as well as other visual illusions. At the world premiere, the piece began promisingly. The chorus rolled back and forth slowly over scurrying strings with an eerie singing of “horses”. But the piece seemed to sink in the middle, and not even the curiosity of spoken word verse was enough to get the sinister mood back. 

No doubt much of the audience were drawn to this programme by the promise of Bruch violin concerto no. 1, but it was Ray Chen’s playing that proved to be most magnetic. The young Taiwanese-Australian soloist steered clear of melodrama in favour of a clean and animated sound. More subtle was his attention to the orchestra. The performance moved from furious cadenza to swelling sound, as if all players shared the same chain of thought. Between movements, someone coughed. I hated them. 

Ray Chen in performance. Photo: BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Chen’s playing had many audience members on their feet, and only an encore appeased them. It was his first time at the Proms, but he'll be back. 

The orchestra seemed to retain some of his energy for Vaughan Williams’ Toward the Unknown Region. Composed between 1904 and 1906, this is a setting of lines by the US poet Walt Whitman on death, and the idea of rebirth.

The orchestra and chorus blended beautifully in the delicate, dark opening. By the end, this had transformed into a triumphal arc of sound, in keeping with the joyful optimism of Whitman’s final verse: “We float/In Time and Space.” 

This movement from hesitancy to confident march seemed in many ways to capture the spirit of the concert. The programme had something for everyone. But it was Chen’s commanding performance that defined it.