How I Learned To Stop Worrying & Love The Hour

After a wobbly start, The Hour is shaping up well. But how does it fare in contrast to US series such as Mad Men, asks Adrian Lobb

On first hearing about The Hour, I felt quietly confident it would be the best thing since Our Friends in the North. Or State of Play at the very least. The stylish trailers, extensively aired across all BBC channels, only added to the sense of anticipation.

Heck, with the resurgence of original drama on the BBC2 in the wake of The Shadow Line, Eric and Ernie and The Night Watch, I was getting proper carried away. This was to be the series that confirmed a new golden age of British television drama.

All the key pointers suggested a classic. The writing? Well, in C4’s Sex Traffic and BBC2’s White Girl, Abi Morgan has scripted two of the better, more challenging television dramas of recent years.

The acting? Ben Whishaw is one of the finest actors to have sprung from these shores in decades, while Dominic West is rarely less than a charming on-screen presence and Romola Garai showed a surprising emotional range in The Crimson Petal and the White (another BBC2 success). And that was before I’d seen Julian Rhind-Tutt’s superbly sinister performance as Prime Minister Eden’s Mr Fix-It, Angus McCain.

The story? The Hour purports to guide us through the birth of modern television news. In the opening line of the series, Freddie Lyon (Whishaw) declares that "the newsreels are dead", and we are invited along to witness a fictionalised account of the revolution in news reporting that occurred in the mid-50s – from now on, the news will not merely fall into line behind the government of the day, reinforce the status quo.

How could The Hour fail to be enthralling, exciting, entertaining?

For the first two episodes, I feared my wild optimism was misplaced. This was not the series I’d been longing for. Sure it looked great and the central premise remains filled with potential, but too many storylines, a seemingly needless murder mystery, the lack of character development and the oddly disjointed pacing of episodes held it back.

Where were the vibrant, forward-thinking women and men of the newsroom shedding light on the big stories, with Bel showing the skills that have allowed her to buck the trend and rise to such a senior position despite her youth and the lack of opportunities for women? Why exactly was Freddie considered so indispensable despite behaving like a stroppy child, constantly undermining his boss and going as far as to deliberately sabotage one of Hector’s live interviews?

Ironically, it was by taking the three main characters away from the newsroom in episode three – on a trip to Hector’s in-laws’ country pile – that we were finally able to get to know them properly. The scene that convinced me that The Hour would, eventually, come close to living up to my expectations featured no major plot development. Instead, it was Freddie and Bel brushing their teeth together and giggling.

This brief retreat to childishness and innocence, just as things are getting serious – Bel’s lovelife is taking a complicated turn and Freddie is being followed by The Man for continuing to investigate Ruth Elms’ murder – showcases the generation gap at the heart of the series. These post-war youngsters reveling in their freedom, predicting the more carefree 60s, tells us more about the new generation than any number of Freddie’s set-piece speeches in the workplace.

Now we’re midway through the series, let’s look again at the idea of The Hour as a British Mad Men. Well, the fact that we hit the halfway point after just three episodes tells us that any comparisons are ultimately futile. There is no time, more’s the pity, in most British drama series to linger longer on character development – British TV drama eats plot, moving stories along at a pace unnecessary in the big US series.

Hence the murder mystery element, which, at first appeared tacked on to expand the show’s appeal – but is beginning to gel with the wider story. However, despite the BBC’s consistent rebuttals, there are enough parallels to make a case.

Hector Madden has elements of Don Draper about him. A smooth-talking, debonair, married lothario straddling two distinct ages; a man about to be out of time, struggling to remain relevant as a younger, hipper, more forward-thinking generation begins to assert itself.

Garai’s first sashay towards the camera as Bel Rowley was surely a nod to Joan Holloway. Certainly, as in Mad Men, no other character’s movements are lingered over in the same way.

And while the teaser for episode four suggests that Bel’s struggle as a woman in a man’s world may yet mirror those of Peggy Olsen, she fits in with the establishment in a way that Freddie is unable to.

His working class background – painted with such broad strokes at every opportunity, from the blast of Lord Kitchener’s ‘My Landlady’ in episode one, to his failure to dress for dinner in the most recent episode – excludes him, making The Hour driven by rifts within the British class system, just as Mad Men lays bare the gender politics of 1960s America.

What The Hour doesn’t have is the time and money to build its story so slowly and carefully. If Mad Men can be like watching paint dry, it is, at least, akin to gazing at an enormous Mark Rothko from the comfort of your favourite armchair, quietly supping on a never-ending cocktail, and smoking a Lucky Strike.

Three episodes is not long to fall in love with a new drama. Mad Men, The Wire, all the modern greats – none entirely gripped from episode one. We need to be invested in the characters before we can care about how they negotiate events. The difficulty in modern British drama is to get to this position almost instantly, as the likelihood of being given more than six or seven episodes to expand on the story is virtually nil.

The Hour has sucked me in. It is exactly what I want from a BBC2 drama – beautifully acted and shot, politically enlightening, shining a light on a fascinating period in history, and all with the potential to run and run. The idea of watching Bel and Freddie plotting their way through the BBC hierarchy – with or without Hector – launching some fictional That Was The Week That Was equivalent, reporting on key events in the 1960s is entirely enticing.

This cast won’t hang around while the BBC decision-making department cranks into action. So here’s hoping for an announcement of a second series soon – and in the meantime, may the resurgence in British drama continue…

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