Time’s arrow: an image by Chloe Dewe Mathews
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Turning budget cuts into drama, and photography after the blast

Mark Lawson weighs up the hard choices facing the arts.

One effect of voters’ present suspicion of elected representatives has been to nudge political fiction towards dark comedy, such as The Thick of It, or thrillers with statesmen as villains, such as House of Cards or the movie The Ides of March, with George Clooney as a presidential candidate who is responsible for his young mistress’s death.

Americans at least got The West Wing, a liberal fantasy in which a commander-in-chief with a Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences is surrounded by a staff competing for a Nobel in integrity, but British TV viewers get legislators as baddies – such as David Tennant plotting to stop his wife becoming prime minister in The Politician’s Husband – while, in theatre, MPs have recently been farcical figures in Yes, Prime Minister, The Duck House and Handbagged.

So the dramatist Jack Thorne is bravely opposing cultural orthodoxy by attempting to write a stage play that takes politics and politicians seriously. Hope at the Royal Court Theatre in London (until 10 January) takes place in an unnamed, Luton-like community, where the Labour council has been instructed by the coalition government to cut its budget by £64m over three years.

The leader, Hilary, chooses to make the “hard choices”, drawing up brisk lists of the cases for closing museums and day centres rather than leisure centres and libraries; in rather pointed casting, this savage pragmatist is played by Stella Gonet, who recently portrayed Margaret Thatcher in Handbagged. Her deputy, Mark (Paul Higgins), is less compliant, wondering what would happen if they refused to set a budget.

The consequences of Mark’s attempt offer a lively civics lesson on the way the coalition has rigged the system so local government takes the flak for reductions that are enforced by Westminster. This politically educative element suggests that Thorne has been watching The West Wing, as does his softening of public policy with private dilemmas: Mark is a recovering alcoholic whose ex-wife is a recipient of one of the grants ripe for slicing. But the director John Tiffany departs from this naturalistic model in sequences of song and choreography that, for me, would have been a candidate for cutting.

While Thorne records English speech with digital clarity – catching the gaps and loops of real conversation – he has failed to engage most reviewers in a political dialogue: Hope has faced accusations of naivety in questioning the absolute necessity of deep reductions in public expenditure and of loading his case by including among the characters a woman with Down’s syndrome whose beloved day centre is closing down.

Yet real examples of such wrenching outcomes can be found in the newspaper of any town with a council being urged to “live within its means” and Thorne sharply shows how the budgetary process becomes subject to pressures either illogical (get a social media petition signed by celebrities and you might survive) or unpalatable (the local racists are thrilled by the hitting of provision for immigrants). Most provocatively, he suggests that state contraction is a “class war” in which the Tories have used the recession to slay long-hated social scapegoats.

These conclusions may be arguable but it is a measure of how successful David Cameron and George Osborne have been with their post-Thatcherite “There is no alternative” rhetoric on cuts that even many on the left seem to think that Thorne is being unreasonable.

Time fades away

Exposure time – which determines how much light is let into a camera – is a vital calculation in photography. But an intriguing exhibition at Tate Modern in London explores a different type of timing: the gap between a historical event and its depiction.

“Conflict, Time, Photography” (until 15 March) ranges from images taken within seconds, such as Luc Delahaye’s record of the smoke rising from the bombing of a Taliban position in Afghanistan, to an exposure that has taken almost 100 years: Chloe Dewe Mathews’s pictures of sites where deserters were executed on the Western Front. Because the event and any evidence are long gone, these photos require captions to tell their stories and the most revealing pictures are those taken closest to the triggering incident. The exceptions are locations revisited at intervals, such as the Japanese atomic bomb sites, seen in prints shot 20 minutes and several weeks after the nuclear detonations and then revisited from three to 65 years later.

With that sequence, as with the strands featuring Berlin and Vietnam, it’s easier to make comparisons in the catalogue than the gallery, where the chronological arrangement – in rooms with names such as “Moments Later” and “100 Years Later” – requires a good memory or willing feet to follow a subject through. One of the show’s inspirations was that Kurt Vonnegut, after witnessing the firebombing of Dresden in 1945, was only able to complete his novel on the subject, Slaughterhouse-Five, in 1969. Curiously, another numerically hyphenated American classic, Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, didn’t appear until 16 years after the end of the Second World War it describes.

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 09 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, How Isis hijacked the revolution

Photo: Getty
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Radio as shelter: Grenfell Tower was too frightening to look at

No song seemed to fit the mood on Hayes FM.

“Amidst all this horror, I hope to bring you some light relief. Here’s James Taylor.” Two days after the Grenfell Tower fire, a popular community station a little west of the incident was uncertain what note to strike.

The repeated ads for alarms detecting carbon-monoxide leaks (“this silent killer”) and tips on how to prevent house fires (“Don’t overwhelm your sockets and cause a spark”) sounded perhaps a little overassertive, but then the one for a day-long course focusing on resisting gender stereotyping (“Change the narrative”) felt somewhat out of place. And no song seemed to fit. James Taylor’s “Shower the People” turned out OK, but the Cranberries’ “The Icicle Melts” was unceremoniously faded out mid-flow.

This does often happen on Hayes FM, though. There are times when the playlist is patently restless, embodying that hopeless sensation when you can’t settle and are going through tracks like an unplugged bath – Kate Bush too cringey, T-Rex too camp – everything reminding you of some terrible holiday a couple of years ago. Instead, more ads. Watch your salt intake. Giving up smoking might be a good idea. Further fire safety. (“Attach too many appliances and it could cause an overload and that could cause a fire. Fire kills.”)

Then a weather report during which nobody could quite bring themselves to state the obvious: that the sky was glorious. A bell of blue glass. The morning of the fire – the building still ablaze – I had found three 15-year-old boys, pupils at a Latimer Road school that stayed closed that day because of the chaos, sitting in their uniforms on a bench on the mooring where I live, along the towpath from the tower.

They were listening to the perpetual soft jangle of talk radio as it reported on the situation. “Why the radio?” I asked them, the sight of young people not focused on visuals clearly unusual. “It’s too frightening to look at!” they reasoned.

Radio as shelter. As they listened, one of them turned over in his hand a fragment of the tower’s cladding that he must have picked up in the street on the way over – a sticky-charcoaled hack of sponge, which clung like an insect to his fingers whenever he tried to drop it. 

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 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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