When Dominic West came home with his hair slicked by 1950s style, wearing an elegant made-to-measure Savile Row suit, his wife did a double take. “I think she found me attractive again,” says the actor, chuckling. He is playing a 1950s TV news presenter in The Hour. “Straight after shooting that I went on to play the serial killer Fred West and she went straight off me.”
The sharp suits and fabulous 1950s silhouettes mean that The Hour has already been dubbed the BBC’s answer to Mad Men. West thinks the comparison is ridiculous. “It’s set in 1956. Britain had just come out of rationing and although the clothes were OK the food was awful. I remember sitting on a set of a 1950s BBC canteen looking up at the menu, and there was spam and pineapple surprise.”
Having watched the first two episodes of The Hour I have to agree. Designed by Eve Stewart, who created the sets for The King’s Speech, it looks fantastic, but rather than the Technicolored consumerism of Mad Men, it feels very film noir, like The Third Man set in London. There is a strong thriller element to it, complete with mysterious figures in trench coats and trilbies, collars turned up, lighting cigarettes in the shadows. In fact the continuous smoking and heavy consumption of martinis is probably where the comparisons with Mad Men end.
For research, West watched old news programmes of Robin Day, Cliff Michelmore and Panorama with Richard Dimbleby, which was launched in the mid-50s and was one of the first TV news programmes to really challenge politicians. “The presenters were very avuncular and ever so slightly patronising,” says West, “but it’s a fascinating period because it marked the end of deference in TV news. They went from doing endless stories about debutantes and the royal family to covering topics like the Suez crisis.”
There is a great scene in the first episode where his character, Hector Madden, dries on air during an interview with a politician while the producer screams in his ear. Having done TV newsreading myself at Channel 4 News and BBC4 I related utterly to the fear in his eyes. He says the scene’s similar to one in the 1987 film Broadcast News (with Holly Hunter as the pushy producer and William Hurt as the vain, vacuous anchorman). Abi Morgan, who wrote The Hour, has cited the film as an influence.
Class tensions loom large in The Hour. There’s an angry young journalist, Freddie Lyon, played by Ben Whishaw, who went to grammar school and thinks he should be in front of the camera instead of West’s character. Hector is a smooth ladies’ man with a sense of entitlement that comes from a background that includes public school, Oxford and being an officer in the Army. He also has the advantage of a wife whose family connections got him the job.
Dominic West does posh well. Famously educated at Eton at the same time as David Cameron, he says his school provided him with an excellent grounding in how to play establishment figures. He comes from a Catholic family in Sheffield and is the fifth in a family of seven children but they were relatively well off. “I based Hector on my father,” he says. “He wasn’t very posh but he was from that generation, went to Ampleforth and Oxford and always wore a suit and tie.”
He laughs when I ask him whether he knew Cameron at Eton – it’s a question that comes up again and again. “I don’t remember him, but I did know Samantha because one of my friends fancied her.” Which is not exactly as the Prime Minister recollects it. “He tried to go out with Samantha once,” Cameron told RT last year. “He fancied Samantha. I won!”
Most actors from West’s background find themselves typecast as posh boys, but he’s still best known for playing a hard-drinking cop from Baltimore in the cult series The Wire. “Being an old Etonian can be a disadvantage in this profession. I would never have got a role like McNulty over here. Without that move to America, I would have been forever typecast.” He tells me that devoted Wire fans are often dismayed to learn that he is an old Etonian, as it crushes the myth.
Without McNulty, however, he probably wouldn’t be playing the serial killer Fred West in an ITV drama to be aired later this year. I suggest that it’s a dangerous role, not just because of the controversy the drama is likely to attract but also because of what getting inside the mind of someone so evil does to your head.
“The production team have found a way of telling this story through the eyes of a social worker who was sent to interview West in prison. I think it’s effective without being sensational in any way.” He also believes it’s an important story to tell. “Thousands of people still go missing in this country every year and are never found. Fred West preyed on runaways without being caught for 25 years. We should not forget this case, because there could be others like him.”
But he does admit to having nightmares about it. “I have this recurring dream where I’m perched on a wall and Fred West is trying to grab me and pull me down.” When I visibly shudder at this image, West adds, “but I didn’t let him get to me. I was determined not to.” Luckily, as soon as the three- week shoot was over, he went straight into rehearsals for his current stage role, in West End comedy Butley.
Meanwhile, he’s keeping his fingers crossed that audiences will like The Hour. “I think they might commission another series, because it’s such a great format. Each series will centre around a news story like the Suez crisis in the first one and then have a thriller element connected to it. I think it will work.”