Tuesday, September 6, 2011

For Whom The Bell Tolls

The muted reception that greeted the BBC's The Hour, a period drama based in the production office of a pioneering current affairs television programme in late 1950s London, is in some ways the fault of the broadcaster itself. The promotional material for the show, such as the above still featuring the main cast, emphasised the office politics and stylishness of The Hour in an apparent effort to nurture the misconception, cultivated by the media ever since the series was announced, that The Hour was the "British Mad Men." It is, in fact, a very different animal with a dark and complex conspiracy at the heart of the story. Reaction was not helped by the fact that the uncovering of a conspiracy involving international espionage and Soviet moles at the BBC, although very absorbing and well-sustained throughout the series, at times strayed into the realms of the ridiculous and undermined what was otherwise a painstakingly believable re-creation of a fascinating period in recent history.

Now that the first series has finished, the question remains why the writer and creator of the series Abi Morgan felt the need to include the conspiracy element when there are so many other interesting aspects to the story including government censorship at the BBC, the responsibility of the media in reporting on world crises, the role of women in the late 1950s workplace and the absorbing love triangle between the three main characters, bright-spark young journalists Bel Rowley and Freddie Lyon and privileged anchorman Hector Madden. Bel and and her working-class best friend Freddie, engagingly played by Romola Garai and Ben Whishaw, are both outsiders desperately trying to prove themselves to the stiflingly conservative top brass as they set about making their programme The Hour a hit. Both reveal spades of vulnerability behind their brittle and arrogant exteriors while Hector, in a nuanced performance by Dominic West, constantly struggles with maintaining his integrity as a journalist and simultaneously creating the right impression after he is drafted in to front The Hour as a favour to his well-connected

The Hour's main strength is its seamless incorporation of period details and cultural and historical references into the characterisation and narrative. For example, the playful dynamic between Bel and Freddie is established from the very start as they refer to each other as James and Miss Monnypenny. Debutante balls, wartime evacuation, sham society marriages and the rampant discrimination of immigrants are all touched on while the Suez Crisis takes centre stage and proves challenging material for the fledgling news programmes and its staff. Abi Morgan must also be praised for subverting many cliches in her script. The M16 operative Mr Kish (Burn Gorman) seems to be a sinister loner but is later revealed to have a wife and two young children in the suburbs while Hector's wife Marnie, although undeniably a spoilt Daddy's girl (Oona Chaplin), displays reserves of steeliness and determination to rival those of career girl Bel. Elsewhere, it is a testament to Anna Chancellor's skill as an actress that she manages to keep her hardened, whisky-soaked, middle-aged foreign correspondent Lix Storm on the right side of caricature. There was a great deal to enjoy about The Hour and, as a second series has been commissioned, I do hope that it will in future focus on the business of reporting the news and leave the spying to the other James and Miss Monnypenny.

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