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My love of Jessica Hynes in Up the Women was almost enough to make me join Twitter

Up the Women is adorable. Admittedly, it starts slowly, but the second episode is funny. Properly funny. And clever, too.

I’m not on Twitter – so far, I’ve seen nothing to disabuse me of my strong hunch that it’s the seventh circle of hell – but I had a brief longing to join the other day so that I could tell Jessica Hynes, who is on it, how much I love her new suffragette sitcom, Up the Women (Thursdays, 8.30pm). Also, to force her to be my friend.

My God, it’s adorable, this series. Admittedly, it starts slowly: the first episode is sweet but a bit unfunny, mainly because the situation has to be set up before the jokes can flow. It’s an old-fashioned static sitcom – all the action takes place in a village hall – with a strong feeling of Dad’s Army about it, so character is important. Before anything else can happen, we need to know who’s thick and who’s bright, who’s power-crazed and who’s reticent, who’s sex-mad and who is a virgin.

However, I’ve seen the second episode and that is funny. Properly funny. And clever, too. It takes the viewer’s intelligence and erudition for granted, which is quite something, these days. There are jokes about Bizet and E M Forster and algorithms. There was even a joke about Nietzsche. (Someone asked Margaret, the character played by Hynes, who Nietzsche was and she said: “He was a bit like Shockheaded Peter but much crosser.”)

Best of all, though, are the tiny details that show the great care with which it has been made. In the second episode, you had to be paying attention to notice Margaret quickly pinching her cheeks before she went to meet the policeman with whom she had been in love as a young girl.

But I’m running ahead of myself. Here’s how it goes. Margaret, a clever but rather diffident young woman, has returned home from a trip to London ablaze with suffragette fervour, with the result that she is determined to turn the Banbury Intricate Craft Circle, of which she is a member, into the Banbury Intricate Craft Circle Frankly Demands Women’s Suffrage (this becomes “Politely Demands” over time). Not everyone is keen on this idea – her nemesis is Helen (Rebecca Front), who plays Captain Mainwaring to Margaret’s Sergeant Wilson – but, in the end, she more or less gets her way (Helen will simply moan and roll her eyes from the sidelines).

The only trouble is that the craft circle is not really suited to fighting for the vote. Gwen (Vicki Pepperdine in a set of Dick Emery teeth) is preoccupied with her spinsterhood, her mother’s pleurisy (“She’s finally agreed to take up smoking, as the doctor advised”) and the tiffin she prepares each week for the circle’s delectation; Eva (Emma Pearson) is obsessed with her 14 children, Liberty, Chastity, Patience, Providence, Prudence, Justina, Ernestina, Constance, Clemency, Chastity, Virginity, Abstinence, Moderation and, erm, John; Mrs Von Heckling (Judy Parfitt, in as fine form as I have ever seen her) is obsessed with her fading youth. In other words, they are to suffrage pretty much what Pike and co were to the Home Guard.

If this sounds silly, that’s because it is. But it’s more than that. There are two things that make Up the Women special as well as adorable. The first is Hynes’s performance as Margaret, which is wonderful: detailed, heartfelt, affectionate, convincing. She’s such a brilliant actor. The second is the way the series reminds you over and over how little has changed.

The hall where the circle meets has a caretaker, Frank (Adrian Scarborough), who talks to the women as if they were toddlers, or imbeciles. Margaret, whose stockings are certainly blue and whose knickers are doubtless made of worsted, is about 80 times more capable than Frank but still she listens politely to his (wholly inadequate) account of how a lightbulb works, or what electricity is, her lips pursed tightly together, the better to ensure that her own learning does not suddenly burst out and give her away.

These scenes are truly great, the expression on Hynes’s face (half-amused, half-boiling with frustration) standing proxy for any clever woman who has ever had to stand quietly by while a man patronises her (which is to say all the intelligent women who have ever drawn breath in this or any other time). Will men get the joke? Yes, they will. This is BBC4’s first sitcom, so those men who watch it will be of a certain type: the kind who truly believe they treat women as equals (and in spite of all their moaning!). They’ll chuckle loudly and they’ll cheer Margaret on and then they’ll go to work and talk down to their assistants anyway.

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 03 June 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Power Christians

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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