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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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How power shifted dramatically in this week’s Game of Thrones

The best-laid plans of Mothers and men often go awry.

Last week’s Game of Thrones was absolutely full of maps. It had more maps than a Paper Towns/Moonrise Kingdom crossover. More maps than an Ordnance Survey walking tour of a cartographer’s convention. More maps than your average week on CityMetric.

So imagine the cheers of delight when this week’s episode, “Stormborn”, opened with – yes, a map! Enter Daenerys, casting her eyes over her carved table map (Ikea’s Västeross range, I believe), deciding whether to take King’s Landing and the iron throne from Cersei or a different path. After some sassy debates with Varys over loyalty, more members of her court enter to point angrily at different grooves in the table as Dany and Tyrion move their minature armies around the board.

In fact, this whole episode had a sense of model parts slotting pleasingly into place. Melisandre finally moved down the board from Winterfell to Dragonstone to initiate the series’ most inevitable meeting, between The King of the North and the Mother of Dragons. Jon is hot on her heels. Arya crossed paths with old friends Hot Pie and Nymeria, and the right word spoken at the right time saw her readjust her course to at last head home to the North. Tyrion seamlessly anticipated a move from Cersei and changed Dany’s tack accordingly. There was less exposition than last week, but the episode was starting to feel like an elegant opening to a long game of chess.

All this made the episode’s action-filled denouement all the more shocking. As Yara, Theon and Ellaria dutifully took their place in Dany’s carefully mapped out plans, they were ambushed by their mad uncle Euron (a character increasingly resembling Blackbeard-as-played-by-Jared-Leto). We should have known: just minutes before, Yara and Ellaria started to get it on, and as TV law dictates, things can never end well for lesbians. As the Sand Snakes were mown down one by one, Euron captured Yara and dared poor Theon to try to save her. As Theon stared at Yara’s desperate face and tried to build up the courage to save her, we saw the old ghost of Reek quiver across his face, and he threw himself overboard. It’s an interesting decision from a show that has recently so enjoyed showing its most abused characters (particularly women) delight in showy, violent acts of revenge. Theon reminds us that the sad reality of trauma is that it can make people behave in ways that are not brave, or redemptive, or even kind.

So Euron’s surprise attack on the rest of the Greyjoy fleet essentially knocked all the pieces off the board, to remind us that the best-laid plans of Mothers and men often go awry. Even when you’ve laid them on a map.

But now for the real question. Who WAS the baddest bitch of this week’s Game of Thrones?

Bad bitch points are awarded as follows:

  • Varys delivering an extremely sassy speech about serving the people. +19.
  • Missandei correcting Dany’s High Valerian was Extremely Bold, and I, for one, applaud her. +7.
  • The prophecy that hinges on a gender-based misinterpretation of the word “man” or “prince” has been old since Macbeth, but we will give Dany, like, two points for her “I am not a prince” chat purely out of feminist obligation. +2.
  • Cersei having to resort to racist rhetoric to try and persuade her own soldiers to fight for her. This is a weak look, Cersei. -13.
  • Samwell just casually chatting back to his Maester on ancient medicine even though he’s been there for like, a week, and has read a total of one (1) book on greyscale. +5. He seems pretty wrong, but we’re giving points for sheer audacity.
  • Cersei thinking she can destroy Dany’s dragon army with one (1) big crossbow. -15. Harold, they’re dragons.
  • “I’ve known a great many clever men. I’ve outlived them all. You know why? I ignored them.” Olenna is the queen of my LIFE. +71 for this one (1) comment.
  • Grey Worm taking a risk and being (literally) naked around someone he loves. +33. He’s cool with rabid dogs, dizzying heights and tumultuous oceans, but clearly this was really scary for him. It’s important and good to be vulnerable!! All the pats on the back for Grey Worm. He really did that.
  • Sam just fully going for it and chopping off all of Jorah’s skin (even though he literally… just read a book that said dragonglass can cure greyscale??). +14. What is this bold motherfucker doing.
  • Jorah letting him. +11.
  • “You’ve been making pies?” “One or two.” Blatant fan service from psycho killer Arya, but I fully loved it. +25.
  • Jon making Sansa temporary Queen in the North. +7.
  • Sansa – queen of my heart and now Queen in the North!!! +17.
  • Jon choking Littlefinger for perving over Sansa. +19. This would just be weird and patriarchal, but Littlefinger is an unholy cunt and Sansa has been horrifically abused by 60 per cent of the men who have ever touched her.
  • Nymeria staring down the woman who once possessed her in a delicious reversal of fortune. +13. Yes, she’s a wolf but she did not consent to being owned by a strangely aggressive child.
  • Euron had a big win. So, regrettably, +10.

​That means this week’s bad bitch is Olenna Tyrell, because who even comes close? This week’s loser is Cersei. But, as always, with the caveat that when Cersei is really losing – she strikes hard. Plus, Qyburn’s comment about the dragon skeletons under King’s Landing, “Curious that King Robert did not have them destroyed”, coupled with his previous penchant for re-animated dead bodies, makes me nervous, and worry that – in light of Cersei’s lack of heir – we’re moving towards a Cersei-Qyburn-White Walkers alliance. So do watch out.

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