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Guerrilla: this drama about the Black Power movement is a missed opportunity

The cast is incredible, but it plays with historical facts, arming its revolutionaries not with serious arguments, but with guns

Dial “B” for Britain: the Story of the Landline (BBC4)
Guerrilla (Sky Atlantic)

Friends poke fun when they come to our house. Our television is too small, and our telephone – the landline of yore – stands on a tiny table in the hall. They seem not to understand that, for a couple of a certain age, the hall is simply where telephones belong: a symbol of agony and ecstasy long after such crazy emotions have been (more or less) erased from one’s life. Mobile phones rule us now, but it was once the landline that was God – and boy, do I remember its tyranny. The blush-inducing lack of privacy as you tried to whisper into the ear of some gorgeous (ie, lumpen) teenage boy; the itchy
misery of having to wait until 6pm to make the call, and of knowing that six minutes precisely thereafter an adult would appear, tapping their watch; the delirious freedom of switching to the red box down the road, even though it stank of pee and Bubblicious.

I’d have liked a bit more of this kind of thing in Dial “B” for Britain: the Story of the Landline (20 April, 9pm). The closest we got was when the Radio 3 presenter Matthew Sweet described the weirdness of the shared “party line” (people you didn’t know jawing away in your ear). Nevertheless, by the standards of most BBC4 documentaries, this one was a treat. Not only did it dig up Buzby, the Post Office bird that told Britons to “make someone happy with a cheap-rate phone call” (or, in my case, unhappy), but someone had also thought to include the episode of Trumpton in which, thanks to an engineer’s mistakes, the town’s telephone exchange was thrown into chaos (a period of mayhem that, as Sweet wryly noted, put its already somewhat stretched emergency services under even more pressure). Best of all, the show had no presenter, so we were not expected to endure the sight of some annoying TV historian in a backcombed wig and headphones pretending – “What number, caller?” – to be a Sixties telephonist.

I guess everyone knows who invented the telephone (Alexander Graham Bell), and that in Britain it was that wild old Queen Victoria who purchased the first couple of machines. But the film delivered so many more interesting facts than these. The Victorians, for instance, worried that the telephone would be too great a leveller, enabling their maids to converse with gentlemen callers. Much later, Giles Gilbert Scott designed his classic K2 telephone box (he took his inspiration from the Soane mausoleum in the yard of St Pancras Old Church) and in 1925 two of the earlier K1s, with thatched roofs, were despatched to Eastbourne, to match the roofs of local pavilions. I do miss telephone boxes, for all that they were such a faff, and so very stinky. Or maybe I just miss
what they symbolise, which is a time when we still valued – and even craved – privacy.

Meanwhile, over on Sky Atlantic, a more horrible kind of nostalgia, in the form of a whacking great dose of Seventies racism and police brutality. You may already have encountered Guerrilla (Thursdays, 9pm), a drama about the Black Power movement in Britain, written by an American, John Ridley, who won an Oscar for his screen adaptation of 12 Years a Slave. Not only are all six episodes now available to watch (assuming you’re a Sky subscriber), it has also been celebrated in the newspapers and online for its ambition and its amazing cast (Zawe Ashton, Babou Ceesay, Idris Elba, Rory Kinnear, Nathaniel Martello-White, Daniel Mays), but attacked because its principal female character (Jas Mitra, played by Freida Pinto) is Asian rather than black.

I go along with the stuff about ambition, and the cast is completely wonderful. But I have great misgivings about the show in other respects. What a missed opportunity. For one thing, there is the way it plays with historical facts, arming its revolutionaries not with serious arguments, but with guns. For another, thus far, our heroes Jas and Marcus (Ceesay) have devoted their energies to springing a simple thug (a burglar called Dhari) from jail. If the viewer can’t sympathise with this, how can she sympathise with them? Answer: she can’t. I can also do without the (patronising) speeches people keep making to each other. Two episodes in and, alas, I’m already out. 

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 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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Man in the mirror-ball: Simon Armitage's The Unaccompanied

With this mature, engaging and empathetic work, the poet softens the pain of passing years. 

The Unaccompanied, by Simon Armitage
Faber & Faber, 76pp, £14.99

“The centuries crawl past,” Simon Armitage notes in his new collection, “none of them going your way”. After a decade of acclaimed travelogues, transgressive prose poetry, and above all translation, Armitage has combed those centuries to produce innovative versions of ancient and medieval texts: Pearl, The Death of King Arthur, Homer’s Odyssey, Virgil’s Georgics. In The Unaccompanied he returns, refreshed from his sojourn in the past and bringing the classics with him; in the book’s dystopian present, in “Poundland”, Odysseus meets the ghost of his drunken comrade Elpenor not in the Underworld, but “slumped and shrunken by the Seasonal Products display”, the poem’s pseudo-archaic English underscoring its ironic rewriting of Homer. Meanwhile, the protagonist of “Prometheus”, holed up in a post-industrial wasteland, sees his father retrieve not fire, but a Champion spark plug.

To lighten its nightmarish visions, The Unaccompanied offers the same beguiling playfulness that has characterised Armitage’s verse from his 1989 debut, Zoom!, to the “Merrie England” of Tyrannosaurus Rex versus The Corduroy Kid (2006). “Tiny”, for instance, reads like an old-school Ladybird Book (“Simon has taken his father, Peter,/to the town’s museum”) and “The Poet Hosts His Annual Office Christmas Party” makes a mischievous nod to Yeats. As ever, there are pinpoint references to popular culture; in “Gravity”, it is the “six-minute-plus/album version” of Fleetwood Mac’s “Sara” that plays on the stereo in the sixth-form common room. Yet Armitage’s concern for the socially excluded – the “skinny kid in jeans and trainers” from “The Ice Age” to whom the poet offers a spurned coat, “brother to brother” – burns unabated.

This collection articulates a new anger that is more personal, a lament for individual mortality, the sadness of time moving on too far and too fast. In “The Present”, the poet attempts to take an icicle home to his daughter:

a taste of the glacier, a sense of the world

being pinned in place by a
diamond-like cold

at each pole, but I open my hand

and there’s nothing to pass on, nothing to hold.

Armitage’s fluid poetics are pitch-perfect and his imagery remains incisive. The bare winter larch trees become “widowed princesses in moth-eaten furs”. In “Poor Old Soul” an elderly man sits, “hunched and skeletal under a pile of clothes,/a Saxon king unearthed in a ditch”. This is the measured poetry of late middle-age, in which only the promise of more loss fills the “white paper, clean pages”. In “Kitchen Window”, the poet’s mother taps the smeared glass before she falls away “behind net curtains” and then further “to deeper/darker reaches and would not surface”. “Emergency” (published in the NS in 2013) could almost be his audition for Grumpy Old Men. “What is it we do now?” he asks as he details the closed banks, and pubs where “tin-foil wraps/change hands under cover/of Loot magazine”. W G Hoskins’s gentle topological classic is referenced in “The Making of the English Landscape”, though a very different country is seen at dusk from a satellite:

like a shipwreck’s carcass raised on a
sea-crane’s hook,

nothing but keel, beams, spars, down to its bare bones.

In “Harmonium”, the poet’s father – who, in 1993’s Book of Matches, berated him for having his ear pierced – helps his son lug an unwanted organ from their local church and reminds him “that the next box I’ll shoulder through this nave/will bear the load of his own dead weight”.

Armitage’s poetic world is instantly recognisable, always inclusive. We know the faded ballrooms that turn into even sadder discos in “The Empire”. Or the clumsy children’s shoe fitter of “The Cinderella of Ferndale”, who leaves her own footprints of disappointment. As the poet stumbles on a farmers’ fancy-dress parade for a breast cancer charity in “Tractors”, the slight incident bleeds into the universal shock of diagnosis: “the musket-ball/or distant star/in your left breast”. Critics often cite Philip Larkin as an influence on his work, but Armitage’s highly tuned sense of such “mirror-ball” moments – small but refracting repeatedly across time and lives – is all his own. Thankfully, with this mature, engaging and empathetic work, he is back to record them for us, softening the pain of passing years. 

Josephine Balmer is a poet and classical translator. “Letting Go: Mourning Sonnets” will be published by Agenda Editions in July

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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