Stylish Love Triangles, Newsroom Politics, and Murder: An Advance Review of BBC America's Period Drama The Hour
CBS' newsmagazine 60 Minutes represents something tangible and honest to most Americans: an hour of news and opinion that cuts through the news cycle clutter to offer insight and context about the issues of the day. In England, the show's analogue would have been something like Panorama or Tonight, but British journalists at the moment are widely tarnished by a phone hacking and police bribery grand scandal that has to date closed a newspaper, saw the departure of longtime Rupert Murdoch confidante Rebekah Brooks, and brought the media mogul himself before Parliament to answer for the grievous charges against the tabloid newspaper he owned.
In other words: it's not a good time to be a British journalist, with the world watching and waiting. In a quite prescient move, creator Abi Morgan's intoxicating and atmospheric British drama, The Hour, harkens back to the journalist-heroes of such films as All The Presidents' Men and Broadcast News. (It also reminds me, somewhat, of State of Play in some respects.) It's interesting to think back to a time when journalists-as-heroes was quite de rigueur. After all, we're meant to be truth-seekers, to shine a harsh light on corruption and wrong-doing, to punish the mendacious and expose injustice, tyranny, and falsehood. The pursuit of truth is the hero's prerequisite in way: a call to arms, a purpose of being. Who better then to embody that than the hard-working journalists of 1956, amid an era of paranoia and the end of the Empire?
(For my interview with Morgan about The Hour, click here.)
In The Hour, the troika of journalists at the center of Morgan's story--which artfully fuses together workplace romance, political potboiler, and noir-tinged espionage thriller--find themselves enmeshed in a love triangle that can't possibly end well. The Wire's Dominic West (yes, McNulty himself) plays Hector Madden, the face of the BBC's new (fictional) news program, The Hour, a highly polished and charming gentleman (in every sense of the word) who has made the right sort of bargains to end up in the position. His rival, Freddie Lyon (Brideshead Revisited's Ben Whishaw), is a middle-class hothead whose ambition is at odds with his iconoclastic nature. (He wants to be a part of the system while abhorring it.) His would-be paramour is the lovely Bel Rowley (Atonement's Romola Garai, here in pitch-perfect form), a career-driven woman in a man's world who seizes the opportunity to produce her own news show for the BBC, the "hour" of the title.
In the numerous comparisons between The Hour and Mad Men, Bel is typically compared to Elisabeth Moss' Peggy Olsen, but the two--apart from their intelligence, drive, and the desire to shatter the glass ceiling and define themselves outside of societal constructs of the period--aren't all that similar. Bel has a thing for married men, and seemingly for tormenting the lovelorn Freddie. The two exist in a semi-platonic state, Bel chafing against Freddie's insistence on calling her "Moneypenny" (she quickly becomes his boss on the show-within-a-show The Hour) though there are all sorts of mixed signals, even as Bel finds herself drawn to the unhappily married Hector in no uncertain terms.
In their own ways, they're all outsiders.
The Hour could have unfolded with a standard romantic arc, as Freddie pines for Bel, Bel is drawn to Hector, and Hector cheats on his cold wife Marnie, but that's not what The Hour is about. Set against the backdrop of 1956's Suez Canal Crisis, this is a super-charged political plot as well, one with clear parallels to our own times: violence and revolution in the Middle East, rising concerns about Communist powers, phone-tapping and surveillance, and overt paranoia and tension.
Just as the fictional Hour of the title seizes upon the crisis in Egypt to make a name for itself (and cast off the shackles of Parliament's barbaric 14-day policy of journalism silence) and take a stand on an issue, so too does The Hour itself, exploring class, nationalism, and identity through the prism of this historical event and the small moments that define a time period: a weekend visit to a country estate, a cup of tea in the canteen of the BBC's Lime Grove Studios, a tense walk through the Underground, a drunken night out.
The show is also, however, a spy thriller, one that recalls AMC's short-lived Rubicon with its double-crosses, encoded clues contained within newspapers, and shadowy operatives. But while Rubicon harkened back to 1970s thrillers like The Conversation, The Hour's espionage plot is a mix of 1950s B movies, Sir Ian Fleming's James Bond novels, and the noir of the previous decade. It's also, at times, a bit of pastiche, as seen from the terrible play within the show, "The Man Who Knew" an over the top bit of theatrics that both enhances and sends up the spy plot contained within The Hour.
For Freddie, the stakes are not only high here, but the espionage arc is also deeply personal, as he has a connection to several of the major players. As the bodies start piling up (two within the first episode, in fact), secrets slowly start easing their way from the shadows and into the light. Secrets that are both personal (Freddie's past) and political (Soviet agents?), in fact. Burn Gorman (Torchwood, Bleak House) is at his menacing best here, portraying the enigmatic Thomas Kish, a man with far too many secrets and a glinting knife's edge of anger.
The Hour takes its time with its espionage plot, laying out clues and hints throughout the first few episodes, keeping it on the backburner for now, though it threatens to explode at any moment. (Particularly, within the third episode.) Morgan deftly juggles multiple plots, tones, and styles within the first four hours (provided to press for preview), her characters springing to life with vivacity and wit.
Garai's performance is exhilarating, particularly seeing her go toe-to-toe with West; the screen crackles with intensity every time they look at one another. Whishaw is the show's moral center, a man determined to see the truth, no matter the personal cost; he's equally strong and frail at times, pining away for a woman who clearly doesn't love him, yet is empowered by the weight of his convictions. The supporting cast is equally as game: Anna Chancellor is fantastic as the hard-drinken Lix Storm; Anton Lesser provides gravitas as BBC executive Clarence Fendley; Julian Rhind-Tutt is appropriately oily as Eden's adviser Angus McCain; Oona Chaplin radiates haughty froideur as Hector's well-heeled wife Marnie; Lisa Greenwood's Sissy is adorably out of her depth; and Vanessa Kirby infuses socialite Ruth Elms with a brittle, damaged quality that's heartbreaking to behold.
Ultimately, The Hour is atmospheric television at its best, a deeply intelligent period drama that strives to present a time where the world was changing every single day in so many different ways, where lines were being crossed for the wrong reasons, and where a world-spanning empire had fallen and was seeing the last vestiges of its imperialism thrust back into its face. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose...
The Hour premieres tonight at 10 pm ET/PT on BBC America.