I watch The Hour because I want it to be good. More precisely, I want it to be as good as it is in my head, as I find my mind wandering from the actual Hour, which is dramatically flaccid.
Last night’s episode was much better in my head. It was suffused with the unspoken rage and violence of men who had never - and would never - come to terms with their actions in the Second World War. In my head this was teased out through the course of the episode in subtle references that built to an explosive climax. In the actual Hour they went for the explosive climax (Commander Laurence Sterne - and seriously, are they going to do nothing with that name? - smashes up his mistress’s room, the only authentic scene in the entire episode), but the rest of it was crow-barred reminiscences, characters suddenly halting mid-conversation to drop in a war anecdote that sounded (like much of the period detail) straight out of Wikipedia.
That’s one of the things that feels wrong about The Hour, that it’s written by people really quite far removed from the action. There often feels like a 21st century moralism has been parachuted into a ’50s milieu. I can understand the younger characters’ disgust at violence against a showgirl, but I’m not so sure I believe Hector would take to this cause with such unwavering passion.
But then Hector is half the character the writers think he is, probably because they’d all rather be writing for Ben Whishaw, who can do things with this terrible dialogue he shouldn’t have to do.
I concentrate on its faults, because there are many. The Hour is predictable in the things it nicks from better shows - the walk-and-talk of The West Wing, the slow, smoke-filled style of Mad Men - as much as it is in its narrative. It bizarrely manages to pack too much in - nuclear war! Profumo! CND! Gangsters! Racism! - while at the same time drawing everything out interminably; how does it manage this trick? What is Bel actually for, exactly? And a nerd point - it’s very flatly mixed, no light and shade, no dynamics.
It appears the ratings are in decline, but I would imagine a third series is on the cards. If so, I hope reviewers have been tougher on it this series, so the writers get to grips next time with what The Hour really is. It’s a show about men losing their power to women.
Now then, where have I seen a TV series like that before..?
Bury was a man of discretion and decorum, typical of a generation of men unprepared to yield their feelings to analysis, and quite unwilling to litter the world with themselves. Individuals so confident in their masculinity that they could speak of love between men without shame, collect butterflies and flowers in the dawn, paint watercolours in late morning, discuss poetry in the early afternoon and at dusk still be prepared to assault the German trenches or the flanks of the highest mountain in the world.
I’m thinking about conviction again, inspired by this wonderful paragraph from Wade Davis in Saturday’s Guardian Review. There, it seems to me, is a life lived without irony. And irony seems to be the modern curse, even as it buffers us from the hardships of 21st century economic meltdown.
The New York Times got serious about irony last week, taking potshots at ‘the hipster’ along the way. I have fewer problems with hipsters than most - until recent times they drove our culture, for better or worse. But I found myself agreeing that something has been lost since the ’90s, when irony first felt fresh again. Now it seems to be about lack of conviction, or perhaps the shying away from any outward show of seriousness (or the unfunny).
The flipside of this is consensus: what happens when everyone take the same ironic view on everything. Owen Jones attacked the cosy consensus of our current political class in the Independent yesterday: this sort of thing, though hardly bitingly insightful, can’t be said enough. If only to kill off the career of the execrable David Miliband (he’s what happens when the only bets you don’t hedge are the ones you place on your speaking fees.)
There is a huge disconnect, it seems to me, between the distancing irony of the hipster and the safe fence-sitting of our politicians on the one hand - and a growing mainstream need for passion (however shifting), truths (however hokey) and emotion (however overblown). It’s everywhere: 50 Shades, Twilight, The Hunger Games, Baumgartner’s Space Jump, our Olympic heroes. People want conviction, and they’re getting it where they can, crowning some unusual cultural heroes in the process.
“The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full passionate intensity”. Starting to wonder if Yeats’ line might need reversing.
A common response from atheists, in the face of this sort of nonsense, is to go for the “what year is this??” angle - Dan Hodges in the Telegraph today offers a great example. They think it’s a good approach, this idea that religion will wither in the face of scientific advancement, that believers just need to open their eyes to the facts.
Of course that’s not going to work. Religious faith is drawn from a really simple, compelling, familiar story. The story the scientists tell is complicated, evolving, often in dispute even when based on cast-iron principles. If you’re in need of simple guidance or reassurance in your life, you’re likely to opt for the man in the sky with the ten basic rules. I’m sure there are many forward-thinking people out there, who fully agree that the Earth is a lot older than the Bible says and are sincerely excited at the discoveries being made by, for example, the Large Hadron Collider, who still have a place for God in their hearts.
Church leaders have spent 2000 years complicating this story, of course, to bring them power and control. The guys in robes are more difficult to argue with than the faithful flock, which is why atheists tend to aim at the latter. I’ve yet to see an atheist argument that could really rock the convictions of a bishop.
I say all this as someone who dearly hopes religious influence on the affairs of our modern society will one day dwindle to nothing. But I don’t expect, or want, people to have to stop believing for that to happen.
Watching the latest Rolling Stones doc at the weekend, I was intrigued to see how much or how little they made of Brian Jones’s contribution. The footage they dug up of him doing variations on his justly legendary nanker face was, it must be said, impressive. But he was more than a funny footnote. Jones was a conundrum: the nasty aggressor who added great sweetness to the band’s sound, the dedicated blues obsessive who was vital to their initial triumph as a pop group, the leader who took a backseat.
Between The Buttons-era Stones is probably my favourite phase of the band, and it’s mainly down to the colour Jones adds - that recorder melody on Ruby Tuesday, that sinister sitar line on Paint It, Black. With Jones, the Stones were wonderfully anything-goes - and funny, too. Without him, they became locked in a compelling, but largely unchanging, groove.
Jones was pretty much done by the time the band released Satantic Majesties, the last Stones album that tried anything new. From Beggars Banquet onwards, it was Mick’n’Keef’s operation - and while they led the group to the heights of Sticky Fingers and Exile, the two of them never again captured what they had when Jones was alive.
In many ways, Jones was a perfect emblem of the ’60s. And Mick’n’Keef were, in the end, ’70s men at heart.