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The Handmaid’s Tale: Dystopian dread in the new golden age of television

The new adaptation of Margaret Atwood's novel has captured a moment.

When a television programme captures a moment, it can feel as if everyone is watching it. Newspaper review sections are full of critics opining one way or the other, and social media feeds fill up with gleefully captioned screenshots and pleas for “no spoilers”. Now that we live in a so-called golden age of television, in which the output of streaming services such as Netflix carries such critical weight and is so lucrative that Hollywood actors are swapping the big screen for the small, these brief rushes of communal enthusiasm seem to occur ever more frequently. Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, Stranger Things, Broadchurch, Line of Duty: tuning in is mandatory if you want to be able to take part in the conversations at work the next day.

So, it is frustrating when a show comes along that appears to chime perfectly with the political and cultural moment but it isn’t possible for many of us to watch it. This is just what has happened with the new US television adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel, The Handmaid’s Tale.

Made by the streaming service Hulu and starring Elisabeth Moss (Mad Men), Alexis Bledel (Gilmore Girls) and Samira Wiley (Orange Is the New Black), it has been attracting excellent reviews in America and Atwood’s native Canada. Would-be viewers in the UK can only read these and brood, however, because the show is not available to watch here on any legal service. MGM, the production company behind the show, has said that the series will be available in the UK, but is yet to confirm where or when it will be broadcast.

It is clear that the show’s creators underestimated the response that it would elicit, believing that they would have months of slowly building interest to secure international syndication deals. Yet the world today is very different from the one in which they began work on turning Atwood’s novel into a television series. With Donald Trump in the White House, it could be expected that millions would be morbidly fascinated by a story exploring what happens when the fascists take power.

Atwood’s original novel focuses on Offred, a woman in a dystopian version of the United States who is forced to accept a position as a “handmaid” when a theocratic, Christian fundamentalist regime called Gilead takes control. Thanks to declining birth rates that are linked to nuclear disaster and the breakdown of traditional families, the few remaining fertile women have been enslaved by the state and are assigned to high-status, regime-supporting couples who can’t have children. A twisted version of surrogacy is the norm, in which the fertile handmaid must conceive a child while lying on the infertile wife’s lap.

Although from the outset Atwood’s novel, because of its unflinching depiction of the potential extremes of unchecked patriarchy, was claimed as a feminist text, it has found new resonances in the present moment. The defeat of Hillary Clinton, a lifelong feminist and women’s rights advocate, by Trump, a misogynist who admits to grabbing women “by the pussy”, shocked many progressives who thought that the movement towards equality in the past five decades could not be reversed.

The reversal has begun already: on 4 May, a Trump-backed health-care bill that classifies rape and pregnancy as “pre-existing conditions” (thereby enabling insurance companies to charge women much higher premiums) was passed by the US House of Representatives.

The Handmaid’s Tale forces us to consider the unthinkable consequences of misogyny on a national scale. Perhaps what begins as chants of “Lock her up!” at a political rally ends – as in Atwood’s narrative – with women losing the right to vote, to own property and to determine what happens to their own body.

Beyond its political resonance, this small-screen adaptation of the novel is deserving of the rapturous reception it has received. The quasi-biblical aesthetics of Atwood’s dystopia – the long, conservative red outfits and white veils of the handmaids, the icy-blue dresses of the wives whom they serve and the drab, faded green worn by the infertile “Marthas” – are heightened by the saturated, deep colours and unusual filming angles.

The chronology of Atwood’s novel has been altered to great effect, giving more detail about Gilead early on, so that the tenets of the new society are clear from the outset. There are more and longer flashbacks to Offred’s life before the regime change, allowing us to witness directly what is only implied in the novel: the slow slide from democracy to authoritarianism.

One scene, in which women take to the streets to protest the confiscation of their property, presents a terrifyingly realistic scenario. To begin with, it could be footage from any of the widely reported women’s marches held around the world in response to Trump’s election. But then, with no warning, the police open fire on the crowd, and Offred and her friends start running for their lives.

Above all, The Handmaid’s Tale has found new relevance in 2017 because it shows that authoritarian regimes secure absolute power not with a single violent act, but by a series of incremental changes, each one slightly worse than the last, and which, when they go unopposed, create the conditions for the final fall. We want to watch it, because we fear that if we don’t, we won’t recognise the horror when it comes. My only regret is that it isn’t yet available to viewers in the UK.

Caroline Crampton is head of podcasts at the New Statesman. She writes a newsletter about podcasts.

This article first appeared in the 11 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why the Tories keep winning

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Why do politicians keep making podcasts?

Nick Clegg is the latest to take to the internet airwaves.

“Rage is the opposite of reason. Discuss!”, Nick Clegg declares jauntily at the start of the first episode of his new podcast, Anger Management. The former Lib Dem leader and deputy prime minister can now be heard on the internet airwaves fortnightly, grilling guests about what he calls “the politics of anger”. Since his show is introduced by a montage of angry politicians shouting, it’s guaranteed to raise the listener’s blood pressure before the host even starts talking.

Clegg is just the latest in a long run of politicians to try their hand at podcasting. Perhaps the most notable example in the UK is the former Labour leader Ed Miliband, whose Reasons to be Cheerful show made in partnership with the former Absolute Radio DJ Geoff Lloyd hit number two in the iTunes podcast chart when it debuted in September 2017 and was recently nominated for a 2018 British Podcast Award. Jacob Rees-Mogg, too, has a fortnightly podcast called the Moggcast, which launched in January 2018 and is hosted by Conservative Home. Where once a politician might do a phone-in show on LBC or guest host The Jeremy Vine Show  on BBC Radio 2 to show how in touch and relatable they are (as in Call Clegg, which aired on LBC from 2013 to 2015, or Ed Milibands lunch time death metal scream), they can now go it alone.

In his column in the i newspaper introducing the podcast, Clegg puts his finger on exactly why it is that politicians find podcasting so attractive: it’s all about control. “I have grown to abhor the tired and tested confrontational interview format,” he writes. On his podcast, “there is no wish to pounce on a slip of the tongue or endure a soundbite being hammered home”. There’s a freedom to this kind of on-demand internet audio, which can be delivered directly to an audience without having to get past the traditional gatekeepers of broadcasting. There’s no need to put up with John Humphrys or work with the BBC’s requirement for political balance. The politician, usually on the receiving end of whatever the interviewer wants to throw at them, is in charge.

Given this, it’s unfortunate that in his first episode Nick Clegg falls foul of his own edicts. His first guest is former Ukip leader Nigel Farage (coincidentally also the host of a podcast called Farage Against the Machine). It’s a slightly odd choice of guest to launch the show — made, no doubt, to generate controversy and a higher iTunes chart position — and it doesn’t exactly show Clegg’s broadcasting skills in a good light.

In a recorded disclaimer that plays before the interview, the former Lib Dem leader and vocal Remainer tries to pre-empt criticism that he’s giving a platform to someone with pretty unpalatable views. He explains that the first half of the 47-minute episode is meant to be about Farage’s “life, not really me cross-questioning him”, and that to hear them “locking horns more on the issues of the day” listeners must wait until the latter part of the show.

This approach results in Clegg letting Farage get away with a number of fact-light statements early on, and then later adopting the Humphrys-style tactic of repeatedly interrupting Farage before he can finish a point. As an interview style, it’s the worst of both worlds — neither spacious enough to allow the guest to explain their thinking fully, nor robust enough to provide an effective rebuttal. Hosting a podcast is a deceptively hard thing to do. It would take someone substantially more skilled behind the microphone than Clegg to completely reinvent the one-on-one discussion format in a single episode.

The lure of podcasting for politicians is in the way listeners react to the medium. The entire burgeoning podcast advert market is founded on research that points to a strong sense of intimacy between podcast host and audience — it’s a level of loyalty and engagement that surpasses many other forms of media. In politics, that can be harnessed for electoral gain: for instance, Hillary Clinton had a podcast called With Her that ran during her 2016 presidential campaign.

The trouble is that politicians aren’t necessarily that good at making podcasts. They’re not journalists, and they don’t often have a good nose for what makes a strong show for the listener, or take the advice of those who do. For those still in office (or, like Clegg, still wanting to participate in politics despite losing his seat), there are other pressures that can prevent them being completely honest on air. As Amanda Hess pointed out in the New York Times in 2017, the best episodes of Clinton’s podcast were made after she lost the election, when she moved out of campaign mode and just tried to process what had happened like everyone else.

The rise of the podcasting politician is the result of a few different factors: an increased dominance of personality in politics; the tendency for us all to gravitate towards our own “filter bubbles” of reassuring content; and an ever-more polarised media climate. For my money, the best show to come out of this trend so far is Ed Miliband’s. He leans in to the “geeky” stereotype that haunted him for his entire career and, guided by veteran broadcaster Geoff Lloyd, is seeking to make something that looks beyond the political bubble.

Podcasts are at their best when they serve a particular niche interest group: there’s clearly a community of people who enjoy listening to Jacob Rees-Mogg intoning bleakly about obscure areas of policy, and best of luck to them. Politicians should realise that it is not a form that works when you try to appeal to everyone. Otherwise, like Nick Clegg, they will end up telling Nigel Farage that he’s “very good at the high horse stuff about how the EU is ghastly” in a strained tone of voice.

Caroline Crampton is head of podcasts at the New Statesman. She writes a newsletter about podcasts.