The best and worst of British television: Benefits Britain; Fightback Britain; Unbuilt Britain

Rachel Cooke on a weird and horrible week of television on the BBC and Channel 4.

Benefits Britain; Fightback Britain; Unbuilt Britain
Channel 4; BBC1; BBC4

A weird and horrible week on television, the late-summer schedules dominated by a couple of new series so belligerently populist they might have been dreamed up in the offices of the Daily Mail (and, true to form, just hours before one of them was broadcast, the Mail splashed on it).

On Channel 4, we had Benefits Britain 1949 (12 August, 9pm), in which three current social-security claimants were required to travel back in time and “adjust”. Dear God. It goes without saying that this is a revolting idea for a documentary series and I don’t intend here to spell out the various intricacies of its stupidity and nastiness (naturally, this was the Mail’s favourite). But it was also miserably predictable, giving us two “decent” claimants (Craig, who uses a wheelchair, and Melvyn, a widowed pensioner) and one who seemed not so “decent” (Karen, a rude, shouty creature who is on incapacity benefit).

Meanwhile, on BBC1, there scuttled along an even more gruesome prospect in the form of Fightback Britain (12 August, 8.30pm), a series about how “you, the public” are “taking a stand against the bad guys”. What do you mean, you’re not taking a stand? Haven’t we all from time to time felt moved to instal a night-vision camera in our garden, in order to catch a local knicker thief as he jumps over the fence in search of laundry-fresh undies?

The knicker thief was the “funny” item at the end of a half-hour show that was otherwise dominated by stories of plucky derringdo (two lorry drivers who managed to stop a third from driving drunkenly the wrong way down a motorway) and advice about how to make your mobile phone thief-proof (in essence, get a tracking app on it). By the time it came on, I was bored to sobs – Fightback Britain’s presenters, Julia Bradbury and Adrian Simpson, have all the charisma of a couple of estate agents hell-bent on selling a particularly damp one-bedroom flat – so I can’t recall where exactly this incident happened. Suffice to say, the local police were not inclined to put a crack team of detectives on the case.

“Bring your washing in at night,” they told the victim, Leanne – which seemed fair enough to me, especially as by this point she was having to borrow knickers from her neighbours. Leanne, however, was having none of it. It’s just so convenient, putting out your washing last thing before you go to bed. Why would a girl want to do anything else?

When the film ended – thanks to CCTV, the thief was duly nabbed by Leanne’s husband, the waistband of his jeans apparently bulging with the very finest that BHS had to offer – Bradbury said earnestly to camera: “Remember, you can only film on your own property.” As if viewers everywhere were about to train CCTV on their neighbours’ rotary washing lines! And then it got worse. Turning to Simpson, she then uttered, presumably in a desperate attempt at chemistry, these dread words: “And I don’t think you need to worry about anyone stealing your pants, lovely.”

Lovely? To his credit, Simpson didn’t respond in kind (“Yes, Jules, my pants are rather skanky, aren’t they? Though I do wonder how exactly you know that. Ha ha ha.”). But nor, alas, did he look as though he wanted to throw up (presenting gigs don’t grow on trees, you know). See? I told you it was gruesome.

To soothe myself after this onslaught of ghastliness, I dived into Dreaming the Impossible: Unbuilt Britain on BBC4, which was like following a Big Mac with an ice-cold fresh peach. Oh, the relief. Presented by an architectural historian called Olivia Horsfall Turner, who has a delicately old-fashioned manner – she reminds me of Lucy in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe – these documentaries are about fantastical building projects that never quite got off the ground. The first film (12 August, 9pm) took in Joseph Paxton’s proposed Great Victorian Way in London, a huge glass arcade that would have followed roughly the same route as the Circle Line of the Underground, had it not been superseded by the more pressing need to build proper sewers; and Geoffrey Jellicoe’s “Motopia”, a 1,000-acre Sixties new town in which glass corridors would have separated cars from people.

It’s all amazingly interesting: the drawings and the dreams, the zeal and the bathos. How wonderful to find that Paxton’s chief inspiration in life seems to have been a particularly exotic kind of water lily and that the greenhouse he designed for the Duke of Devonshire at Chatsworth was so vast and hot that it was known as the “Great Stove”. But the series speaks to the times, too. In our overcrowded cities, the problems these projects were intended to tackle continue unabated, while in the eyes of the architects who would solve them, the gleam is every bit as unnerving now as it must have been then.

Julia Bradbury and Adrian Simpson, who present Fightback Britain. Photograph: BBC Pictures.

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 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Why aren’t young people working

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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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