Midway Review: The Hour

Let’s get this out of the way immediately. The Hour is almost certainly influenced by the critical success and brilliance of Mad Men. Both are period pieces that only go back decades rather than centuries. Both take us back to a more naïve time, and they both deal with formative stages of media – media that has since become all-encompassing and incredibly powerful.

The Hour is no Mad Men, though. Mad Men takes so much more time to develop characters and setting. It’s also no Rubicon, which was ponderous in its timing, allowing for some incredible nuanced performances and claustrophobic feelings. But it is a child of both, mixing strange messages through crosswords and the world of spies with the witty banterings of an office finding its feet in a newly-forming period.

The Hour is a very British beast and, for me, has plenty to enjoy without making comparisons. It’s set in the BBC’s Lime Grove Studios of 1956 and focuses on the formation of an hour-long TV topical news show. The show has three main leads; Bel Rowley (Romola Garai), Freddie Lyon (Ben Whishaw) and Hector Madden (Dominic West). Bel’s an achiever. In her late 20s and picked to produce this innovative news programme, she has to wrangle the two male leads, both of whom (of course) have or develop crushes on her. Freddie is her best friend, an annoyingly earnest and hard-working journalist from a lower-class background but with an excellent education and a resentment for privilege. By contrast, Hector comes from a privileged background and is recruited as the anchor of the news show, a position Freddie thought was his. So not only is there an immediate love triangle, but it’s also fuelled by class clashes and professional resentment.

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The Hour, however, isn’t just a period ‘soap’ about the life and loves of these three. It also covers the relationship of political parties and the media, and has an espionage/noir element, my own personal favourite. In the first episode there’s a murder that quickly turns into a vital and conspiratorial aspect of the plot, just as enjoyable as watching the newsroom antics and political commentary.

I’ve seen reviews that state the historical accuracy isn’t wildly accurate, perhaps exhibiting too much modern-day political correctness and getting facts wrong about the mid-1950s. I have to say I’m not that knowledgeable about that time period, but I like the mood the show sets. I did wonder somewhat at a young, female producer in what I imagined would be such a man’s world, but went to read up on it and actually Grace Wyndham Goldie launched Panorama in the 1950s and went on to become Head of News and Talks at the BBC. Anyway, other than that little nugget I’m not going to comment overly about the period setting. It felt pseudo-realistic to me, in that I liked the tone and the noir feel, though some of the dialogue did feel quite modern.

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We’ve now seen the first 3 hours of a 6-part series, and I’m now going to cover some aspects of the plot that might be considered spoilers if you’ve not watched it, so be warned.

The first episode of The Hour didn’t do itself many favours in comparison to what followed. Although they needed time to set up the new TV show and who would be producer, anchor, and various correspondents, it mostly did make me compare it to Mad Men – but I also blame that on all the press (I guess myself included now) that couldn’t fail to mention the two shows in the same breath.

Ben Whishaw’s Freddie Lyon isn’t a charmer - he’s brash, he’s got new ideas about the news, he’s angry about privilege and he’s a brilliant journalist – but not suitable to anchor the new show, despite his best friend Bel taking on the producer role. He’s no Don Draper, but he’s the plucky scrapper we often get as a lead in British shows, the underdog who’s fought his way up through merit. Saying that, I did like him immediately, so job done! Dominic West plays the charmer of the piece, Hector Madden, the married man who isn’t afraid to smooth-talk and woo all the women around him and who does establish a chemistry with Bel almost immediately. It’s all a bit Broadcast News (to add a more suitable comparison perhaps), but perhaps not that exciting. It was only when the academic Farrell was murdered, that my interest was more piqued – especially when Freddie’s debutante friend Ruth Elms suggests the murder involves a wider conspiracy, and soon afterwards dies herself in mysterious circumstances.

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The second episode develops the intrigue well, and establishes that Hector’s a bit rubbish in front of the camera, with none of the natural journalistic tendencies that Freddie has. He’s also fairly disinterested in the news unless it’s about sports. And, of course, then the Suez crisis breaks – and our topical news show needs to quickly work out its editorial stance and get the news out to the people. Freddie steps up and seemingly calls his own ceasefire with Hector, helping secure an important interview and school his rival in questions to ask once the cameras roll.

In his spare time, Freddie also starts his investigation into Farrell’s murder. Then, the murderer from the first episode, Thomas Kish (Burn Gorman) turns up at the studio as an Arabic translator to assist during the Suez crisis and things take on a far more conspiratorial tone. We, the audience, are privy to information the characters desperately need, and by the end of this episode I had a big grin on my face and knew I was really going to enjoy this series – and that it had managed to distinguish itself from the shows it’s being compared to.

Episode three continued strong for me, with the conspiracy plot moving along at a steady pace, while the news show itself starts to find its feet on the back of the Suez situation. Bel and Freddie go for a weekend to Hector’s mansion at his wife’s invitation. It’s full of formal dinners, fancy bedrooms and knowing what clothes one ought to wear – also the traditional pastimes of shooting for the men and salsa-dancing for the women, with dinner followed by a game of sardines! Ah, thankfully times have moved on since then, but the hiding and seeking do give Bel and Hector the opportunity for some canoodling while Freddie sits in his room working on crossword clues.

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Meanwhile, in the Lime Grove Studios Freddie has asked his assistant, Isaac, to keep an eye on an important recording of Ruthie on holiday – and then to keep an eye on Kish, who mysteriously turns up for work on the weekend. But the episode is really just building to a confrontation between Freddie and Kish that is intense, chilling and incredible to watch.

Halfway through, I can safely say I love this show and would recommend it to everyone – I’ve been burbling about it on Twitter for the past week and I genuinely can’t wait for episode 4.

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