It’s here, the UK’s answer to Mad Men! We have finally done it, developed a home-grown TV show that trounces the US domination of quality drama. Go Great Britain! We rock! Aren’t we brilliant! Wooo!
If you haven’t read any of the national press coverage of BBC2’s glossy new series The Hour over the past week then that is the sort of high praise and fawning that has been dominating the column inches (you can find it between all the phone-hacking stories and pictures of Rupert Murdoch in a tracksuit) – and it hasn’t even bloody aired yet. As I sat down to watch The Hour (which is actually only 53 minutes long and in my eyes a blatant case of false advertising), I did so with the giddy expectation that this is one programme that will actually live up to the hype. Unfortunately it fell short and my ensuing disappointment led me to pen a review so scathing that the likes of scorn-filled critics such as Ian Hyland, Ally Ross and Kevin O’Sullivan would collectively cower on the floor and sob in the foetal position after reading it. However, after much consideration and soul searching I decided that I was probably a bit harsh, so I pressed delete and watched it again unencumbered by the weight of any Mad Men comparisons. This time I rather enjoyed it.
Set in the BBC broadcast newsrooms of 1956, the programme focuses on three central characters: the brilliant but petulant journalist Freddie Lyons (Ben Whishaw), Bel Rowley (Romola Garai) an ambitious female producer and the entitled but charismatic TV presenter Hector Madden (Dominic West), as they attempt to break away from the rigid confines of traditional news reporting and launch a revolutionary news programme called The Hour.
Where Mad Men is oft times a character study and social commentary on 1960s America, The Hour is slightly more fantastical. In the debut episode alone we are witness to two murders and a conspiracy, whereas the most overtly dramatic scene during an entire season of Mad Men would be an ad executive vomiting on the floor due to his decedent lifestyle or someone’s foot being sliced to ribbons at an office party by a lawn mower. While the mystery does bring intrigue to the show, it’s the interactions between the characters that really drive it. Freddie and Bel’s obvious chemistry and mutual attraction is great to watch, as is their playful bickering (although Freddie calling Bel ‘Miss Moneypenny’ for the fiftieth time in thirty minutes does begin to grate). Dominic West plays the arrogant yet charming Hector perfectly and he brings an interesting dynamic to the ensemble. His seemingly sexist remarks to Bel rile her but there is clearly an attraction, while Freddie takes an instant dislike to his posturing and is obviously jealous of his flirtations with Bel. A love triangle is born, the cornerstone of any quality drama.
There is no denying that the sets and costumes capture the feel of the 50s perfectly (as far as a boy born in the 80s can tell anyway) and there is a stark contrast in the gloomy factory-like setting of the working newsroom to the plush surroundings of the BBC executives, which highlights a world where TV news was less obsessed with ‘personalities’ and creating and breaking stories and more concerned with reporting facts. It’s a refreshing contrast to today’s opinion-led and speculative pieces and tendency to rely on the input of the uninformed masses (like myself).
Despite lacking the nuances and subtleties of its American counterpart, the drama does have a solid cast and packs a lot of plot threads into its opening episode and I believe that there is enough there to give me faith that this could turn into a mighty fine production indeed. Just stop comparing it to Mad Men.