Reviewed: The Politician’s Husband on BBC2

Blond ambition.

The Politician’s Husband
BBC2

Wouldn’t it be great if TV baddies sometimes went into restaurants and ordered, say, a little bowl of miso with some steamed greens on the side? Alas, they never do. In The Politician’s Husband (25 April, 9pm), Paula Milne’s almost-reprise of her 1995 series, The Politician’s Wife, there is a baddie with the preposterous name of Bruce Babbish. Mr Babbish is a politician of uncertain hue – one’s party seems not to matter in this kind of series, a fact I find somewhat disorientating – and rather posh and bland to boot. But we know he is a baddie because at lunch he orders calves’ liver, rare, with a bottle of something expensive and red.

Crikey it’s weird, this series – and if we’re going to count the ways, we might as well start with David Tennant’s hair, which has been dyed blond so very inexpertly, I wondered if someone at the BBC, working under the pressure of budget cuts, had simply set about it with the Sun-In. Talk about Eighties: the poor sod looks like David Van Day from Dollar, which really doesn’t help when you’re pretending to be Aiden Hoynes, a Machiavellian former secretary of state for business with designs on No 10.

On the plus side, at least his wife, Freya Gardner (played by Emily Watson), the new secretary of state for work and pensions, looks nothing at all like Thereza Bazar (also late of the pop duo Dollar) – though it must be said that some of her moves in the bedroom could have come straight out of one of the band’s videos. Crikey, again. Is this how Ed Balls and Yvette Cooper carry on of an evening? No, don’t answer that. It was a rhetorical question.

But I’m rushing ahead of myself. What is The Politician’s Husband about? Apparently it’s about the “cesspit” of British politics (copyright: Hoynes’ father, a retired lecturer at the LSE) – a stinky world where you can’t trust anyone, not even your own wife. The set-up goes like this. Hoynes resigned from the cabinet, Hezza-style, hoping that this would trigger a leadership election that he would then win. However, his best friend and fellow cabinet member, Babbish – played with all the aplomb of a teak sideboard by Ed Stoppard – refused to back him in front of the cameras, with the result that, isolated and outcast, he has had to fall back on plan B: his wife. Having encouraged Freya to accept her own seat in cabinet, he intends using her as a spy and a weapon.

The only trouble is that the worm appears to be turning. Freya is clearly rather enjoying her taste of power. On Newsnight, she couldn’t even bring herself to tell Kirsty that she agreed with her husband’s dissident views on immigration. Poor Aiden. Where will this disloyalty end? He must be worried. Any minute now, she’s going to ditch their rampant sex life and cuddle up with her red box instead. Either that, or she’ll end up boffing Babbish, his nemesis.

Watson is a decent actor, but she’s not my – or anyone’s – idea of an MP, especially not a Tory one (the “dissident” immigration thing – in his resignation speech, Aiden claimed to be in favour of more of it – makes me think they must all be Tories after all). Those googly eyes, that tremulous voice; they just don’t work in this context. You can’t feel her ambition. Called to a meeting at Downing Street, she wandered into the cabinet room and, in a reverie of aspiration so intense I half expected Derren Brown to appear from behind the nearest baize door, lowered herself slowly into the PM’s seat. Instead of looking hungry, though, she merely looked like she had taken too much Valium.

Of course, this isn’t only Watson’s fault. What possessed Milne to come up with such an utterly lame scene? A good bit of writing would have had Freya greedily flicking her eyes in the direction of the cabinet table over her powder compact, not breaking her cover entirely. Because if she’s this obvious at the very epicentre of power – the chief whip, aka Roger Allam, might have strolled in at any moment – what chance does she have at home, where Aiden prowls anxiously in his dressing gown? (Another odd overstatement; he’s still an MP, after all.)

Not much, I’d say – though you can perhaps forgive her for having a false sense of security so far as her husband goes. Anyone would, given that hair.

David Tennant in The Politician's Husband. Photograph: BBC

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 29 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, What makes us human?

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Will they, won't they: Freya’s ambivalent relationship with plot

Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed in Anthony Quinn’s Freya.

Freya is a portrait of a young woman in her time (post-Second World War through to the 1950s), place (London and Oxford) and social class (upper middle). Her father is an artist, Stephen Wyley, one of the principal characters in Anthony Quinn’s last novel, Curtain Call, which was set in 1936. We meet Freya on VE Day, assessing her own reflection: dressed in her Wren uniform, leggy, a little flat-chested, hollow-cheeked, with a “wilful” set to her mouth. And even though her consciousness is the constant centre of this novel, the feeling that we are standing outside her and looking in is never quite shaken. Quinn invests intensively in the details of the character’s life – the food and drink, the brand names and the fabrics, the music and the books around her – but he can’t always make her behave plausibly in the service of the story.

In fact, the novel has an altogether ambivalent relationship with plot. For the first two-thirds of the book there’s not that much of it. Freya is one of those young women for whom peacetime brought a tedious reversion to the mean expectations for her sex. When she goes up to Oxford, she realises that, despite her accomplishments in the navy, “she was just a skirt with a library book”. Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed. Quinn makes heavy use of elision – telling us that something is about to happen and then jumping to the aftermath – which would be an effective way to suggest Freya’s frustration, if it weren’t so schematic.

Granted, it’s preferable to dodge the obvious than to have it hammered home, but at times Quinn can be remarkably unsubtle. When a character mentions a fictional writer, he glosses this immediately afterwards, explaining: “He had named a famous man of letters from the early part of the century.” Presumably this clunking line has been inserted for fear that we readers won’t be able to draw the necessary conclusions for ourselves, but it’s superfluous and it jars. Quinn also has his characters make self-conscious asides about literature. Arch observations such as “The writer should perform a kind of disappearing act” and “It’s unfathomable to me how someone who’s read Middlemarch could behave this way” make me wonder whether students of physics might not have more intriguing inner lives than those studying English literature.

And then there is Freya’s sexuality, which is set up as the animating mystery of the novel, but is laid out quite clearly before we’re a dozen pages in. She meets Nancy Holdaway during the VE celebrations and the attraction is instant, though also unspeakable (a critical plot point hinges on the repression of homosexuality in 1950s Britain). The will-they-won’t-they dance extends through the book, but it’s hard going waiting for the characters to acknow­ledge something that is perfectly obvious to the reader for several hundred pages. It’s not as if Freya is a fretful naif, either. She takes sexual opportunity at an easy clip, and we learn later that she had flirtations with women during the war. Why become coy in this one instance?

Nor is she otherwise a reserved or taciturn character. Forging a career in journalism as a woman demands that she battle at every step, whether she would like to or not. “But I don’t want to fight,” she says, later on in the narrative, “I only want to be given the same.” However, she rarely backs away from confrontation. At times her tenacity is inexplicable. In one scene, she is about to pull off a decisive bargain with a figure from the underworld when she defies the middleman’s warnings and launches into a denunciation of her criminal companion’s morals, inevitably trashing the deal. It’s hard to swallow, and makes it harder still to imagine her keeping her counsel about the great love of her life.

When the plot at last springs to life, in the final third, there is almost too much to get through. Quinn introduces several new characters and a whole mystery element, all in the last 150 pages, with the romance still to be resolved besides. After the languorous pace so far, it’s an abrupt and not quite successful switch. Quinn hasn’t got the Sarah Waters trick of mixing sexual repression with a potboiling historical plot, nor Waters’s gift for scenes of disarming literary filth. (Freya announcing that “she finger-fucked me till I came” is unlikely to join ­Fingersmith’s “You pearl!” in the fantasy lives of the bookish.) Freya is a novel about intimacy and honesty, where telling the truth is paramount; but it doesn’t seem to know its own heroine well enough to bring us truly close to her.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism