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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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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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