BBC America's 'The Hour' combines history with mystery

by Tirdad Derakhshani

The Philadelphia Inquirer

17 August 2011


PHILADELPHIA — It’s hard to think of any issue missing from BBC America’s latest British import, “The Hour, a political thriller set in the world of TV news in 1956 England.

The immensely enjoyable if perhaps overambitious six-episode show premieres on the cable channel at 10 p.m. EDT Wednesday.

It touches on the relationship between media and the government, the end of the British Empire, espionage, the Cold War, and the war between the sexes. We even get snippets of the Suez crisis that arose as a result of Israel’s invasion of Egypt in 1956, and of the anti-Soviet uprising in Hungary.

And it’s all wrapped up in a compelling murder mystery shot with beautiful neo-noir lighting and filled with period cars and costumes.

“The Hour” stars Ben Whishaw, Romola Garai, and Dominic West as BBC News journalists who rebel against the British government’s tight control over news coverage by launching what they see as the BBC’s first hard-hitting one-hour news program.

“This is a watershed moment for the news,” show creator Abi Morgan says, when “the BBC decided to stand up to the government and become an independent news source.”

Morgan, an acclaimed playwright, has TV credits that include “Sex Traffic,” a harrowing 2004 thriller about human trafficking, and 2006’s “Tsunami: The Aftermath.”

With “The Hour,” she says, she tried to dramatize the context of the social and political changes that transformed Britain after World War II, an era when “Britain began no longer seeing itself as an empire.” Globally, the very identity of Britain shifted.

“I think ‘The Hour’ is really about identity and how historical events shape our identity,” Morgan says. “And the BBC was finding a new identity for itself, a new kind of news program.”

It’s a tall order for a TV show. But it works, in large part because of the show’s impressive cast, which also includes Anna Chancellor, Julian Rhind-Tutt, Oona Chaplin and Vanessa Kirby.

“The Hour” opens with suspense. We watch as a terrified, shabbily dressed professor desperately negotiates the serpentine tunnels of the London Underground in a hopeless attempt to evade a mysterious pursuer. The stalker catches up with him and brutally stabs him in the throat.

The murder is reported as a routine mugging, even though the man’s money wasn’t touched.

But the mystery grabs the attention of Freddie Lyon (Whishaw), an obsessive, idealistic BBC reporter who sees it as his ticket out of his current job writing voiceover copy for facile newsreels about royal visits, celebrity weddings, and sports.

Freddie is sucked into the murder when an old friend, a gorgeous debutante named Ruth Elms (Kirby), tells him the professor was killed by the state “for speaking the truth.” Ruth persuades him that British Intelligence is behind the murder. But his questions aren’t welcomed by anyone, least of all the BBC itself.

During World War II, “the BBC was largely a propaganda machine,” says Garai, who plays Bel Rowley, Freddie’s best friend and fellow BBC News journalist. Garai’s films include “Glorious 39” and “Atonement.”

The war ended, she says, but the network stayed the same.

“There was a real fear after the war,” Garai says, “that if TV started being used as a tool for criticism of the government, it would become too powerful.”

Morgan describes various ways BBC News was tightly reined in.

For one thing, she says, “the BBC had observers who looked to root out radicals” among the staff and to steer reporters away from issues that made the government uneasy.

“This is also the time when we had the 14-day rule in Britain,” adds Morgan. The rule forbade the discussion or analysis on TV of debates in Parliament until 14 days after the fact.

Freddie and Bel set out to challenge that orthodoxy on their new show, “The Hour,” which their BBC bosses vow will tackle the important issues and ask the tough questions.

Bel, whose character is loosely based on pioneering BBC newswoman Grace Wyndham Goldie, is named producer — to the shock and derision of her male peers. Freddie is hired as a reporter, while the already famous newsreader Hector Madden (“The Wire’s West”) becomes anchorman.

Both murder mystery and dissertation on freedom of speech, “The Hour” also features a rather juicy love triangle: The somewhat nebbishy Freddie has been (secretly) in love with Bel since their days at Cambridge. Bel isn’t interested, finding herself inexorably drawn to married men. As luck would have it, Hector not only is suave and sexy, but he’s also married.

Garai says she was impressed that Morgan wrote Bel as a complex woman, filled with inner contradictions, especially when it comes to her relationships with men.

“Bel is in a position of extraordinary power for the period. No women are above the typing pool at the time at the BBC,” she says. “But she still has a lot of doubt about her position ... and (is) uncomfortable exerting power.”

Garai makes no bones about calling herself a feminist. She says she found Bel compelling because her predicament still speaks to today’s woman.

“I think we are having a massive crisis in the women’s movement because people feel they have to be apologetic about calling themselves feminists,” says Garai. “Women may be in positions of authority, but now they feel it doesn’t look good for them to exert their power.

“Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton are good examples,” says Garai. “They have authority, but they still have to prove they’re also housewives ... who can bake cookies.”


10 p.m. EDT Wednesday

BBC America

//Mixed media