The Mechanics of Bearing Witness
The Hour opens with disheveled newsman Freddie Lyon (Ben Whishaw) announcing, “The newsreels are dead.” It’s 1956, and he sees the format as mundane and out of date, ignoring real social and political tensions. “We are the nightly dose of reassurance that everything is right in the world,” he laments. It turns out, Freddie’s speech is a dry run for a job interview, a chance to move to a new kind of investigative news show at Lime Grove Studios called “The Hour,” produced by his best friend Bel Rowley (Romola Garai) and anchored by Hector Madden (Dominic West), who earned his spot based on his well-connected family more than ability.
The Hour starts out as a behind-the-scenes view of the news business, what Freddie calls “the mechanics of bearing witness.” He complains that the newsreels are carefully crafted meaningless fluff, and while he may be right there, he is proven naïve in thinking that the more serious stories at “The Hour” aren’t just as crafted. As the new show seizes on the opportunity to interview an Egyptian diplomat named Hafiz (Nadim Sawalha) as the Suez Canal Crisis is unfolding—an effort to be fair and balanced—Hafiz calls the crisis and its coverage British political fictions and so, the end of the British Empire and thinly disguised colonialism.
The Suez Canal crisis not only provides the news show with a make or break moment, but it also proves a turning point for The Hour. Following, the plot turns more complicated, with the unexplained murder of an academic (Jamie Parker), tips from a conspiracy theorist debutante (Vanessa Kirby), and government meddling at Lime Grove Studios. With these developments, the show resembles a Cold War espionage mystery.
The Hour also recalls AMC’s Mad Men, in its evocation of period details, including sexism and incessant smoking. Bel’s appointment as producer for “The Hour,” for instance, startles her male colleagues, including Freddie, who despite their friendship and his awareness of her accomplishments, is instantly affronted and dismissive. At the same time, Hector, a blatant philanderer, has no qualms about pursuing Bel, despite the fact that she is his boss.
As for Bel, she is complicated. She sees herself as deserving of the job, and this emboldens her to stand against the higher-ups at Lime Grove and to scold the new secretary Sissy (Lisa Greenwood) for fetching tea for the men. But she also too quickly falls for the married Hector, risking the professional reputation she’s struggling to establish, and betraying Hector’s wife Marnie (Oona Chaplin), in the process.
While Bel appears mostly focused on her career, Freddie is sometimes focused on her, though his ostensible affection is less than convincing. And besides, his stereotypically hard-hitting reporter’s persona is soon tiring and irksome. Still, Freddie isn’t so tedious as the show’s “villains,” the trench-coated, monosyllabic Mr. Kish (Burn Gorman) and Angus McCain (Julian Rhind-Tutt), the slithery press secretary for the Conservative Prime Minister Eden. One hopes that some more interesting minor characters, like Marnie or the strikingly named war correspondent Lix Storm (Anna Chancellor), will be afforded more attention in future episodes.
The series’ inclination to melodrama sometimes overshadows its historical context, which is, of course, politically pertinent for today. The reporters’ efforts to gain access to information by any means necessary can’t help but recall News Corp.‘s phone-hacking/bribery scandal. The Hour alludes as well to current class tensions, most vividly in Freddie’s hostility toward Hector, which has less to do with professional disdain or romantic rivalry than it does with class tensions. Freddie resents Hector’s education and family position and especially that his success has been handed to him based on such connections rather than his credentials. During one argument, Freddie makes plain his umbrage: “It’s nothing personal. I just don’t like privilege.” The point takes on added weight in the wake of recent turmoil in England, the riots protesting police authority and class privilege, as well the ongoing global economic crisis.
Still, Freddie is perfectly willing to cash in Hector’s status when it gains him access to Hafiz or even to take advantage of his own relationship with his benefactor, Lord Elms (Tim Pigott-Smith), when it suits him. Though Lord Elms has helped him to reach his position, he also draws his own lines when necessary. Hoping to cement a story on a case that might abolish the death penalty in England, Freddie presses Lord Elms for a quote. But the older man demurs, and then instructs: “In a democracy, the only right we can be sure about is the right to ask the question. And the question is, do we live in a democracy or under the illusion of one?”
This question is at the heart of The Hour, and the answers can be different for the press and the government. Freddie, for all his pontificating about the need for transparency, seems least aware of how much he believes his own storytelling. He complains about being forced to cover a celebrity engagement, dismissing it as trite, and so misses the troubling reality of the situation. When he does finally see past “the mechanics,” he is repeatedly shocked by what he finds. If producing fictions is a complicated process, shaped by loyalties and betrayals, producing the truth is even more difficult.