Welcome to the Halcyon, an opulent art deco temple to high living smack in the middle of London’s West End. The jazz is hot (courtesy of songs written by Jamie Cullum), the cocktails are flowing and the privileged few are having one hell of a ball.
But the year is 1940 and that strange time known as the “phoney war” is about to end. Churchill is coming to power; Dunkirk lies just ahead; and beyond that the Battle of Britain and the Blitz. The Halcyon, like Britain, is still intact – but for how long?
Using a hotel as a metaphor for the state of the nation is an old television dramatists’ trick: Stephen Poliakoff did it just recently with Close to the Enemy. Like stately homes, grand hotels allow the upper classes to mix in very close proximity to the lower orders – with all the potential for drama that unleashes.
And, usefully for The Halcyon writer Charlotte Jones (creator of Anna Friel drama Without You), hotels have ballrooms and bedrooms to be bad in. So it’s no surprise that ITV is hoping The Halcyon will easily find its place in that Upstairs Downstairs/Downton Abbey tradition of Sunday night drama.
This time, instead of the Earl of Grantham and Carson, we have hotel owner Lord Hamilton (Alex Jennings) and his general manager Richard Garland, played by Steven Mackintosh (Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Luther, and one of Britain’s busiest documentary narrators).
It is Mackintosh’s Garland, the man who knows all that happens at the Halcyon, who carries the eight-part series. But “it’s not just the Garland show,” he says. “The hotel itself is the leading character.” To hammer home the link with Downton, the Halcyon is owned by an aristocratic family that is riven by intrigue and feud, as all aristocratic families must be on British television.
This is fuelled, in large part, by Lord Hamilton’s alcoholic fascist mistress’s (Charity Wakefield) habit of bumping into Lady Hamilton – a neurotically imperious performance from Olivia Williams – at breakfast.
Poliakoff’s hotel in Close to the Enemy was in a bomb-shattered post-war London. The Halcyon takes us back to the beginning of the conflict we still define ourselves by and which has particular poignancy for Mackintosh.
“My grandfather died in a prisoner-of-war camp in Burma,” he says. “So my mother didn’t really get to know her father and I do think those things travel through the generations. But there is also something incredibly evocative about that period of time.
“We are always told about the English spirit, the ‘keep calm and carry on’ spirit. That sense of coming together to defy the enemy. I think, along with many other people, I would like to believe in that. Particularly now in a time when the world does feel quite divided.”
That may be so but, as Jones’s nuanced plot makes clear, our modern view of the Second World War as a straightforward narrative of good versus evil, “our finest hour”, is misleading.
In 1940 there were many fascist sympathisers among the upper classes and right-wing press who, like Lord Hamilton in The Halcyon, were more worried about the British working class and the threat of Soviet communism than they were about Nazism.
As we see in episode one, they actively plotted to make peace with Hitler. Likewise, it is only with hindsight that Churchill emerges as a national hero. When he came to power, after a broken and discredited Neville Chamberlain resigned, Churchill was seen by many as a political chancer with a blood lust for wars that other, younger, men will have to fight.
“But that’s what drew me to The Halcyon,” says Mackintosh. “That juxtaposition of the glamorous opulence of the hotel with that beginning of an uncertain period of the war and the perils that were about to come.”