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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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis