Allegory and humiliation on the BBC’s Secret Life of Books

Plus Abi Morgan’s new drama River – it should be so good, and yet it is so bafflingly bad.

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When Robert Harris and others insist the BBC needs a TV books programme, I always wonder what kind of thing they have in mind. I suppose they picture an all-singing, all-dancing version of Radio 4’s Open Book, a magazine show that doesn’t only review books, but interviews authors and sometimes whips up little debates around literary trends, too. But that’d be pretty tiresome on screen, wouldn’t it? Either an attempt would be made to match pictures to words (cue cheesy roaring fires, dusty spines and wobbly library ladders) or we would have to endure many pompous talking heads, as we used to do with The Review Show. In its final incarnation, this was the most unendurably flatulent programme on television.

In any case, although there might not be a books programme proper, no one can say the BBC doesn’t dish up plenty of bookish stuff. Some of us are still struggling to recover from its recent adaptation of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. (If I’m lucky, I’ll have removed the cold compress from my head in time for the Downton Abbey Christmas special.) Meanwhile, on BBC4, The Secret Life of Books has returned for a second series (Tuesdays, BBC4, 8.30pm). Do books have a secret life? Hmm. I do distinctly remember my father asking the teenage me not to tell my mother he had lent me Portnoy’s Complaint. But I think it might be pushing it to talk about the secret life of Swallows and Amazons, as it will be doing in a few weeks’ time (his qualification for this job, by the way, is that he is a keen sailor).

The series opened with Dr Janina Ramirez on The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser, which she claimed to have loved ever since she first read it as a teenager (crikey, some teenager). I, for one, don’t think Dr Ramirez – the only non-celebrity to get a gig presenting an episode of this series – will have convinced too many Spenser virgins to try his allegorical epic, which is some 35,000 lines long and absolutely heaving with elves. There was something just a little unconvincing about her proclamations of its beauty, her insistence that what Spenser called its “darke conceit” had captured her imagination right from the off. (I would say, as one who struggled through it as a student, that The Faerie Queene is both beautiful and subversive, after its way, but I also think it’s bloody hard work.) But perhaps this doesn’t matter. Maybe the film’s real fascination lay in the fact that Spenser lived in an age when a proficiency for poetry like his could lead, at either end of the scale, to his exile to war-torn Ireland, and to an audience with Elizabeth I, whose then fragile rule his cantos were intended to bolster. We were a thrillingly long way from smug literary festivals and Book at Bedtime here – though the film did deliver some choice 21st-century literary humiliation in the form of Professor Simon Palfrey, a Renaissance scholar who had to read, aloud, Canto VI from Book III of the poem in a room that was illuminated only by candlelight. I suppose we should be grateful the director didn’t snuggle him inside a quilted doublet, or make him shout the words through a clanking visor.

What to say about River (Tuesdays, BBC1, 9pm), which is by Abi Morgan (The Hour, Shame, Suffragette) and stars – yes, really – Stellan Skarsgård? It should be so good, and yet it is so bafflingly bad. I don’t understand anything about it. Why is a Swedish copper, for one thing, working for the Metropolitan Police? Wouldn’t he rather be eating gravadlax in Uppsala than chewing on a greasy burger in Brixton? And why does he keep seeing ghosts? I suppose it’s just about feasible that in the throes of post-traumatic stress disorder, he might want to commune with his late colleague Stevie (Nicola Walker), who was killed on the job only a few weeks ago. But quite why Thomas Cream, aka the Lambeth Poisoner (Eddie Marsan), keeps strolling into the nick is unclear (Cream died in 1892). Oh dear. It’s so embarrassing, watching an actor as good as Skarsgård have gnomic conversations with people only he can see. His sincerity pitted against their desperate loquaciousness: it would be comical if it didn’t seem so very lumbering and stupid.

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 appears in the 14 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Corbyn supremacy