Dramatic, urgent and intriguing: BBC1’s This Town reviewed

After conquering the world with Peaky Blinders (and before that by co-creating Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?), Steven Knight was last seen on British television giving us his frankly deranged adaptation of Great Expectations. Happily, he’s now returned to form with a show that, while not a retread exactly, is definitely Peaky-adjacent. In This Town we’re back in a Birmingham – this time in the 1980s – that’s rundown, riven, violent and soul-stifling, yet that Knight presents with unmistakable love. Nor, once again, is there any escaping the overwhelming power of the family as a blessing and a curse. There’s also the same combination of apparent social realism with

Will the collapse of councils be the next great scandal?

Last month India managed to land a spacecraft on the moon for a third of the price of refurbishing Hammersmith Bridge. This startling fact captures both New Delhi’s efficiency and the staggering incompetence of our local councils. It took two years and £9 million (in real terms) to build the bridge. It is set to cost almost £200 million to spruce it up and the work may not be complete until 2030. Hammersmith Bridge has become the perfect metaphor for what’s gone wrong with government: the carelessness, inertia and lack of concern for public money that is rife across the country. The bill for doing up Croydon council’s headquarters was

Letters: Why we obeyed lockdown

Why we allowed it Sir: In her article ‘Why didn’t more people resist lockdown?’ (3 September), Lionel Shriver partially answers her own question. Priti Patel told us it was our public duty to shop our neighbours if they had three friends to tea, and our previously invisible police force started to patrol parks and beaches with unprecedented vigour, with a threat of £1,000 fines for malfeasance. There was no eagerness, but the public were glued to the nightly broadcasts from No. 10, where the PM told us we would be little better than murderers if we didn’t obey the diktats. The fear all this created is still evident as I

A bleeding, inch-thick hunk of verismo sirloin: Royal Opera’s Cav and Pag reviewed

One legacy of lockdown in the classical music world has been the sheer length of the 21-22 season. In a typical year, most orchestras and urban opera companies would be winding down by mid-May. Not this time: after two years of postponements, and with lost income to recoup, seasons are stretching out like the finale of Dvorak’s Cello Concerto. Rumour maintains that audiences are being stretched too thinly, and although it’d be naive to infer anything fundamental from a smattering of vacant seats, it did feel surprising to see empty patches for the first night of the Royal Opera’s Cav and Pag. Absent Kaufmaniacs, disappointed by Jonas’s latest no-show? (He

Stop tearing down controversial statues, says British-Guyanan artist Hew Locke

When Hew Locke was growing up in Guyana, he would pass by the statue of Queen Victoria in front of Georgetown’s law courts. Henry Richard Hope-Pinker’s 1894 statue had been commissioned to mark the monarch’s golden jubilee, but not long after Guyana became independent from British rule in 1970, the statue was beheaded and the remains thrown into bushes in the botanical gardens. ‘I remember being shocked that such a sacrilegious thing could happen,’ says the Edinburgh-born, Guyana-raised, London-based 62-year-old artist. ‘It set me thinking about what public statues are for. Who are these people? How come we pass by them without noticing every day?’ Half a century later and

Why did the BBC bury this detail about a homophobic attack?

In the last decade or so, a sinister group of individuals from a range of organisations have spent their energies trying to rein in the free press. Specifically they try to stop the reporting of stories that might portray any follower of Islam in a negative light. So, for instance, when someone goes full ‘Allahu Akbar’ during an attack, the press is likely to report the fact and conclude that the attacker might have been inspired by a certain religion. At which point the army of anti-media mujahideen get to work to complain to Ofcom, Ipso and whatever other regulators they can find. In time, their work has an effect.

Is Covid really to blame for HS2’s runaway costs?

Covid has doomed the public finances — not just because the cost of mitigating it has been high in itself but because it has normalised high public spending. When you have just allocated £37 billion to Test and Trace and spend £54 billion on the furlough scheme, a £106 billion high-speed railway to Manchester and Leeds looks relatively good value — at least taxpayers will have something lasting for their money. And who would even notice if the budget for that railway quietly crept up by a further £1.7 billion? That is exactly what has happened today. The construction costs of the first phase of the railway, from London to

Revelatory and grubby: Framing Britney Spears reviewed

The most headline-grabbing of these three pop docs was Framing Britney Spears, part of the New York Times Presents documentary series, and a bit of a worldwide sensation. It was both revelatory and grubby. As many have noted, the footage of interviews with Spears as a prepubescent and teenager was so deeply unpleasant, so unrelentingly sexual, that it seemed to come not from 20 years ago, but from Neanderthal times. The simple accumulation of the public record was horrifying. No wonder people such as Jimmy Savile were able to thrive. If television interviewers could ask a teenage girl about her breasts, about whether she was having sex, then is it

‘Where I grew up, classical music was diversity’: an interview with conductor Alpesh Chauhan

The first time Alpesh Chauhan conducted Birmingham Opera Company, he was surrounded by rats: six-foot tall rats, singing Shostakovich at the top of their voices. There were singing cops, too, and a marching band wearing bloodstained wedding dresses, and this was all happening in a derelict Edgbaston dance hall best known as a location for the 1980s Central TV drama Boon. Well, of course it was. BOC is the company that staged Mussorgsky in a circus tent and Stockhausen in an abandoned chemical warehouse; its whole point is to upend traditional assumptions about opera. The big difference in its production last year of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk came from the

Until he discovered pop music, life was all Greek to Pete Paphides

Pop music has always been, to those who love it, to some degree tribal or factional; fans like to carve out their own space. If you like X you can’t like Y. Punk and post-punk sharpened the divisions. I couldn’t stand Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity for a number of reasons, but it wasn’t helped by its older-brother’s snotty dismissal of pretty much everything that came after 1977, unless it was the latest record by some dinosaur which punk’s meteorite had somehow failed to wipe out. The film was much, much better in this respect. Pete Paphides, born in 1969, had an older brother, called Aki: and Aki’s tastes are much

The wrong track | 7 February 2019

No one is in any doubt about the problem facing Britain’s railways. Over the past decade, rail fares have risen twice as fast as salaries. Yet across the national network, overcrowding is at record levels, cancellations are spiralling and passenger dissatisfaction is at a ten-year high. Yet ministers are about to start pouring £4.5 billion a year, every year for a decade, into building a single new railway route: HS2. To put this into perspective, the amount annually maintaining and upgrading the rest of the rail network is £6 billion. It’s a trap that we can, even now, avoid. Much has changed since the scheme was launched in 2010. Official

Introducing the Labour representative for Small Heath: councillor who claimed Isis doesn’t exist

The Conservatives better-than-expected election result has been dampened somewhat by CCHQ’s decision to reinstate a councillor suspended for comparing an Asian man with a dog last June in order to take control of Pendle council. Labour have been quick to go on the attack – accusing the Tories of abandoning decency in favour of a power grab. However, Labour don’t have the monopoly on outrage over elected councillors. While the party failed to get the landslide it had hoped, there was one particular cause for celebration in Birmingham: Safia Alif Noor Akhtar, the party’s candidate in Birmingham Small Heath, ‘waltz[ed] to victory’ in the words of the local paper. Mr S

Around the horn

The concert began with a flourish and a honk. Well, of course it did. Telemann wrote his last Ouverture-Suite in F major for the Landgrave of Darmstadt. The Landgrave loved hunting, and in the 18th century hunting meant horns. And horns mean honks. If you’ve ever played the horn — applied 12 feet of coiled metal tube to your face and tried, through a combination of lip muscles and willpower, to make the damn thing sing — you’ll know that no amount of hoping, praying or practice can prevent the occasional squawk. The two excellent players in Florilegium’s concert at St John’s Smith Square, moreover, were using 18th century-style horns

Scottish power

‘Perhaps in this world nothing ever happens without purpose,’ sings old, blind King Arkel in Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, and that at least is something to hold on to. God knows, you need it. Peel away the fairy-tale trappings of Maeterlinck’s original play, and the world of this opera is profoundly cruel. Its characters are often passive observers of their own fate (Pelléas admits before his final scene that he’s never yet returned his beloved Mélisande’s gaze). And yet Debussy pretty much compels you to feel for them, in a score of all-but-unbearable tenderness and beauty. It’s only once you’ve left the theatre that, wrestling with the pieces of this

Will Theresa May’s grammars undermine David Cameron’s free schools?

Grammar schools remain one of the most highly-charged issues in domestic politics. There is bound to be controversy about how to boost social mobility and educational standards. But grammar schools bring to the surface other deep undercurrents as well. Were things better in the 1950s? What was Margaret Thatcher’s role in closing so many of them and did she want to see them brought back? Does the call for more grammar schools represent the best of authentic politics shaped by our own experiences, or does evidence-based policy making mean going beyond that? And it is where the Conservative Party fights its own version of class war – those who were

Where new is good

On Saturday night, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra makes its first appearance at the BBC Proms under its new music director, the 30-year-old Lithuanian Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla. It’s all a bit sudden. Grazinyte-Tyla only conducted the CBSO for the first time last July, and she’ll have made her debut as official successor to Simon Rattle, Sakari Oramo and Andris Nelsons at Symphony Hall, Birmingham, the previous night. The programme comprises Mozart, Tchaikovsky, and the London premiere of Hans Abrahamsen’s Grawemeyer Award-winning song cycle let me tell you. That’s right, the ‘London premiere’. It says so on the BBC website. Auntie has blessed the venture; the metropolis is poised to give

Goodbye to all that | 12 May 2016

Glimpsing the title of Lynsey Hanley’s absorbing new book as it fell out of the jiffy bag, I found myself thinking of my grandmother, Mrs Lilian Taylor. This lady, who died in 1957, spent the first part of her married life inhabiting a couple of furnished rooms on the western side of Norwich and the second part of it living in a white stucco council house on the newly built Earlham estate. She was an intensely respectable woman, implacably opposed to strong drink and strong language, but of what, materially, did her respectability consist? On the one hand it meant goading my father through the scholarship exam to a place

An inconvenient truth | 14 April 2016

‘Our findings will shock many people,’ promised Trevor Phillips at the beginning of What British Muslims Really Think (Channel 4, Wednesday). But the depressing thing is that I doubt they will, actually. I think the general British public have known for some time what Phillips’s documentary professed to find surprising: that large numbers of Muslims don’t want to integrate, that their views aren’t remotely enlightened, and that more than a few of them sympathise with terrorism. It’s only the establishment elite that has ever pretended otherwise. As former head of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, Phillips was very much part of that elite. He commissioned the 1997 Runnymede report

The kids are all right

In a remote fishing village a lone figure confronts an unexplained death, standing tormented but unbroken against fate, the community and the elements of sea and wind that surge through every note of the score. No, not Peter Grimes: this is Vaughan Williams’s 1932 operatic setting of Synge’s Riders to the Sea. But Vaughan Williams’s operas are undramatic, runs the received wisdom. There were no great British operas between Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas and the premiere of Grimes in 1945, we’re repeatedly told. This student production of Riders to the Sea didn’t just refute those assumptions: it threw them into a riptide and watched them being dragged under and swept

The heavens are falling

The dystopian novel in which a Ballardian deluge or viral illness transforms planet Earth has become something of a sub-genre, and Clare Morrall’s astute and vigorously imagined novel follows on from the best of them, such as Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy and (most recently)Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven and Antonia Honeywell’s The Ship. Intriguingly, the future that Morrall imagines very much resembles the past. Following 50 years of climate catastrophe, and the spread of the population-depleting Hoffman’s disease, the only hope for humanity’s survival is to find ways of ‘living with the weather’, or learning ‘skills that don’t depend on failing technology’. Her heroine, the 22-year-old Roza Polanski, ekes