The Force

The banality of evil is laid bare in Hampshire

“Unprecedented" being one of the most exhaustingly overused words in the English language, it would be something of an understatement to say that I treated with scepticism the claim that the makers of The Force (started 13 October, 9pm, Channel 4) had gained "unprecedented access" to Hampshire Constabulary. What police force in its right mind would enable such access? And even if it did, wouldn't that be tricky from a legal point of view?

So, although I knew that the series had been directed by Patrick Forbes, the genius responsible for the BBC's sublime documentaries about English Heritage, I had pretty much convinced myself that I was in for a réalité version of Crimewatch, all boring coppers talking in boring voices about "disgusting crimes" and "terrible tragedies" - the only difference being that, rather than having to suck in their bellies for the benefit of Kirsty Young, these detectives would demolish Kit Kats, and other vending machine delights, with slobbish abandon.

But I was wrong, and not only about the slobbishness (our hero, DCI Jason Hogg, looks about 12 and has a degree in theology from Oxford; he probably prefers yoghurt to saturated fats). The Force is compelling television, the kind that you watch with a queasy feeling, and all your fingers crossed. It has been carefully made, over a period of several years, and beautifully edited, and it tells you a great deal more about 21st-century Britain than anything in Ian Rankin.

Murder, it turns out, is just as horrifying as the crime writers would have it, but it is also more banal. It happens in bedsits and flats and suburban houses, on ordinary spring afternoons, with the traffic going by and the television blaring out on the other side of a party wall, and often for no greater or more exciting reason than that one human being has annoyed another. As for the clean-up, murderers must be practical, and there is something almost comical in the way they set about disposing of evidence. You'd laugh out loud if it weren't that someone's mother, or sister, or daughter is in the suitcase they must now drag uneasily behind them.

In the first film, a charred body was found in a suitcase by a rural footpath. I don't have space to describe precisely how detectives deduced that the body belonged to Sylwia Sobczak, a 26-year-old Polish woman who worked at a London hotel, and that the man who disposed of it was her colleague and sometime lover, 27-year-old Ziaul Haque. It was complicated. Who knew that a sample taken from a blackened corpse can prove whether the petrol that made it so was from BP, or Total? But in any case, it was only after we had names and faces that the film really began to work on me. By now, I understood that Haque was guilty; if he'd been innocent, we would not be seeing his face like this.

Yet somehow this didn't matter. There was high drama, and deep pathos, in the smaller mysteries that radiated from the centre of the story like spokes on a wheel. Where had this nervous, nondescript man, whose interviews under caution we heard, but did not see, been living for the past two months? Was it where Sylwia had died? Why had he killed her? On and on the police went, chipping away at his stories, his bank accounts and his mobile-phone records until, finally, they pitched up at a two-bedroomed high rise in Hackney, in the East End.

The place had been converted into three tiny bedsits, a pathetic detail that clutched at the heart far more violently than the sight of incident tape and a white tent in the corner of a field. Nevertheless, bedsits or no bedsits, the block had CCTV, and so it was that we saw Haque entering the building with a large suitcase that he was able to carry with only one hand, and then, a little later, leaving it, the suitcase now so heavy that he could barely pull it from the lift. I watched this, mouth open, scalp prickling with horror. It was an image more indelible than anything the television dramatists could have come up with. A woman-hater lugging a suitcase to a Vauxhall Cavalier. How mundane, and yet how hateful.

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 19 October 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The Strange Death of Labour England

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide