It wasn’t Mad Men. It was never going to be Mad Men. And I can’t help feeling that if the link had never been made, The Hour would have been celebrated for its own brilliance rather than losing out to an American series it was never intended to resemble. But as with the recent, outstanding crime drama Zen, if you were prepared to ignore a broadly dismissive critical reaction, you were in for a treat.
The Hour was certainly a drama of compare and contrast. Now: round-the-clock broadcasting, phone-hacking, Twitter, the mobile phone in the hand of a bystander who captures the pictures that make the front page. Then: a small team of Oxbridge graduates, often acquainted through education and class with the very people they were employed to report upon, working for the widely revered, unassailable BBC.
Writer Abi Morgan portrayed this not-so-distant landscape as one dominated by impeccably suited Whitehall men who quietly sought to control the news media over dinner at members only clubs. This was the era of scrupulously polite conversation, orders to obey delivered with utmost courtesy but subtle threat.
Julian Rhind-Tutt took charge of the establishment theme and played it at perfect pitch as Anthony Eden’s power-hungry press secretary, Angus McCain. Chin always slightly forward, mouth tight, eyes barely visible behind hideous 1950s glasses (a special round of applause to whoever selected those), his rigid frame sporadically enlivened by a jerky little twist of the neck, he was a model of upper-middle-class repression.
The energy of change, hinting at sexual revolution to come, arrived in the elegantly contoured form of Romola Garai as journalist Bel Rowley. Appointed producer of The Hour, Bel was crushed to learn that her bosses had thought a woman would be an “easy steer”. Didn’t we cheer when she proved them wrong.
Bel had brains and ambition, but she was also a woman of her time, sexually attracted to troubled, working-class reporter Freddie (Ben Whishaw) but somehow more at ease, even though he was married, in an affair with The Hour’s public school presenter, Hector Madden (Dominic West). It was a love triangle bent into shape by class consciousness and depicted with comedy and tenderness.
The MI6/Suez storyline was gripping but a plethora of fascinating subplots gave the series weight. Anna Chancellor as seen-it-all war correspondent Lix Storm seduced us with her aura of daring and sexual ambiguity, then gave us a shock by sleeping with geeky Freddie.
Chubby-cheeked Joshua McGuire as aspiring office junior Isaac was young, ordinary, eager and definitely bottom of the pile. Isaac spent the series being either ignored or told his work was boring. Meritocracy was still in its infancy at the BBC.
The Hour didn’t get the write-ups it deserved but for me it stands out as one of this year’s most entertaining and original dramas. I’ve fallen for the characters, the mood and that cheesy jazz theme. The good news is Abi Morgan is reported to be working on series two.