Olivia Coleman and David Tennant in Broadchurch.
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Onset of madness: Broadchurch has gone completely loopy

How credulous does Chris Chibnall think we are?

Broadchurch
ITV

I wasn’t able to write about the first episode of the returning Broadchurch – no critic was allowed to see it in advance. And even to watch the second episode before it went out (12 January, 9pm), the better to meet my deadline, I had to sign an embargo form in my own blood.

ITV insists that the omertà around the series is to prevent spoilers; programme bosses want it to be the collective thrill it was last time around, when reputedly not even the cast knew who’d killed Danny Latimer. But now I’ve seen some of it, I wonder. Broadchurch has gone completely loopy. Perhaps they just feared the ridicule.

Where to begin? By now, you’ll be aware that Joe, the husband of our plucky Wessex cop, Ellie Miller (Olivia Colman), has unaccountably decided to plead not guilty to the murder of their son’s friend, Danny. So, we, the Latimers and poor Ellie must endure a trial. Still, here’s the good news. It just so happens that the Greatest Prosecution Barrister in the World lives in Broadchurch. Not that Jocelyn Knight (Charlotte Rampling, wildly miscast) wanted this gig: she refused to take it even when the Latimers accosted her on the beach.

But then, also on the beach, she bumped into Joe’s defence barrister, Sharon Bishop (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), who just happens – you could easily get sick of the phrase “who just happens” when it comes to the new Broadchurch – to be her former pupil. That clinched it! In a flash, she came over all competitive and the next you know she was sniffing her long-retired wig, holding it to her nose as if it was a fine cigar. These two, Sharon and Jocelyn, are like no barris­ters you’ve ever met – or have even seen on the telly. Jocelyn seems not to be working for the Crown Prosecution Service: the Latimers pretty much hired her themselves. And not for Jocelyn and Sharon the reading of bundles, the tedious legwork involved in preparing a case. They loiter ghoulishly in graveyards, happily make irregular home visits to clients, and constantly spew little speeches about justice and dark secrets. Think Marple, not Rumpole.

All this is set against an even barmier subplot. It turns out that Miller’s colleague Alec Hardy (David Tennant, with suspiciously conker-coloured hair) has been secretly operating an off-piste witness protection scheme. Claire (Eve Myles) is the wife of a man, Lee, whom Hardy still suspects of the murder of two girls (a reference back to the disastrous case in which he was involved before he pitched up in Wessex) and she is – or was – living in a lovely cottage under his unofficial protection.

At the end of the second episode Lee absconded with Claire, following a meeting between them arranged by Miller and Hardy in – wait for it – Miller’s old and now empty house. (Hardy fixed up this encounter in the hope of recording Lee confessing to Claire on a whopping great voice recorder he taped to a coffee table.) But then the heavily pregnant Beth Latimer (Jodie Whittaker) turned up, and her waters promptly broke, thus ruining his not-very-cunning plan.

How credulous, I wonder, does Broadchurch’s writer, Chris Chibnall, think we are? Very, is the only possible answer to this question, for which reason I tremble to predict what might be on its way. Is Joe Miller at the centre of a paedophile ring? (Please, no.) Will Charlotte Rampling be exposed as a witch? (She reminds me strongly of Carol Tregorran in The Archers, a woman who is much given to brewing mysterious “teas”.) Will the proprietor of Traders Hotel ever get her hot water sorted out? How loud will the series’ already deafening background music eventually become? Most important of all, will DI Hardy ever find the time to talk seriously to his hairdresser?

Needing to soothe myself after this descent into madness, I watched Life of a Mountain: a Year on Scafell Pike (14 January, 9pm), a BBC4 documentary about the peak. But it was no good. Wasdale, the valley over which England’s highest mountain looms, is my special place. Too late, I remembered that I always panic when it appears on screen. It needs tourists like Olivia Colman needs crying lessons.

The revelation that volunteers recently found an octopus among all the rubbish left at the mountain’s summit did my nerves no good at all. But it’s far easier to rail against litter louts than to point the finger at Broadchurch, a series that some of my TV critic colleagues are still calling “ingenious” and “astonishingly assured”. 

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 16 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Jihadis Among Us

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Women don’t make concept albums: how BBC Four’s When Pop Went Epic erases popular music’s diverse history

Why are the only albums blessed with the grandiose description of “conceptual” the ones made by white men?

Tonight, BBC Four airs a documentary exploring the history of the concept album called When Pop Went Epic: The Crazy World of the Concept Album. Presented by prog rock veteran Rick Wakeman, the programme set out to “examine the roots of the concept album in its various forms”, as well as cycling through the greatest examples of the musical phenomenon.

“Tracing the story of the concept album is like going through a maze,” says dear old Rick incredulously, while ambling round a literal maze on screen, just so we fully get the symbolism. But if the history of concept albums is a labyrinth, Wakeman has chosen a gymnastic route through it, one filled with diversions and shortcuts that studiously avoid the diversity of the format’s history. He imagines the concept album to begin with Woody Guthrie’s 1940s record about poverty and class struggle in America, Dust Bowl Ballads, following on with Frank Sinatra’s Only the Lonely (1958) and The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds (1966), before moving on to big hitters like Sgt Pepper and Tommy. It quickly seems apparent that the first albums blessed with the grandiose description “conceptual” are the ones made by white men, and Wakeman’s history credits them with inventing the form.

What about Duke Ellington’s Black, Brown and Beige (1943-58), a history of American blackness? Miles Davis’s Milestones, a 1958 LP-length experiment with modal harmonies? Sun Ra’s particular blend of science fiction and Egyptian mythology on albums like The Futuristic Sounds of Sun Ra (1961)? When Wakeman reaches what he considers to be the first from a black artist, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On , he notes that it “comes from a musical culture where the concept album was quite alien”.

Certainly, Motown was a towering monument to the power of the single, not the album, but we know that one of Gaye’s greatest inflences was Nat King Cole: why not mention his 1960 concept album, centring  on a protagonist’s varied attempts to find The One, Wild Is Love? Wakeman does recognise the importance of black concept albums, from Parliament’s Mothership Connection to Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, but his history suggest black concept albums begin with Gaye, who is building on the work of his white predecessors.

It takes rather longer for Wakeman to pay his respects to any conceptual woman. 53 minutes into this 59 minute documentary, we discover our first concept album by a woman: Lady Gaga’s The Fame. The only other female artist discussed is Laura Marling, who, perhaps not coincidentally, is also a talking head on the documentary. That’s two albums by women out of the 25 discussed, given cursory attention in the last five minutes of the programme. It feels like a brief footnote in the epic history of conceptual albums.

Jean Shepherd’s Songs of a Love Affair is perhaps the earliest example of a female-led concept album that springs to my mind. A chronological narrative work exploring the breakdown of a marriage following an affair, it was released in 1956: Shepherd has a whole two years on Sinatra. Perhaps this is a little obscure, but far more mainstream and influential works are equally passed over: from themed covers albums like Mavis Staples’ duet record Boy Meets Girl to more conventionally conceptual works.

The Seventies was a decade that did not solely belong to pasty men rambling about fantasy worlds. Female-fronted concept albums flourished, from Manhole by Grace Slick, conceived as a soundtrack to a non-existent movie of the same name (1974) and Joni Mitchell’s mediations on travel in Hejira (1976), to Bjork’s debut, an Icelandic covers album (1977), and Heart’s Dog & Butterfly (1978).

The Eighties were no different, featuring gems like Grace Jones’ Slave to the Rhythm (1985), which pulled a single track into a wild variety of different songs; the Japanese distorted vocal experiment Fushigi by Akina Nakamori (1986), and Kate Bush’s playful faithfulness to A and B sides of a record, producing “The Ninth Wave” as a kind of mini concept album on Hounds of Love (1985).

Wakeman skips over the Nineties in his programme, arguing that conceptual works felt hackneyed and uncool at this time; but the decade is peppered with women making thematically unified works from Madonna’s Erotica (1992) to Hole’s mediations on physical beauty and trauma, Live Through This (1994) and The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998).

Since then, women arguably led the field of conceptual albums, whether through the creation of alter egos in works like Marina and the Diamonds’ Electra Heart, Beyoncé’s I Am… Sasha Fierce or through focusing on a very specific theme, like Kate Bush’s 50 Words for Snow or in their storytelling, like Anaïs Mitchell’s Hadestown and Aimee Mann’s The Forgotten Arm. Wakeman includes no black women artists in his programme, but today, black women are making the most experimental and influential conceptual records in modern pop, from Janelle Monáe and Kelis to Erykah Badu, and, of course, Beyoncé. It’s no coincidence that Lemonade, which would have been considered an abstract conceptual album from a male artist, was immediately regarded as a confessional piece by most tabloids. This issue extends far beyond one documentary, embedded in the fabric of music writing even today.

Of course, concept album is a slippery term that is largely subjective and impossible to strictly define: many will not agree that all my examples count as truly conceptual. But in his programme, Wakeman laments that the phrase should be so narrowly defined, saddened that “the dreaded words ‘the concept album’ probably conjure up visions of straggly-haired rockers jabbering on about unicorns, goblins and the end of the world”. Unfortunately, he only confirms this narrative with a self-serving programme that celebrates his musical peers and friends, and ignores the pioneers who would bring variety and colour to his limited classification. 

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.