High Anxiety at the BBC: ‘The Hour’

Set in 1956, The Hour is a tightly woven British mini-series that captures the heightened paranoia of the Cold War era. The plot is centered on a fledging BBC news program ‘The Hour’, that debuts right before the Suez Canal crisis.

Bel Rowley (Romola Garai) is a BBC executive on the rise who gets her big break as the producer of the new show. She hires Freddie Lyon (Ben Whishaw), a brilliant but iconoclastic young journalist.

“The newsreel is dead,” Freddie tells a BBC executive. When the executive criticizes footage because a boom is revealed in the shot, Freddie rounds on him: “The boom makes it real. It’s the mechanics of how we bear witness, seeing fleeting moments of history. Not as it is now, with endless static newsreel. The new show has to be…the hour that you can’t miss—the hour that you have to see. Putting real journalists in front of the camera sends out the signal that you take the news seriously.“

Over Freddie’s objections, Bel selects the suave Hector Madden (Dominic West) to anchor the show. All three characters are soon engulfed in the tumult of a national crisis as Britain invades Egypt to protect the strategic Suez Canal. “1956 was such a memorable year,“ says Abi Morgan, creator of The Hour. “The Suez Crisis was a moment in history where the establishment had to sit up and recognize that the empire was over.”

Freddie and Hector take their cameras to the streets to cover protest marches over the Suez invasion. Freddie is a prototype of the modern journalist while Hector is the traditional newsman behind a desk.

Hector: How do you do it—how do you know exactly the right question to ask?

Freddie: Because I’m not afraid of the answers.

The look and feel of The Hour is reminiscent of AMC’s Mad Men: the men wear sharp, tailored suits and Garai’s luminous Bel has the retro glamour of a young Rita Hayworth. There’s no shortage of liquor and cigarettes as the show resurrects ’50s chic amid the cultural turmoil of post-war Britain.

A love triangle develops between the three main characters, and one of the great strengths of The Hour is its subtle handling of the emotional fallout. After a late night of drinking in Bel’s apartment, Freddie leaves for the ‘last bus home’, knowing full well that Hector will spend the night with Bel. As Freddie departs, he lingers outside the door as silvery laughter spills into the hallway from the two lovers. The flicker of emotion on Freddie’s face is a brilliant piece of acting by Whishaw, conveying a feeling that every man knows well.

Later on, Bel is confronted by Hector’s wife, Marnie: “Hector’s always just on loan, and he always comes back to me,” Marnie explains. “Do you love him? I love him… and no matter what you see in Hector, I know who he really is. Do you?“

This is the cri de coeur of any wife with a philandering husband. Bel’s stricken, silent reaction highlights another great performance, this time by Garai. The cast of The Hour turns in the best ensemble acting of any show you’ll see this year.

Yet even Marnie recognizes Bel as something new. “At least you’re not his secretary. It’s a relief to meet a proper woman… a clever woman who will understand.” Bel is a forerunner of the feminist movement, an independent, professional woman with male subordinates. Marnie is the traditional wife who is in danger of being cast aside for someone she cannot compete with.

The political chaos of the Suez invasion takes its personal toll. After Freddie’s childhood sweetheart Ruth Elms commits suicide, he uncovers her relationship with a suspected Soviet operative. Ruth’s father suggests, “We may be living in an illusion of democracy.” The British press secretary visits the set to warn against “comforting the enemy and undermining our country during a time of war.”

Betrayal is a recurring motif in The Hour: Bel’s fling with a subordinate undermines her professional responsibility to the network. Hector betrays his wife and benefactor–her family connections have allowed him to climb the corporate ladder at the BBC. Freddie is accused of treason for pursuing the Ruth Elms story. And above all hangs the rumor of a Soviet mole that’s penetrated the BBC.

This creeping paranoia is reminiscent of a Le Carre’ novel as dramatic tension builds toward the unmasking of a Soviet mole. Yet for such a stirring drama, The Hour ends not with a bang, but a whimper. The show deserves a stronger denouement than what’s delivered at the end of Season One. Still, The Hour is sensational as a gripping time capsule of Britain being reborn.

The video transfer of the DVD is superb, and the Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track is crisp and seductive. Season One includes six episodes spread over two disks. DVD extras include “The Making of The Hour “ that includes cast interviews and a segment titled “Behind the Scenes” that covers set design and period fashion of the mid-’50s.

RATING 8 / 10