The Hour has a head start on most TV dramas. Not because it’s a heavily promoted part of BBC2’s revitalised slate of British originals, not because of its wish list cast (Dominic West, Romola Garai, Ben Whishaw, Anna Chancellor, Julian Rhind-Tutt, many others), and not because it’s written by Abi Morgan, acclaimed author of Sex Traffic and Royal Wedding.
Well, none of those things hurt. But really, it’s the subject matter and the setting. The Hour is about the birth of a pioneering BBC TV current affairs programme in 1956. I don’t know about you, but they had me right there.
The stuffy, Bakelite BBC is modernising, at tectonic speed, as the wartime necessity of not questioning politicians starts to fade. Thrusting young journalists are trying to push it along by utilising new technology, annoying their elitist elders and looking super in shift dresses and pinstripes.
Brandy, Brylcreem, cigars and classic cars: it’s a bit more immediately appealing than, say, a series about families in a present-day suburban cul-de-sac.
A very modern scandal
Morgan could have been content to simply dramatise the above, while ticking off big events that now drip with hindsighty irony, such as the Suez crisis. As it is, she’s given prominence to a romantic triangle between the presenter, producer and star reporter of The Hour, as the show within the show is called. She’s also thrown in a murder sub-plot with overtones of evildoing by the state.
This latter addition is a bit of an accidental masterstroke. At a time when the country is concerned as never before with the media, police and government operating according to their own secret, twisted protocol, the killing at the start of The Hour’s opening episode heavily underlines the theme of honest investigative journalism struggling against dark forces.
“Do we live in a democracy, or under the illusion of one?” says Tim Pigott-Smith as a weary peer caught up in these machinations. Clearly Morgan’s script would have predated Hackgate, so the resonance is fortunate, but it’s still satisfying.
The 1950s’ fictional answer to Nick Davies is Freddie Lyon, The Hour’s home affairs man. Petulant, arrogant, childish and brilliant, he’s fully inhabited by the excellent Ben Whishaw, who aces a key speech where Lyon passionately makes the case for irreverent reporting. Whishaw, whose swirling hair alone is Bafta-worthy, makes Lyon unbearable but irresistible.
That’s how he’s seen by young female producer, Bel Rowley (Garai). Rowley and Lyon are soulmates in denial, constantly trading insults, spite and sudden, touchingly awkward compliments. While Rowley’s not initially as arresting as Garai’s blazing turn in The Crimson Petal and the White (she never once urinates into a bowl without warning, for example), she’s a fine creation: scared but determined, aware that she’s pushing at the limits of what’s permissible for a news programme to cover, and what’s permissible for someone of her experience and gender to achieve in the workplace, but pressing on anyway.
In the middle is Hector Madden, the posh beefcake who’s beaten Lyon to the presenter’s job and might nick Rowley off him as well. Hector
’s not conventionally intelligent, but not quite as insensitive as he seems.
If you’re thinking these central characters sound too familiar, no matter how well played they are and how gorgeous the rainy streets and rich, oak-panelled rooms they inhabit are – you’re right. This is The Hour’s big flaw: for all its aesthetic and thematic advantages, the dramatic nuts and bolts creak.
In episode one, for example, we get the aged, always unconvincing device of one character never quite telling another something he needs to know despite scores of opportunities, because the plot demands that he not know. We get Rowley meeting Madden and disliking him, then – uh-oh! - finding out he’s her new colleague.
What’s more, despite there being a lot going on, The Hour lacks momentum and urgency, particularly the first episode, which has the tricky job of setting everything up. Writing fluent establishing episodes is never easy, but The Hour’s opener relies too much on speechified dialogue, awkwardly informing us of things we need to know.
Perhaps it’s The Hour’s shadowy, muted take on the period, seeping into the drama itself. Perhaps Morgan, presented with this lovely expensive train set, was afraid of breaking it with surprising characters and has played safe with archetypes. Either way, The Hour is oddly leaden-footed.
To an extent, though, that doesn’t matter. Whishaw and Garai are addictively winsome – that will they/won’t they relationship is a cliché because it works. The prestige supporting cast is full of jewels, from Burn Gorman’s ghostly, blank-faced assassin to Anton Lesser as the owlish executive who indulges this journalistic new wave.
And when a story breaks or the red “live” light goes on, you want to know how it’ll turn out. You want our reckless young friends to win. You want to be there, in 1956 in the rain, looking super in a shift dress.