And we’re on in 5...4...3...
50’s-set BBC newsroom drama The Hour was inevitably compared to Mad Men during the weeks before it started airing. That’s pretty close to impossible to live up to. A six-part BBC drama against what has generally been acknowledged as one of the best television series ever broadcast? It was no surprise that the first episode of The Hour was something of a letdown. However, those of us who stuck with it found much to enjoy.
1956. Bel Rowley (Romola Garai) is appointed producer for a new hour-long news programme (guess what it’s called?). She brings along old friend Freddie Lyon (Ben Whishaw), who’s a talented journalist but is constantly rubbing his superiors the wrong way. Presenting the show is war hero ex-public school boy Hector Madden (Dominic West), who clashes with Freddie and shares heated glances with Bel. Can they come together to create a news programme that challenges the government’s position on Suez?
This main storyline is fairly predictable but does improve after a wobbly first two episodes. The secondary (or is it primary?) storyline, in which Freddie becomes embroiled in an MI5 plot that he refuses to let go of, would seem to be the most exciting but it’s here that The Hour’s weaknesses and appeal become apparent. It’s admirable that writer Abi Morgan (Sex Traffic) wants it to be more than a newsroom drama with inter-office affairs and shouting about deadlines. However, with only six episodes to work with, there’s simply too much to fit in. Secondary characters are played by incredibly talented actors but are given short shrift. The conspiracy reaches a vaguely satisfactory conclusion but leaves too much unexplained. The Hour wants to be both a period newsroom drama and a spy thriller, but in its efforts to cover everything from the BBC studios to the shady government dealings to Gosford Park-esque country houses, there’s simply not enough room to do it quite satisfactorily.
That being said, it’s certainly well-written and has an excellent cast. Garai (Atonement) helps to make Bel a strong, well-rounded character. Whishaw (I’m Not There) suffers early on from overly earnest dialogue but finds Freddie’s humour and weaknesses to make him awkwardly heroic rather than a grating crusader. West has the least to do of the three leads, but convinces as Hector, with a straight back and a wandering eye. Anna Chancellor (Four Weddings and a Funeral) and Julian Rhind-Tutt (Stardust) get to have a bit more fun as Bel and Freddie’s older and wiser colleague and creepy government liaison respectively.
It’s the interplay between the three main characters that ends up being the best thing about The Hour, though the various plot machinations do become more and more involving as the series progresses. It finishes on a fairly high note despite a plot twist that you only won’t have seen coming if you missed half of the episodes. A second series has been commissioned so hopefully some of the problems will have been ironed out and some of the seemingly ignored questions will be answered.
Verdict: Despite some major early missteps, being made up of familiar elements and wasting some tremendous actors, The Hour is rarely less than entertaining. Overall, this is a well-acted, well-directed, well-written piece of television that’s a cut above a lot of recent drama.