Unknown pleasures

Tom Ravenscroft on what to look forward to at this summer's music festivals.

I may be about to put myself out of a lot of potential work by announcing that festival season is on the horizon - the busiest and most lucrative period for almost anyone who works in the music biz - and that . . . I'm not sure how much I like it. Festivals fill me with dread a little. There are so many in the UK now, ranging from small parties held in the gardens of the parents of bored rich boys to huge, rather soulless affairs organised by multinational companies that have no interest in music but rather enjoy selling you stuff.

Given their sheer numbers, there must by now be a festival perfectly suited for everyone in the country - there's probably even one called Tom in a Field and yet I still can't find one that's the perfect fit for me. The music is either too mainstream or too pretentious and the festival-goers are either too cool or not quite cool enough. The emphasis on good food and clean, ethical living and the excitement evoked by the word "shower" would make sense if we were planning on living there for the rest of our lives. I used to comfort myself with the thought that no one is really enjoying himself at any festival but just pretending to because everyone hates a party pooper.

In much the same way as I don't like watching films with large groups of people, I think I prefer listening to music in smaller numbers. There is also the issue of sound: the bigger the stage, the worse the sound seems to get. A slight gust of wind and, as at a festival I once attended on the Spanish coast, the only person who gets to hear the songs is a fisherman three miles out to sea. (I'm sure he liked the Wooden Shjips and was grateful for their accompaniment to his daily toil.)

In recent years, however, something has changed. The larger, more commercial festivals have become the musical equivalents of gossip mags, spitting out drivel at a billion watts into the faces of ripped-off teenagers. As a result, the variety of acts elsewhere has greatly improved. It is slowly removing my years of scepticism and is perhaps even creating a drop of excitement (so, this is what it feels like).

Listening habits have changed considerably: most people are no longer just being fans of, say, indie or techno, but pick bits they love out of an expanding range of genres. Festivals are increasingly representing this and, in doing so, are also reflecting my tastes better than they ever did.

To some degree, it isn't about festival programmers putting on things you like, but about them having the courage to put on acts you might hate. Audiences don't have to like everything they see over a weekend, but should be given the opportunity to discover something that's fresh and unexpected. It's that possibility of stumbling across your new favourite band that had disappeared a bit from the scene, with too much emphasis on buzz bands of the day or nostalgic acts you felt the need to tick off as "have seen". The Field Day festival in east London is a good example: despite its ability to house briefly almost all of London's twits, it packs into a single day a hugely diverse collection of noises. There are many acts I have no idea about and some I suspect I won't like.

This summer, I am looking forward to see-ing Bob Log III, Fools Gold, C W Stoneking, Health, SBTRKT, Jon Hopkins, Ducktails, Emeralds and the Horrors - but looking forward even more to the list of new acts I hope to have heard at the end of it. Music is rather brilliant at the moment and there is frankly more than one can possibly get through, so it can be frustrating when you see the same acts everywhere you go; it's a waste of all the talent out there. I hope things carry on in this vein - who knows, perhaps in the next couple of years a few organic food stalls might have been converted into stages for badly rehearsed drone bands from Long Melford. I'll stop now - I'm sorry to go on, but I don't get out much.

Fresh sounds from the BBC 6 Music DJ

This article first appeared in the 30 May 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Hands up who knows how to fix our schools

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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

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 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit