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JK Rowling's preposterous The Cuckoo's Calling at least offers a retro antidote to Victoria

The BBC detective programme's seams are showing, but at least it's not as silly as the return of ITV's royal biopic.

I haven’t read any of the crime novels that JK Rowling has published as Robert Galbraith. I bought the first one, The Cuckoo’s Calling, when friends praised it, but soon afterwards its author’s real identity was revealed, at which point I put it in the Oxfam box (thus proving that she was absolutely right to try to get this one out minus any Harry Potter preconceptions). Still, I’ve no regrets. Now I’ve seen the BBC’s three-part adaptation of The Cuckoo’s Calling (27 August, 9.05pm) – the Corporation also approached Robert Galbraith before anyone knew who “he” was – I know I did the right thing. Preposterous isn’t the word.

Rowling’s hero Cormoran Strike (Tom Burke) is supposed, I think, to be gritty and real: a gumshoe for the digital generation. If this is so, why is everything about him save for his groovy parentage – his estranged father is a rock star called Jonny Rokeby – so weirdly old-fashioned? He works out of a set of Soho rooms where his name is written in gold letters on a glass door. He breakfasts on curry, and dines on beer. He affects not to have heard of a Very Famous Rapper. He even has, in the form of a temp called Robin (Holliday Grainger), a beautiful Girl Friday who, though she persists in wearing heels and a nice coat to his filthy office, isn’t averse to helping him out with a little identity theft, should the need arise.

Combine these things with his biography – an Oxford drop out, he served with the Royal Military Police in Afghanistan where, in the course of a heroic act, he lost part of one leg – and Strike starts to seem more of a fantasy figure than anything else: as irresistible to women as he is to unsuspecting coppers (it isn’t long before a detective inspector called Eric, who looks all of 12 years old, is sharing CCTV images with him). You could, I suppose, see all this as homage: the office is straight out of Chandler, the references to Afghanistan recall Dr Watson, and Robin is an update of, among other female sidekicks, Agatha Christie’s Tuppence. Somehow, though, this isn’t how it works. Burke, a brilliant and highly lovable kind of actor, can make even the most clichéd dialogue come alive. But then you get to Martin Shaw doing his best “posh” voice – he plays a menacing lawyer – and the seams really start to show. (The script, incidentally, is by Ben Richards, the writer of Outcasts, but since JK Rowling is an executive producer, it seems fair to assume that she happily signed it off.)

Oh, well. As late summer fare goes – maybe that should read “fayre” in the circumstances – The Cuckoo’s Calling is perfectly enjoyable. The plot, which involves the murder of a Top Model, is intriguing, if not exactly fiendish, and there’s something about the drama’s pace (slowish) that I rather relish. For all its references to hipster Dalston, it has the feel of a slightly creaky late-Seventies cop show. In the end, I am definitely more inclined to buy a contemporary drama that is a touch retro than a historical drama that seems neither to notice nor care how 21st century it is.

I speak, of course, of Victoria (27 August, 9.05pm), back on ITV for a second series. My God, it’s silly. Victoria, having given birth to her first child, still comes off like Betty Friedan in a tiara – though it’s obviously awkward for such an unabashedly sentimental series that the real Queen, feminist or otherwise, heartily disliked babies. (Daisy Goodwin, its writer, makes up for this with extra spooniness in the matter of Albert: who, after all, could blame a girl for neglecting the nursery when she has such an epic plank – sorry, I mean hunk – at home?)

Meanwhile, life at court has taken on a somewhat Brexit-y air, what with Vicky having to remind Albert that Britain is a country with “a past as well as a future” (even as Afghanistan is lost, she cleaves to Trafalgar). “Give it a good chew,” says the Duchess of Buccleuch (Diana Rigg) to a quivering aristo who’s found a cockscomb floating in her soup. As she also pointed out: “Cockaleekie soup is a good Scottish dish.” Not for the new mistress of the robes the French fancies that will one day make Her Maj so very, very fat.

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 31 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The decline of the American empire

Emma Moore as Ruth Ellis
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Rasping old cassettes bring new depth to a familiar true crime tale in BBC Four’s The Ruth Ellis Files

Plus, a BBC Two documentary about Brixton reggae producer Steve “Blacker Dread” Burnett-Martin.

I thought I knew the Ruth Ellis story inside out: when I was writing my book about women’s lives in the 1950s, her name came up so often – almost daily, it fell like a shadow over my desk – I finally had to give in and take a detour, reading everything about her that I could find, for all that she wasn’t part of my plan (if you’re interested too, and want a primer, I recommend A Fine Day for a Hanging by Carol Ann Lee). But perhaps I was wrong. Perhaps I didn’t really know anything at all, for I never once felt even half so haunted in the British Library as I did the other night in the moments after I finished watching Gillian Pachter’s three-part documentary series, The Ruth Ellis Files: A Very British Crime Story (13-15 March, 9pm).

It wasn’t that Pachter, an American filmmaker who specialises in true crime, had vast quantities of new information; the thrust of her investigation had to do with the part played by Ellis’s other lover, Desmond Cussen, in the murder of David Blakely, the crime for which she alone was hanged on the morning of 13 July, 1955, at Holloway Prison, north London. Pachter suggested, like others before her, that Cussen provided Ellis with the gun with which she shot her violent boyfriend, and that he should therefore have been tried as an accessory.

Nor were her long-winded films, so deeply in love with their own processes, without their irritations, from the tonally jarring film clips she insisted on using to illustrate situations for which she had no images, to her bizarre and utterly pointless desire to recreate the pathetic last bedsit of Ellis’s son, Andre Hornby, who committed suicide in 1982, aged 37. Faced with certain expert “witnesses”, among them a couple of retired coppers who couldn’t have been loving their moment in the sun more if they’d been slicked with Ambre Solaire, Pachter was never anything less than wide-eyed and credulous.

What she did have, though, were some rasping old cassettes, the complicated provenance of which would take far too long to describe here. And so it was that we heard the voices of Cussen and Ellis discussing Blakely; of Hornby gently interrogating Christmas Humphreys, the counsel for the prosecution at his mother’s trial, whom he tracked down in the months before his suicide; and even of Blakely, loudly toasting the company at a party. She made maximum use of these tapes, playing them repeatedly, and it wasn’t hard to see why; if the words sometimes meant relatively little (“he’s just a little drip… a cheapskate… a skunk…” Ellis said of Blakely, perhaps only telling Cussen what he wanted to hear), the voices nevertheless spoke volumes, whole worlds conjured up in their strangulated vowels, their urgent hesitations.

Here was Ellis, a working-class woman, speaking in a painful, put-on RP. Here was Hornby, his life utterly destroyed by his mother killing the man who was then the closest thing he had to a father, trying desperately hard not to sound mad (“she lived on the borderlines of insanity,” he said of Ellis, possibly unaware that it takes one to know one). And here was Blakely, so obliviously chipper, his voice all dry gin and privilege. Ellis’s story has always reeked of Raymond Chandler: the racing driver lover, his floppy-haired beauty destroyed by bullets; that blonde hair, which she determinedly bleached again in prison ahead of her trial. Hearing them, though, all that fell away. What messes and muddles people get into. What calamities hit them, head on, like meteorites.

After a ten-year absence, Molly Dineen has returned with a documentary about Steve “Blacker Dread” Burnett-Martin (12 March, 9pm), a Brixton reggae producer. Three years in the making, it included some remarkable events in the life of this local celebrity, among them his conviction for money laundering; Dread’s dreads, uncut since he was 14, now reach to his feet and deserve a film of their own. But though I admired its intimacy, the warm and effective way Dineen mined his universe, in the end there was something self-indulgent about it, too. Like Blacker’s barber, her editor was, alas, seemingly surplus to requirements. 

The Ruth Ellis Files (BBC Four)
Being Blacker (BBC Two)

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 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game