Noirish Atmosphere, Twists and Politics: 'The Hour'

This series balances intrigue, romance, and sexual politics all amidst major political unrest in Britain, and it does so with wonderful acting and great style.

The Hour

Distributor: BBC Warner
Cast: Ben Whishaw, Romola Garai, Dominic West, Anna Chancellor, Anton Lesser, Julian Rhind-Tutt, Burn Gorman, Tim Pigott-Smith, Juliet Stevenson, Oona Castilla Chapman, Vanessa Kirby
Network: BBC
Release date: 2011-09-27

Billed as the British Mad Men, The Hour actually bears closer resemblance to another AMC series, Rubicon, with its atmospheric, noirish, twistiness and political bent. Rubicon was unsurprisingly canceled after one season as complaints were made about the slow pacing and wasted potential. The Hour fares much better in delivering on its promise and does so with meticulous period establishment and a host of intriguing characters

The Hour is set in London in 1956 where much of the news is dominated by the Suez Canal crisis, and then Prime Minister Anthony Eden’s declaration of war. The Hour is the name of a news program attempting to carve out a place for real journalism, as opposed to the usual society goings on and other trivial happenings. The program is headed by producer, Bel Rowley (Romola Garai), and focuses on her staff, reporters Freddie Lyon (Ben Whishaw) and Lix Storm (Anna Chancellor), and on-camera anchor, Hector Madden (Dominic West). The program is overseen by Clarence Fendley (Anton Lesser), as he tries to reign in their more controversial ideas with the real groundbreaking stories.

As much of the series takes place within the newsroom, there's frequent interaction between all members of the team, particularly as it relates to breaking the big stories of the day. There's a palpable anticipation to the news trickling in bit by bit, as facts and intelligence traveled much slower than it obviously does now, lending each new piece of information a weight and importance seemingly absent today. When combined with the actual work that goes into making a news program, the scenes on set are often the most exciting moments of the series.

In addition to the running of a news program, The Hour focuses on the interpersonal relationships of its three leads, Bel, Freddie, and Hector. Bel and Freddie’s longtime friendship is one that allows the two to interact in much more informal and comfortable ways, especially by '50s standards.

Hector’s introduction into their world is both welcome and challenging. He’s charming and well connected by marriage, but he also has a rebellious streak that extends to pursuing Bel. West does a nice job of balancing Hector’s smooth society persona with his sometimes insecure self when it comes to knowing as much about world affairs as his colleagues. Hector’s antagonistic but grudgingly respectful disagreements with Freddie are a highlight, as they could have simply been rivals who hated each other, but instead they create an unlikely camaraderie.

The dynamic between Freddie and Bel is at the center of The Hour, both in terms of the news program and the series itself. Freddie’s feelings for Bel clearly go beyond friendship and his jealousy of Hector is further proof of how attached he is to Bel. Bel is not as openly expressive as Freddie, but she obviously cares very deeply for him and they share a bond that is unique to them. Even as Bel complains about Freddie, it’s apparent that it’s all for show. Garai and Whishaw are wonderful together as Bel is alternately exasperated and charmed by Freddie, while he continues to single-mindedly remind Bel of his feelings for her, all the while following his instincts for uncovering the truth.

Although The Hour only spans six episodes, a great deal of plot goes into the series. Aside from the news program, Freddie is investigating the death of a childhood friend, Ruth Elms (Vanessa Kirby) – who also happens to be the daughter of a prominent lawyer – and it leads to conspiracies, cover-ups, and misinformation. The twists and turns can at times seem unbelievable, but when placed in a Cold War context the paranoia and fear is much more convincing. In addition to the larger mystery, Bel contends with sexism and censorship, both fairly blatant. Especially interesting is the power struggle between the staff of the The Hour and those with a vested interest in how the news is told, namely government figures and prominent members of society.

Written by Abi Morgan, the series manages to wrap up the myriad plot threads in a fairly short span of time, but the real satisfaction of the show comes from the characters and the dedication to time and place. Here the comparison to Mad Men is apt when considering the impeccable set and costume design that has gone into the series. In setting the scene so well, the historical backdrop provides a fuller picture into the characters’ personal lives, as well as their working relationships, making The Hour more than just a history lesson or a glamorous flashback to another time. The series balances intrigue, romance, and sexual politics all amidst major political unrest in Britain, and it does so with wonderful acting and great style.

The DVD set comes with a couple of special features, both behind the scenes featurettes.


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