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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Thus Bad Begins confirms Javier Marías as a master of the novel form

Marías’ masterful expression of his characters' psychological weather, combined with Margaret Jull Costa's gifted translation, makes for rewarding reading.

For those who love the novel as a form and not just as entertainment, Javier Marías is arguably the most rewarding writer working today. Marías, who has a self-professed fondness for English-language masters such as Joseph Conrad and Henry James, carries forward and vitally renews the great European tradition – a tradition that, rooted in Cervantes and digressive 18th-century writers such as Fielding and Sterne, found its high point in the work of Flaubert, Proust and Balzac, as well as the anglophone novelists from whom Marías has learned so well.

No one since James has used the sentence to such effect in exploring the workings of human psychology and this must have presented his translator, Margaret Jull Costa, with problems. It must be difficult to render Marías’s Spanish sentences, which are uniquely those of this novelist, into contemporary English without making them read like a sub-Jamesian imitation. That she succeeds is a mark of a truly gifted translator.

Following on from The Infatuations, his superb and moving 2011 novel (published in English in 2013), Marías’s new offering is, if anything, even more effective in conveying the psychological weather of those who, as his narrator here puts it:

. . . will never go beyond their own bounds, those who one knows early on will leave no trace or track and will barely be remembered once they disappear (they will be like falling snow that does not settle, like a lizard climbing up a sunny wall in summer . . . like the words, all those years ago, that a teacher painstakingly wrote on the blackboard only to erase them herself at the end of the class, or leave them to be erased by the next teacher to occupy the room) and about whom not even their nearest and dearest will have any anecdotes to recount.

Such a person (the narrator of The Infatuations, for example) may become “a silent witness, impartial and useless”, and only the “indifferent sentinel observing all our lives” – fate, perhaps, or a kind of autre monde novelist recounting the human story from some remote watchtower – is capable of seeing that these characters, who seem “to be just passing through or on temporary loan even while they’re alive . . . harbour stories that are far odder and more intriguing, clearer and more personal than the stories of the shrill exhibitionists who fill most of the globe with their racket”.

These characters are observers, sometimes devotees, of the lives of others. In his youth, Juan, who tells the bewildering and tragic story of Thus Bad Begins, was the personal assistant of the film-maker Eduardo Muriel, whose finest days are behind him but who still commands respect among those who love film for its own sake. Much of Muriel’s life has been spent, or rather wasted, on two kinds of compromise: first, the self-betrayals that everyone had to commit during the Franco dictatorship in order to pursue his or her craft; and second, the kind of financial wheeling and dealing that any film-maker has to endure to realise their vision in celluloid.

Somehow, he has come through honourably and it is clear that Juan admires him, both as a man and as an artist – which makes Muriel’s cruel treatment of the wife who adores him all the more puzzling. Why does the great artist hate the beautiful, long-suffering Beatriz Noguera and why does he show her such contempt? This is the mystery at the heart of Thus Bad Begins, a mystery that will leave Juan well out of his depth when he is charged by his hero to investigate a man called Jorge Van Vechten, about whom Muriel entertains dark, if initially rather vague, suspicions.

To disclose more of the plot here would undermine the suspense that Marías so carefully creates, although it should be stressed that this suspense is not only dramatic and psychological but also existential. Besides, there is so much else to enjoy here, from the characterisations to the grace of the prose as, sentence by elegant sentence, Marías glides with seeming inevitability first towards the main narrative’s denouement and then to an afterlife in which Juan, now an older man looking back at his former life, remains haunted by the past, even in the midst of present happiness. That past, however, is more than just a troubling memory. It is an ever-present warning that today’s happiness might be lost in a rash word or an impulsive gesture; in short, in the kind of unguarded action with which bad begins.

Having witnessed the events of the novel as Muriel’s assistant and sometime friend, Juan knows that there is no defence against that brooding, internal danger, other than a kind of wishful or superstitious thinking in which, rather than consigning what happened in the past to the past, he forces himself to “recover that vision, so that . . . reality can be restored and that forgotten yesterday can return the today, which, just for an instant, has slipped away from us”.

This is the novel’s last poignant moment. It is a reminder that, throughout, Marías has been uncovering a history of temps perdu, in a life, in a marriage and in a society shamed by the dictatorship with which it allowed itself to compromise for so long. 

Thus Bad Begins by Javier Marías, translated by Margaret Jull Costa, is published by Hamish Hamilton (512pp, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad