Housing officer Brian features in Channel 4's How To Get a Council House. Photo: Channel 4
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Channel 4's How to Get a Council House is infuriating and compassionate by turns

Is it a legitimate left-liberal position not to want any more cuts, yet still to feel that some people take the piss? Or does that make me Andy Burnham?

Not Safe for Work; How to Get a Council House
Channel 4

Two episodes in and the jury is still out on Not Safe for Work (Tuesdays, 10pm), Channel 4’s new comedy-drama in which a clever, sardonic and mildly despairing civil servant called Katherine (Zawe Ashton) is sent by her bosses from London to Northampton to work in what looks like an out-of-town branch of Staples on a futile project known as “the Immigration Pathway”. The cast is great and I do like the “austerity Kafka” vibe: its emotionally and financially precarious characters are stymied by management-speak as if by shackles.

But the writing: it’s so uneven. Katherine’s loser colleagues – the coke-head Danny (Sacha Dhawan), the super-square Jenny (Sophie Rundle) – are so cartoonish that her lowly new position among them seems utterly implausible. Then there’s the question of tone. One minute, she’s taking the mickey. “Did they not have any Calippos?” she asks the infantile Danny, finding him in the car park with two ice creams in his hands. The next, she’s having a flashback to the baby she lost before her divorce. The sadness and the clowning seem sometimes to belong to different shows entirely.

Still, I will keep watching. I approve mightily of Katherine, who isn’t entirely adorable; my crusade on behalf on unlikeable female characters, whether on TV or in books, is ongoing, despite some fairly hairy experiences at recent literary festivals (oh, how the lady readers out there want women characters only to be “nice”). I love the way she calls her Joe Root-lookalike ex Anthony (Tom Weston-Jones) a “total bell-end” to his face and in front of the entire office. It pleases me no end that she loves her job (Northampton posting aside) and is good at it. When she demolishes Danny’s crummy ideas – he has suggested that the Home Office buys a lot of tents for new immigrants, what with camping being such a very British pastime – it’s like watching a stoat swallowing a vole. She’s magnificent.

There’s something else going on here, too, which is that while I watch Not Safe for Work, I experience a kind of retrospective Schadenfreude. The series reminds me forcefully of my twenties, when I, too, was at the mercy of human resources (or, as we used to call them in journalism, that “bitch/bastard on the news desk”). Thanks to this, I’m filled with gleeful relief whenever Katherine and the others gather at some half-empty taco place to toast God knows what. Oh, the misery of office drinks with your rivals, your boss and your office crush. Oh, the loneliness of your first job: the boredom, the fear, the penury. If Katherine doesn’t sleep with someone highly inappropriate soon – my money’s on Nathaniel (Samuel Barnett), who looks about 12 and wears his political correctness like a neon sign – I’ll eat my novelty pencil sharpener.

Channel 4’s specialities right now are comedy-dramas and the kind of documentaries about the poor and dispossessed that make some cross and others roll their eyes and wonder why IDS, George and Dave don’t hurry up. How to Get a Council House (Mondays, 9pm) is its latest offering in the latter vein and, yes, it’ll make lots of people boil with rage. Me? Let’s see. Is it a legitimate left-liberal position not to want any more cuts, yet still to feel that some people take the piss? Or does that make me Andy Burnham? (I’d rather not be Andy Burnham.)

In Portsmouth, Britain’s most crowded city, a couple complained to their housing officer, Billy, that their landlord had threatened them with eviction. When Billy, having spoken to the landlord, who was unhappy with the state of the property, came round to tell them that if they’d only clean up the dog shit in the yard and apply a little elbow grease to the bathroom and kitchen, all would be well, what he got was abuse and indignation. These two followed a racist – “Muslims, Pakis . . . If you’re white, English [like us], you should be first in line!” – and a woman who said she would rather make her children homeless than live in a second-floor flat. Truly, the only thing to do in such moments, left-liberal-wise, was to focus on the saintly Billy and his long-suffering colleagues, who treated everyone the same way: kindly and with great patience. 

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 09 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The austerity war

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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear