Our London correspondent has had a busy year. There has been some truly splendid new TV series on offer in Britain containing thrills, spills, scandals, sex, naked ambition, spies, murder, corruption, self righteousness and rebellion.
None have been more enjoyable or rewarding as The Hour, a stylish new British drama about journalism during the 1950’s. From satirical shifting sexual mores to social concerns, from Soviet spies to MI6 assassins, The Hour created and written by Abi Morgan definitely needed another 30 minutes each episode to successfully resolve its many and varied issues. This splendid six episode series for BBC 2 is set during the period of the Suez Canal crisis of 1956. The decade after the end of the war the 50’s in Britain was often dramatic, definitely scary, as well as sometimes traumatic. Rationing was still happening to an extent and bombed out buildings all over London were being bulldozed to make way for the new. Communism was a threat to democracy and conspiracy theories abounded. A lot of likely men in double breasted pin striped suits lurked about on street corners wearing hats that ensured they looked like they could not be trusted.
The Hour has a sensational cast of young British dramatic actors, who are teamed up with some great oldies and goodies. They all give sterling performances in a series that has a definite style and intelligence of its own. From time to time however it does seem Bafta award winning writer Abi Morgan is struggling word wise with the complexities of a plot she herself has devised. Each time it becomes bogged down in dizzying linguistic anachronisms or twining twists and turns it is the actors and their erudite convincing and completely believable characterizations that save the day. You get very attached to them all over the six-week series, simply because they remind you so much of your own totally dysfunctional family.
Ben Whishaw, Dominic West, Romola Garai, Anna Chancellor and Anton Lesser lead a very formidable acting team. Out on the streets the evocation of the bleak bomb, pea soup fog ridden war recovering riot torn London is clearly and well defined. Aesthetically the series has that wonderful look of grey pallor with just a flash of colour, which existed in the decade or so following World War II. Confidence had yet to fully return to economic markets, but it was rising rapidly. Scenes of reporters on the streets trying to film civil unrest, riots, protests and protesters show us just how they had to learn to manage new technology. There are inordinately long leads on huge microphones. In the background unwieldy cameras are hoisted onto the sagging shoulders of a photographer, whose job was to shoot events as they happened in often perilous places and under terrible conditions.
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This is the era that spawned reporting the news on the hour from a dangerous location live. Many a journalist laid their life on the line, while some also lost it. Live news footage is used to great effect in black and white on those tiny television ‘boxes’ whole families clamoured to be around. They remind us constantly of just how far we have come, via technology in only fifty short years.
Actor Ben Whishaw who shone in a remake of Brideshead Revisited in 2008, is the idealistic reporter, and would be if he could be television presenter Freddie Lyon. This young man is a seriously good actor. Let’s hope he continues to get meaty substantial roles. His fine performance as the idealistic Freddie, who was a child evacuee from London during the war staying in the dysfunctional household of a British Lord as you do, is both sensitive and suitably sneering. He also looks pale and undernourished, as so many children who had grown up existing on wartime rations did. His full on hairstyle only serves to highlight the fineness of the flesh that covers his high cheekbones and sets off his flashing and expressive eyes.
Young Freddie is full of rebellious fire, well educated, a thinker wanting to go beyond a socialist square. He is stymied by others, as well as he himself in so many ways. The marvelous line he delivers “Martial law may have been imposed in Poland, and we have footage of Prince Rainier on honeymoon with his showgirl.” reveals that nothing has really changed in the world of journalism.
Freddie while trying to keep up with his own active conspiracy theory, is also in a three-way love triangle with his very strong, sexy producer Bel Rowley played beautifully by Romola Garai and the anchor-man of The Hour Hector Madden, played by the charming handsome heavyweight Dominic West. Bel is Freddie’s best friend, protector and confidant and they are all given the job of helping create a daring new program of current affairs, The Hour.
Being a woman in the BBC presents the feisty Bel who has a booze dependent mother with many difficulties and challenges, including those delivered by her repressed but quite brilliant boss Clarence (Anton Lesser). He champions both her ambition and production skills and his hidden agenda is not revealed until the final minutes of the sixth and final episode of the hour, although not before he has turned in as fine and understated an acting performance as you would ever hope to see on television.
Bel has a fabulous full figured shape, which is shown off to great advantage by the period’s stays and form fitting dresses. Her healthy rotundness often serves to only further highlight her friend Freddie’s slight and sensitive fragility. When they are together on screen they light it up with such illumination at times it feels almost blinding. Apparently good friends in real life, their relaxed, it feels right relationship with its full on eye-to-eye contact, reduced repartee and catty candour is completely mesmerizing.
On the other hand Bel and the handsome Hector also ramp up their passion and the sexual tension between them to often very high levels of questionable decency, especially in those conservative corridors of the power at the BBC. Its a bit like discovering a woman is wearing a flaming red slinky satin petticoat under her very severe little black dress.
While Britain may have been giving an outward impression at the time of being the land of the free and the brave its apparent early on just how wrong that impression is. Its class system is under full on attack, as are its outmoded policies at home and abroad. Both studio and Government heavyweights are always interfering with the news, even as it is put to air. It is censorship by intimidation, which is very real and threatening, especially when Lord Elm’s daughter and Freddie’s childhood playmate is murdered ostensibly by the government secret agency MI6.
Everyone is affected by the tensions leading up to producing The Hour each week, including Bel’s behind the scenes team all of whom are wonderful character actors. Their performances outstandingly support the leads. Julian Rhind-Tutt is one. He plays an upper class snob media adviser to the ailing Prime Minister Sir Anthony Eden so well that the power of his toffee nose performance brings bile billowing to the surface of your throat just about every time he appears. He has you both squirming in your seat and wanting to jump out of it to punch him squarely on the nose, such is its intensity.
The issues of class simmer relentlessly below the surface of this period piece, as it is assaulted from all sides. In news we see reported from America President Dwight D Eisenhower is urging decolonisation, while at home a new generation is angrily challenging the old British system wanting to wheel in a new one. It’s a Britain hampered by the weight of a past that seems to be stopping it from planning its future effectively, rather than inspiring it.
Women in England, Europe and America and to a lesser extent in Australia gained a measure of independence working while their men were away at war. In this way they helped the young men driving the paradigm shift that came after the war to succeed.
They did not want to be returned or relegated to their previous role of being chained to a kitchen sink. Women who worked were socially ostracized by their peers at this time and often lived very lonely lives in order to secure freedom for other women in the future.
Visits to the country estate where Freddie stayed as a child evacuee from London show off well the fading grandeur of the English privileged classes. This is a time when Lords and Ladies were forced to live in a just a few rooms of their vast piles to preserve them at all costs. Some succeeded where others failed.
Those who survived rode their bicycles to the village, steamed the stamps of letters to re-use them and did everything possible to preserve their heritage. Finding the money to restore their houses to their former glory would take the advent of tourists, which did not happen until two to three more decades into the future. But, battening down the hatches and survival is a trademark of the British character honed well over centuries of being threatened by European dictators and potentates. This is well revealed by Lord and Lady Elms played so effectively by a tenacious Tim Piggot-Smith and a marvellous Juliet Stevenson.
Oona Chaplin is quite simply stunning in her cameo role as the wronged wife of The Hour’s presenter. You can’t help admiring her plucky beautifully presented character. She oh so stylishly confronts Hector’s mistress Bel and demands she return him home and to her waiting arms. The fact that her father is influential on the board of the BBC helps both Bel and Hector make their choices.
Anna Chancellor as Lix Storm, Bel and Freddie’s colleague in charge of foreign news also delivers an outstanding supporting performance. Lix survives on a diet of cigarettes and Whisky. She manages to indulge in a social taboo, having a toss in the hay with a colleague without seemingly affecting their ongoing working relationship.
Since it has finished airing a recommissioning of a second series has been announced. Ben Stephenson, Controller at BBC Drama Commissioning, says: “The Hour recommission…will allow the team to build on the characters and their relationships against the exciting backdrop of their workplace.” Jane Featherstone Creative Director and Executive Producer at Kudos Film and Television, says “In series two of The Hour we are going to find out what happens next in the lives of our news team, as they engage with a new year full of old flames, new loves, thrilling stories and plenty of scandal. Taking us even deeper into our characters’ lives and engaging the viewers with its energy, wit and story, we’re (excited) to bits to be able to keep (that) world alive”.
Long ago the British turned bitching and brooding about a loss of Empire into an art form. This television series only serves to cement that view. Despite plot flaws and period overlays you will be left wondering at the end what would happen if there were only just a few more minutes in each episode of BBC 2’s drama The Hour.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle 2011
BBC 2’s The Hour
Produced by Kudos Film and Television and BBC America for the BBC. Distributed by Shine International. Created and written by Abi Morgan; Ms. Morgan, Jane Featherstone, Derek Wax and Lucy Richer, executive producers; Eve Stewart, production designer.
WITH: Dominic West (Hector Madden), Romola Garai (Bel Rowley), Ben Whishaw (Freddie Lyon), Anton Lesser (Clarence Fendley), Julian Rhind-Tutt (Angus McCain), Anna Chancellor (Lix Storm), Joshua McGuire (Isaac Wengrow), Lisa Greenwood (Sissy Cooper), Oona Chaplin (Marnie Madden), Ken Bones (Wallace Sherwin), John Bowe (Douglas Owen), Vanessa Kirby (Ruth Elms), Tim Pigott-Smith (Lord Elms) and Juliet Stevenson (Lady Elms).