It kinda got lost in the pre-Christmas build-up, but the second series of The Hour came to an end last month. Investigative reporter Freddie Lyons finally declared his love for producer Bel: but as his greatest scoop was revealed on national television, he was beaten to a bloody pulp by those he had exposed. As the credits rolled, Freddie was left to pass out, with the audience uncertain if he or the programme would be back again.
The Hour was the first BBC Two drama in a decade to be given a second series, but it’s never received the widespread praise you’d think that might merit. It’s proven a deeply divisive show. For every critic hailing it as the best thing on TV, another has dismissed it as the worst thing since Bonekickers. It’s never recovered from a punishingly mishandled launch campaign, which billed it as Britain’s answer to Mad Men.
Not only was that setting the bar impossibly high, it was also inaccurate. Though the shows are set in a roughly similar period, they handle it very differently. Mad Men treats history as one big pathetic fallacy: The Hour can’t help but comment on its era. That’s led to allegations of right-on-ism from some. For better or worse, The Hour is set in an artist’s sketch of history.
The titular news programme at the show’s centre pioneers the new close-up, interrogative interviewing style with which John Freeman and the producers of Face To Face were making waves at the time – but The Hour takes two historical steps forward and applies it to politics rather than mere celebrity. That will frustrate some, but for those who enjoy the show – and I count myself among them – it’s a wonderful but of dramatic economy.
Like Mad Men, The Hour gets the look of the era just right. God knows how much time the colour adjuster has to put into it, but every shot has the washed-out sepia tone of an old photograph: as close to black and white as you can get while remaining strikingly colourful. Setting it in rotten, semi-abandoned austerity Britain allows a contrast between the mud and the shine. At times it approaches British noir, but hangs back from outright pastiche.
But all this is window dressing. The Hour’s real ace in the hole is its characters. Over the past two series, Freddie and Bel have played out one of the most compelling – and heartbreakingly recognisable – love stories on TV. At first, Freddie’s fondness for his ‘Moneypenny’ seemed hopelessly unrequited, but her admiration bubbled away too. Take the sequence from series one in which the two imagine a future together: it starts as a joke but slowly slips into something more honest. The last, lingering, loving look from Romola Garai as Bel is bittersweet perfection.
Will-they-won’t-they story-lines run the risk of stalemating themselves, but writer Abi Morgan executed a neat reversal with the second series.
When a more stylish, more confident and considerably more bearded Freddie returns from a sojourn in the States, Bel realises her own feelings for him. True, the scripts weakened as the story played out – Freddie’s declaration of love in the final episode is wonderful, but lacks the dynamite a Steven Moffat would’ve given it – but the performances of Ben Whishaw and Garai carried it through.
Where we go from here is less certain. Even if Freddie survives, there’s a certain finality to his and Bel’s declarations of love. They’re two wonderful characters and deserve a happily ever after: it’d be a shame to
drive anymore barriers between them. There are also more pressing issues to contend with. Viewing figures were down this series and with such an impressive cast – Whishaw and Garai are flanked by Dominic West, Peter Capaldi, Julian Rhind-Tutt and Anna Chancellor – there’s the risk of Sherlock-style delays.
But the 1960s beckon, and all the sleaze and intrigue of Cuba, Profumo and Harold Wilson with them. It’d be a shame if Freddie and Bel didn’t get a chance to dig into them, and if we didn’t get the chance to see them finally and definitively together at last. Let’s hope the commissioning gods are smiling, that Freddie wakes up again – and that Abi Morgan lets he and his Moneypenny be happily-ever-after-ed.