Three colours: Cameron (Mark Dexter), Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Brown (Ian Grieve)
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As this government comes to a close, Rachel Cooke is glued to Channel 4's Coalition

James Graham's mischievous account of the heady days following the last election is Where’s Wally? for people who watch Newsnight.

Coalition
Channel 4

As anyone who sat through the Danish series Borgen will know, the numbers game that is coalition-building is hardly the stuff of TV drama. There are meetings, and then more meetings. There are telephone calls, text messages and, if you’re really lucky, a little light political blackmail. Party elders loiter in corridors trying hard to impersonate owls. Civil servants glide smoothly about as if on ice. The rank and file piss and moan. And at the end of it, you get . . . what? A press conference. It’s not exactly Macbeth, is it?

Yet I was glued to Coalition (28 March, 9pm), James Graham’s mischievous account of those febrile days in May 2010 during which Frisky Nick and Cocky Dave got it together. It had two great advantages over Borgen. First, there was Graham’s writing, which nimbly reduced almost everyone to the paltry sum of their parts (in essence: ambition, ambition, ambition). Second, Coalition’s characters really exist. What fun we had trying to work out who was supposed to be whom. It was Where’s Wally? for people who watch Newsnight.

Personally, I think Chris Larkin brought far too much charisma to the role of Danny Alexander – which is saying something, given that every time he opened his mouth, out came the words “voting reform”. But elsewhere the competition was pretty hot, the cast having wisely decided to try to capture the politicians’ most essential qualities rather than simply to mimic them.

The trailer for Coalition.

I don’t believe Nick Clegg was quite the bag of nerves Bertie Carvel made him out to be, even allowing for how, in this version of events, Paddy Ashdown (Donald Sumpter) appeared to be stalking him. (If Paddy had jumped out of Miriam’s Zara-filled wardrobe in full combat gear while she was performing an intimate marital act on the leader of the Liberal Democrats, you would not, after a while, have been surprised.) But his reflexive pragmatism felt just right. Mark Dexter caught all of David Cameron’s turbocharged presumption and Ian Grieve something of Gordon Brown’s almost pitiable desperation. George Osborne is a man who seems always to be on the point of unsheathing his instinctive flashiness; in his presence, you want to take a step backwards, just in case. Sebastian Armesto, an actor who knows exactly how to deploy a sneer, replicated this effortlessly.

None of these performances could touch Mark Gatiss’s turn as Peter Mandelson. The voice, the walk, the bitchy impatience: he’d got them all. In one scene, a box of muffins was delivered to a meeting. Mandelson took one, peeled back its paper case and began delicately to pick at it. I couldn’t get over this. Several years ago, I interviewed Mandy – I’ve interrogated every politician I’ve mentioned so far, with the exception of Danny Alexander – on a train from Didcot Parkway to London, a journey during which he nibbled ostentatiously at a Pret a Manger tiffin bar, then a favourite treat of his. All I can tell you is that the two performances – Gatiss’s and Mandy’s – were so alike that it was unnerving. Gatiss had slipped beneath Mandelson’s skin, a feat at once astonishing and paradoxical when you consider the former business secretary’s unfaltering opacity.

“It’s like flirting,” Mandelson cautioned Brown, when the prime minister wondered if he shouldn’t call Clegg rather than wait for him to ring. “Desperate isn’t sexy when you’re flirting.” Naturally, Brown didn’t get this – or anything else. Every time he spoke, I wondered all over again about that unfathomable photograph of him and the future Sarah Brown having dinner in a Soho restaurant. Mandelson and Harriet Harman (Deborah Findlay) were reduced to holding up encouraging cue cards when he did finally reach Clegg on the phone and while I can’t believe that Harman would, in reality, have been much help in this situation – another ex-interviewee of mine, she is, alarmingly, only marginally less gauche than Brown – this scene got to me. A light came on. It is, after all, in such moments that governments are created. Or not. Manners, empathy, a certain kind of personal warmth: in a few weeks’ time, these are the qualities of which our hapless politicians will be in sorest need once the votes have been counted. Given what we know of them, it’s impossible not to tremble at the thought.

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 27 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Double 2015

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Drama without sensation: A Separation is an unsettling novel of distances

In Katie Kitamura’s novel, it is the distance between the narrator’s two selves that causes her most discomfort.

In a 2013 interview with Guernica, the online magazine, the novelist Katie Kitamura discussed how publishing’s “deeply patronising attitude” towards female readers results in overtly feminine book covers, featuring, for instance, women in bathing suits. “That’s not the kind of book cover that makes me want to buy a book,” she said.

The cover of Kitamura’s latest novel, A Separation, does, surprisingly, feature a woman in a bathing suit. But there is something quietly unsettling about this picture: the woman, who has her back to us, is awkwardly cropped out of frame from the elbows up, and she is sitting at the edge of an oddly shaped pool. Most of the cover is solid turquoise – a bright wash of negative space.

Kitamura’s unnamed narrator is a poised literary translator. As the novel opens in London, we learn that she is married to Christopher (a charming, haphazard non-author) but, in secret, they have been living separately for the past six months. When she receives a telephone call from Christopher’s mother, Isabella, informing her that he has seemingly gone missing in Greece, she doesn’t let on about her disintegrating marriage but boards a plane to look for him.

Much of the rest of the novel takes place in Greece: at a “very pleasant” hotel, in “perfect weather”, the pool “heated to a very comfortable temperature”. The area has recently experienced a string of devastating fires, leaving patches of scorched earth. The location has an almost eerie surface stillness that jars with the mystery at its heart. In this way, Kitamura (an art critic as well as novelist) creates a setting somehow reminiscent of David Hockney’s A Bigger Splash, Christopher’s sudden disappearance leaving behind no visible ripples.

The narrator, too, has a glassy composure at odds with the tumultuous events. On deciding to end her marriage formally, she shows neither despair nor relief, but anxiety about the etiquette. “I assumed – I had no prior experience to go on – that asking for a divorce was always discomfiting,” she says with typical understatement, “but I could not believe it was always this awkward.” Of her feelings for her new partner, Yvan, she notes that they seem more like “administration rather than passion”, and then offers a moderated gloss of Hamlet, “You cannot say you did it out of love, since at your age romantic passions have grown weak, and the heart obeys reason.

Her emotional separation from the trauma of her circumstances allows the narrator to examine the facts of her husband’s disappearance. She knows Christopher was unfaithful and she immediately identifies the hotel receptionist as the object of his attentions. We never see the narrator professionally translating, but the novel is concerned with her attempts to read the deeper meanings behind the remarks and behaviour of those around her. She finds it easy to imagine unseen contexts to conversations: an argument between Christopher’s parents, an embrace between her taxi driver and the hotel receptionist. As she writes, “Imagination, after all, costs nothing.”

Her propensity for projection is such that some things remain lost in translation. Even the most minute interactions can be misread. When Christopher’s mother comments that the two women’s love for her son connects them, “she was looking over my shoulder, as if watching someone approach . . . she was staring at nothing”. The novel occupies this imaginative negative space: the gap between what people think and how they appear.

Ultimately, it is the distance between the narrator’s two selves that causes her most discomfort. How long will she allow others to read her as the concerned, loving wife? Should she admit she wants to find Christopher in order to request that they separate officially? As her search continues she notes, “There was a small but definite wedge pushing between the person I was and the person I was purporting to be.”

There is a suspenseful and menacing tone to Kitamura’s prose that might trick a reader into thinking, at first, they are in the territory of thrillers such as Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train. Both these novels, like A Separation, have narrators who defy readers’ attempts to fathom their emotional depths and to deal with questions of how well you know anyone – even your own partner. But this is a work free of sensation, or even resolution. As the narrator notes, in the shock of an event it is natural to look for a more dramatic narrative. “But in the end,” she says, “this is only chasing shadows. The real culpability is not to be found in the dark or with a stranger, but in ourselves.”

A Separation by Katie Kitamura is published by Clerkenwell Press (231pp, £12.99)

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

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution