Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan in Masters of Sex. Photo: Showtime
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Masters of Sex: a drama of sex, ambiguity and darkness

This US cable drama about William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the American sex researchers who pioneered physiological study of human sexuality, just keeps getting better and better.

Masters of Sex

When the first series of Masters of Sex (Tuesdays, 10pm) aired in the UK last year, critics and viewers alike asked whether it was the new Mad Men. The similarities are striking. Masters of Sex is a US cable drama set in the 1950s; it focuses on gender relations and sexual politics; and everything about the way it looks – the lighting, the costumes, the set – suggests the kind of soft-focus, detailed period aesthetic that helped make Mad Men such a cultural juggernaut.

Where the two shows differ is their subject matter. Masters of Sex is not fiction – or at least, not entirely. It is based on the life and work of William H Masters and Virginia Johnson, the American researchers who revolutionised the way we think about sex and relationships. Together with Johnson, who started out as an assistant, Masters pioneered a way of studying sex based on observation, as a response to the Kinsey reports of the previous decade that relied only on interviews. In 1966, they published their first book, Human Sexual Response, which was a bestseller despite its academic tone.

You may already have spotted the controversial element. In order to treat sex like any physiological phenomenon, Masters needed subjects to experiment on. This is where Johnson came in. According to Thomas Maier’s 2009 biography of the pair, which is the source material for the show, she had the sort of manner that put people at ease and used her charm to recruit hundreds of “volunteers” for the study. These anonymous participants performed a variety of sex acts in the laboratory, hooked up to monitors and closely observed by the researchers.

As the basis for a TV drama, it’s both peculiar and intriguing. These days, we’re fairly accustomed to casual nudity and even sexual violence on television. The difference here is that it’s all for a “purpose”. It’s not a titillating extra – it’s what brings these characters together in the first place.

In the second series, Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan get more space to develop their characters’ unusual relationship. Photo: Showtime

The Welsh actor Michael Sheen, best known for his uncanny impersonations of Tony Blair and David Frost, portrays Bill Masters, a man who manages to be extremely liberal in his attitude to sex while also being repressed about his feelings towards his own sexual partners. The first series focused on Masters’s downward trajectory as his commitment to his controversial study loses him his prestigious job as head of obstetrics at Washington University. It ended with him at his lowest ebb, standing in the rain on Virginia Johnson’s doorstep, finally admitting that he couldn’t live without her. Unusually, the second series picks up in exactly the same place, although, as overlapping flashbacks reveal, the two characters have subtle yet vitally different recollections of this pivotal encounter.

Johnson, played by a cool, contained Lizzy Caplan, is the reason you should be watching Masters of Sex. A twice-divorced single mother of two, she can do something that is virtually unacknowledged for women at the time the show is set: separate sex from love.

As far as her relationship with Masters is concerned, it’s a skill she has to deploy from the start. Despite apparently being a “happily married man”, he urged her to have sex with him as part of the study. In the second series, they continue their assignations outside the laboratory, even though Masters’s dismissal has resulted in the study being temporarily shut down. “Of course we’re not having an affair, Virginia,” Masters scoffs in the first episode, as they meet in a hotel to discuss “work”. The false names they give to the reception become roles they perform for each other – characters who mingle with their own.

The failing of the first series was that it had too many characters interweaving in too many plots. The second promises more: the camera lingers longer on Sheen and Caplan, giving them the space to infuse their relationship with a sense of ambiguity and darkness. Even in real life, no one ever really understood the partnership between the pair – why he divorced the mother of his children to marry her, or why they then divorced after over 20 years together. On-screen, they dance around each other: sarcastic, evasive, intimate. It’s the uncertainty that keeps you tuning in. 

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 13 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, A century of meddling in the Middle East

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis