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The BBC’s McMafia is boring, pretentious and unnecessarily difficult to follow

Don’t believe the McHype.

Early on in BBC One’s serious crime drama McMafia, we are told in no uncertain terms how to feel about our protagonist, the glassily smooth banker Alex Godman (James Norton). “You ever know what he’s thinking?” his Uncle Boris asks sarcastically. “He’s got this beautiful smile, but underneath maybe he’s thinking, ‘Screw you and your friends, Uncle Boris!’” “He’s like a wall,” he adds. “I should practise tennis against him.”

The impassive, mysterious, morally ambiguous antihero is a staple of prestige spy and action thrillers, from James Bond to Sherlock to well, every character Tom Hardy’s ever played. We’re used to watching our leads narrow their eyes to let us know that complex thoughts about an ethical dilemma are swirling around their heads as gracefully as the ice in their scotch, before smiling blandly at their wives and loved ones, hollowly insisting that everything’s fine. But McMafia dispenses with the subtleties of letting the ambiguity of Alex’s character surface on its own, instead spelling it out for us less than eight minutes in with heavy-handed dialogue. Just in case you missed it: this dude is impenetrable as fuck and he doesn’t care who knows it!!

This is the problem with the over-hyped McMafia, which reaches audiences thanks to both old-school channels (the BBC and America’s AMC) and Amazon Prime Video. It ticks every box in terms of what we expect from “prestige” drama – lavishly expensive and tasteful international sets; subtitled foreign-language dialogue, spoken by authentic Russian actors; complex, layered plotting; the constant exchange of darkly significant looks; mumbling and, of course, badly written women. But its desperation to be slick, exciting and high-brow has resulted in a show that’s also insincere, pretentious and unnecessarily difficult to follow. Even David Aaronovitch can’t keep up.

We move from location to location so quickly the producers resort to cartoonish sets to remind us where in the world we’re supposed to be. France? Let’s inexplicably send them to Versailles. Prague? Ah, of course, everyone’s conducting their business meetings in a novelty medieval tavern, complete with swords adorning the walls, that looks like it was also used as a set for Scott Disik’s “royal” parties on Keeping Up With The Kardashians.

Some plotlines are obviously tired: the third episode revolves powerful men and their decisions to obscure their business moves from their partners, which is handled with the same level of maturity as the 2002 Spiderman. (They’re lying to protect them. It’s a good thing, dummy.) Five episodes in, and Alex’s partner Rebecca (Juliet Rylance) seems to exist simply to look expensive, clean and concerned while holding very large bouquets of flowers, or to look expensive, clean and concerned while asking her fiancé who he was just on the phone to.

The dialogue is wooden, episodes are filled with close-ups of computer screens streaming with code and dramatic mouse-clicks, and metaphors are overdone. (A man is murdered with a caviar knife!!!! Extreme wealth is violence!!!)

Still, the makers themselves acknowledge that McMafia isn’t everything it sells itself to be. “It's actually a state-of-the-nation treatise on globalisation masquerading as a slick thriller” director James Watkins told the Guardian. “And we’re fine with that.” Instead, he hoped to portray a world in which “the corporate has become criminal and the criminal corporate”.

Misha Glenny’s non-fiction book McMafia: Seriously Organised Crime, on which this series is based, opens in 1994 on the Barnesbury Estate in Woking, Surrey. 33-year-old Karen Reed, opens the door when a pizza delivery man rings her bell, and is immediately shot in the head. She died because of her proximity to a world of organised crime she knew nothing about. The story works because it emphasises that anyone, even an ordinary woman, from an ordinary place, can have ties to organised crime without even being aware of it.

The super-rich, mega-elite bankers and oligarchs of McMafia don’t have quite the same impact. We are given little reason to empathise with or even care about these characters. Alex becomes involved with dodgy money worryingly fast – so it hardly feels like a story of well-meaning ordinary guy gets in over his head and can’t back out. Instead, the show slowly reveals the links between what are, at first, very desperate worlds: Alex’s luxurious, calm, plush life and the violent crimes he’s funding. Eventually, overlap appears: like the “gift” of a beaten and chained man in the basement of a beautiful villa in the south of France. But Alex doesn’t seem to care too much about the horrors he funds, and with no good guys to root for, why, then, should we?

As McMafia gears up to go Stateside, UK viewers are getting bored: viewing figures have dropped by over two million, and there are still four episodes left to go. As for me, I think I’d rather practice tennis against Alex Goodman the wall than keep watching him.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

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A Lab of One’s Own: the forgotten female scientists who shed stereotypes about women’s abilities

Every woman in this book deserves a biography of her own.

You might assume that there’s not much left to be written about the suffragette movement. But what has been ignored is that in the quiet corridors of university science departments, important battles were fought by women whose names were quickly forgotten. They weren’t always high-profile campaigners, but by forcing open the gates to the male-dominated worlds of science and engineering they helped shed stereotypes about women’s abilities.

In A Lab of One’s Own, the Cambridge historian Patricia Fara documents these scientists’ stories, painting a picture of a world that clearly wanted to remain male. It was the First World War that gave women unprecedented access to careers for which they had until then been deemed unsuitable. From all walks of life, they began working in munitions factories, developing chemical weapons (at one point, 90 per cent of industrial chemists were women) and building war machinery, while male scientists were on the battlefield.

These weren’t safe jobs; 200 women producing TNT died from poisoning or accidental explosions. Their achievements were so immense that even the prime minister Herbert Asquith, who opposed female suffrage, was forced to admit that there was hardly a service “in which women have not been at least as active and efficient as men”.

There is understandable anger in Fara’s voice. Despite their skill and dedicated service – often working for less pay than their male counterparts, or none at all – female scientists faced appalling resistance. Women were shunted into the worst roles, mocked for what they wore (trousers or skirts, they could never seem to get it right), and their ideas were ignored. Trade unions fought to protect men, meaning most women went unrepresented, promptly losing their jobs once the war was over.

Again and again, they had to carve out spaces for themselves then battle for the right to keep them. Britain’s scientific societies pulled elaborate tricks to block female members in the first half of the 20th century. One graduate, Emily Lloyd, managed to gain admission to the Royal Institute of Chemistry only by cleverly using the gender-neutral “E Lloyd” to sit the qualifying exam.

But getting through the door was only half the challenge. At Cambridge, men stamped their feet while women walked to their reserved seats at the front of the lecture theatres (imagine how they must have felt when Philippa Fawcett, daughter of the suffragette Millicent Fawcett, beat them all to come top in the Cambridge Mathematical Tripos exams in 1890). Women-only labs were given inferior facilities. Even scientists who worked alongside their husbands sometimes weren’t given credit when their joint work was published.

Every woman in this book deserves a biography of her own. Martha Whiteley, for example, who did pioneering work on mustard gas and wounded her arm when she tested it on herself. And the chemist Dorothea Hoffert, who researched varnish and food before having to give up work when she got married. The personal tales of these remarkable figures could benefit from more spacious storytelling, but as a scholarly account, Fara’s book offers a window into this fascinating chapter of history.

What’s also intriguing is the unease that men felt on seeing women doing “their” jobs. Soldiers worried about “the masculinisation of women” back home. There were fears that uniforms and protective overalls would drain femininity, and that by choosing to study and work rather than reproduce, clever women were depriving the nation of clever babies.

Unsurprisingly then, after the war, things went back swiftly to how they were before. Even in medical schools, where women had made huge strides, “the traditional masculine culture reasserted itself”. Women did win the battle in the end, although the war continues. As Fara makes clear, this was not only through the force of their intellects but also by taking the example of male clubs and forming their own networks. Women’s colleges became hotbeds for campaigning, particularly Newnham in Cambridge. The Women’s Engineering Society, the British Federation of University Women, and others were set up partly to help women fight entrenched efforts to hold them back.

“It is with much interest that we learned a few weeks ago that women chemists in London had formed a Club,” a snobbish editorial in the journal Chemistry and Industry began in 1952. “Most men are clubbable one way or another, but we did not know this was true of women. We wonder if this formation of a Club for women chemists is another sign of female emancipation.”

It was. By banding together and defending their rights, women found a strength that many before the war assumed they would never have. These pioneers not only helped win women the vote, they changed what it meant to be a woman. l

Angela Saini is the author of “Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong – and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story” (4th Estate). Patricia Fara will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Friday 12 April.​

A Lab of One’s Own: Science and Suffrage in the First World War
Patricia Fara
Oxford University Press, 352pp, £18.99

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist