Wednesday, 28 December 2011

The Hour.BBC.

The Hour is a 2011 BBC drama series, starring Ben Whishaw, Dominic West and Romola Garai, with supporting cast including Tim Pigott-Smith, Juliet Stevenson, Burn Gorman, Anton Lesser, Anna Chancellor, Julian Rhind-Tutt and Oona Chaplin. It was written by Abi Morgan (also one of the executive producers, alongside Jane Featherstone and Derek Wax). The series centres on a new current affairs show being launched by the BBC in June 1956, at the time of the Suez Crisis - a period setting which has led to comparisons with Mad Men.

It premiered on BBC Two and BBC HD from 19 July 2011 each Tuesday at 9pm. Each episode lasts 60 minutes, with Ruth Kenley-Letts as producer and Coky Giedroyc as lead director. It was commissioned by Janice Hadlow, Controller, BBC Two, and Ben Stephenson, Controller, BBC Drama Commissioning and produced by Kudos Film and Television.

Following the airing of the final episode of the first series, it was announced that a second series had been commissioned.

Ben Whishaw as Freddie Lyon
Dominic West as Hector Madden
Romola Garai as Bel Rowley
Anton Lesser as Clarence Fendley
Julian Rhind-Tutt as Angus McCain
Joshua McGuire as Isaac Wengrow
Lisa Greenwood as Sissy Cooper
Anna Chancellor as Lix Storm
Kelly-Jayne Adams as Alice the PA
Burn Gorman as Thomas Kish
Juliet Stevenson as Lady Elms
Tim Pigott-Smith as Lord Elms
Andrew Scott as Adam Le Ray
Oona Castilla Chaplin as Marnie Madden

In the autumn of 1956, Freddy Lyon (Ben Whishaw) is a reporter unhappy with his job producing newsreels for the BBC. Desperate to get onto television, which he feels offers greater immediacy, Freddy is unaware that his best friend Bel Rowley (Romola Garai) has been selected by their mentor Clarence Fendley (Anton Lesser) to produce a new news magazine, the titular "The Hour". Rowley selects experienced war correspondent Lix Storm (Anna Chancellor) to head the foreign desk for the program, leaving Freddy to run domestic news, a position which he considers inferior. For anchor of the program, Clarence selects the handsome and patrician Hector Madden (Dominic West). They are joined by Thomas Kish (Burn Gorman), a mysterious and taciturn translator for the BBC who helps them cover the developing Suez Crisis.

As the team struggles to put the show together, Freddy is approached by Ruth Elms, the daughter of a member of the House of Lords who had employed Freddy's mother. She asks him to look into the murder of Peter Darrall, a college professor whom she knew. Soon after, Freddy finds her dead in her hotel room, an apparent suicide.

As the Suez Crisis escalates, the production team struggles to report on British involvement in the crisis, despite pressure from the administration and in particular Angus McCain (Julian Rhind-Tutt) to present a sanitized narrative for the public. Freddy becomes more and more convinced that Peter Darrall and Ruth Elms were killed for some sinister reason. He discovers a secret message that Darrall tried to pass on before he was murdered "revert to Brightstone" and finds a movie reel depicting Ruth, Darrall, and Thomas Kish on vacation together. When confronted, Kish intimates that the government is behind the murder of Darrall and Elms, but he is killed in a struggle with Freddy before he can learn much more. Bel begins an affair with Hector, whom she discovers to be married. However, they carry on seeing each other and eventually Hector's wife, Marnie (Oona Castilla Chaplin) finds out, telling Bel that she wasn't the first woman to have been with him since they married. Bel then calls the affair off.

As the Suez Crisis flares into armed conflict, Freddy learns that Darrall had been a communist spy and had been involved in a program to recruit bright and susceptible young people, referred to as "Bright Stones" to the Soviet cause. Ruth had been one of these Bright Stones and Kish had been sent by MI-6 to keep tabs on them. He also discovers he is marked as a "Bright Stone" As British troops move to seize the Suez Canal, Freddy does a live interview of Lord Elms, Ruth's father, who denounces the government. However, as the interview goes out Clarence, angered by the controversial nature of the programme, orders it to be taken off air half way through the show. Bel is then fired by the BBC and Freddy confronts Clarence, who tells him that he had put him on the Bright Stone list, and that he is a communist spy. He then tells Freddy to run this information as a news story. Freddy leaves the studio with Bel, telling her that they have a story to write

Critical reception of the first episode was mixed, with Sam Wollaston of The Guardian expressing scepticism over a popular comparison with Mad Men, calling the episode a "slower starter" and "a bit of hotchpotch – Drop the Dead Donkey meets Spooks", but overall stating that "there's enough intrigue there to whet the appetite for more". However, AA Gill in The Sunday Times called it "Self satisfied guff" with "a script that would shame a Bruce Willis movie" and Michael Deacon of the Telegraph criticised it as "an exercise in upbraiding the past for failing to live up to the politically correct ideals of the 21st century", although he praised Morgan's writing and concluded by stating "I wouldn’t want to give up on The Hour too soon". Even so, there were some criticisms of the script as being insufficiently strong with the show's writer Abi Morgan admitting some lines "haven't worked".

The show was well-received in its American premiere on BBC America, receiving an 81 on Metacritic, indicating "Universal Acclaim." Reviewing it for The New Yorker magazine, Nancy Franklin wrote that it is "almost absurdly gratifying. With its casting, its look, its unfolding mysteries, its attention to important historical events, its sexiness, “The Hour” hits every pleasure center." In the full printed version of the same article, she adds "[It is] as if it were a space containing chocolate, gold, a book you've always wanted to read, your favorite music, and the love of your life, who desires you unceasingly."

Michael Deacon isn't convinced by the BBC's new drama series, set in a 1950s newsroom, that's being touted as the British Mad Men.

By Michael Deacon in The Telegraph 19 Jul 2011
Until three weeks ago I’d have said that the problem with representations of journalism in TV drama is that they make it seem far more exciting than it is. Take State of Play, Paul Abbott’s 2003 thriller starring John Simm: terrific entertainment, but it makes it look as if a reporter’s life is a cyclone of violence, Holmesian deduction and affairs with MPs’ wives. The reality is nowhere near as eventful – or so I thought. But now we find out that some reporters allegedly spend their days hacking the voicemails of dead schoolgirls and making Gordon Brown cry. Poor old John Simm is left looking pretty dull.

I don’t think I would accuse The Hour – BBC Two’s new serial about a TV newsroom – of making journalism look excessively exciting. To be fair, Freddie Lyon (Ben Whishaw), a young reporter, has what looks like a fascinating murder to investigate, but so far he seems more interested in the launch of a drearily worthy current affairs programme, squawking pretentiously (“We are calcifying in television news!”) and sniping at Bel (Romola Garai), a female producer he obviously fancies.

But it isn’t Freddie’s pomposity I mind, so much as the drama’s. At times it appears to be less a story than an exercise in upbraiding the past for failing to live up to the politically correct ideals of the 21st century. The Hour is set in the Britain of the 1950s, when sexism and racism were more commonplace – or at any rate, more overt – than they are today. But The Hour isn’t content merely to portray this unpleasantness. It has to keep pointing at it and tutting.

“Martin Luther King [talks about] the birth of the new negro, one driven by dignity and destiny. But we don’t even challenge the fact that in every hotel window we still without shame say, ‘No coloureds, no Irish’,” scolds Freddie. Bel delivers similar lectures on male chauvinism. “Beyond that door [of the bar she’s in], women are not allowed. What is it about you men? You always need a tiny corner where we can’t reach you.” When Freddie suggests being a woman will hinder her career, she is incensed: “I can actually do this. Watch me.” She is also, she reminds him, “not your secretary”. It would have been no less subtle had the producers flashed up a sign on screen saying, “This is an example of sexism, which was rife in the 1950s. Sexism is bad. Root for the woman.” A male colleague (Dominic West) praises Bel for working “twice as hard as any man”, but no doubt he’s just trying to chat her up.

Most of the publicity for The Hour has likened it to Mad Men. The two are set in different decades, different countries and different lines of work, so I suppose the comparison is based on the observation that the men wear suits and everyone smokes. Mad Men is full of sexism too, but it tends to handle it more deftly: it allows you to tut for yourself, rather than trying to tut on your behalf.

Incidentally, I read that the character of Bel was inspired by Grace Wyndham Goldie (1900-86), the BBC’s Head of News and Current Affairs. Wyndham Goldie joined the BBC at the age of 44. Garai, the actress chosen to play Bel, is 28, blonde and voluptuous. Even attacks on sexism, it seems, have to cast a young and pretty female lead.

I wouldn’t want to give up on The Hour too soon. Abi Morgan, its creator, wrote 2003’s Sex Traffic, which won eight Baftas. Maybe next week’s episode will jettison the waffle about broadcasting and prejudice, and turn into a gripping thriller focused on Freddie’s mysterious murdered man. I hope so, but I have a bad feeling we’re in for more 21st-century sermonising. “You know, we really oughtn’t to be smoking all these cigarettes – we’re creating a cancer timebomb. Oh, and do stop patting my bottom, sir, or in 55 years period drama audiences will look upon you most unfavourably.”

Espionage in the Government and Shenanigans at Work
Published: August 16, 2011
.Americans are beginning to obsess about decline, but the British long ago turned brooding over fallen empire into an art form.

“The Hour,” a BBC America series starting on Wednesday, is among the best of the genre. It’s a six-part thriller that blends the Suez crisis, one of Britain’s sharpest intimations of loss, with a more intimate look at sex, ambition and espionage in the workplace.

Any period piece set in the 1950s is bound to look a lot like “Mad Men,” and this narrative also unfolds through an amber haze of cigarette smoke, whiskey and social taboos. Yet unlike the many sterile “Mad Men” knockoffs that American networks are bringing out in the fall, like “The Playboy Club” and “Pan Am,” this BBC series isn’t a pale imitation of anything else on television. “The Hour” does borrow from the movie “Broadcast News,” as well as the 2003 BBC mini-series “State of Play,” but with a style and intelligence all its own.

The series opens in the offices of the British Broadcasting Corporation in 1956, only five years after the first Cambridge spies were unmasked as double agents, and just as President Gamal Abdel Nasser is consolidating power in Egypt. It’s a time of unsettling change, except at the BBC, where even driven reporters are assigned to do feel-good newsreels about debutante balls and royal visits.

No one is more impatient with what he calls the “brisk banality” of television news than Freddie Lyon (Ben Whishaw), a brilliant, irascible and rebellious reporter. He grouses about the coverage, sneering, “Martial law may have been imposed in Poland, and we have footage of Prince Rainier on honeymoon with his showgirl.” (Some things never change.)

Bel Rowley (Romola Garai), a beautiful, well-educated producer, is Freddie’s best friend and protector. She’s one of very few women in so high a position. (He calls her Moneypenny, a reference to the secretary in James Bond novels that she only occasionally finds annoying.) Bel has a promising career and a stunted social life; she keeps having affairs with unavailable men.

When Bel and Freddie are assigned to help create a daring live news program called “The Hour,” their rapport is threatened by the arrival of Hector Madden (Dominic West), a handsome, brashly confident newcomer who, through family connections, gets the plum job of chief anchor of the show.

The three journalists quickly find themselves in a triangle, only there is more at stake in it than their feelings or even journalistic integrity. Their new venture is shadowed by the mysterious death of a young woman who happens to be Freddie’s childhood friend. The program also seems to attract slippery interference from the powers that be. And there are signs that British intelligence has a mole or two within its inner sanctum.

The more Freddie is advised not to pursue the circumstances of his friend’s death, the more he insists on investigating it on his own.

World War II ended a decade earlier, but there is nothing particularly triumphant about this Britain, which seems too exhausted by the past to lead the future effectively. Class privilege is still intact but is under assault from all sides. In the United States, President Dwight D. Eisenhower favors decolonization, while immigrants flooding into Britain from newly independent former colonies expect to be welcomed. A new generation of angry young men is emboldened to challenge the system, and so are some of the women who learned self-reliance when their men were fighting overseas.

Even the landscapes are shrinking. Seen from a distance, country estates owned by the rich and titled look majestic and almost magical; inside, the wallpaper looks dingy; the grandest halls, lined with portraits and suits of armor, seem claustrophobic.

Bel is respected by her colleagues and is only occasionally reminded that, as a woman, she is considered a second-class citizen, a reminder most often delivered by Angus McCain (Julian Rhind-Tutt), an upper-class snob who is a media adviser to the ailing prime minister, Anthony Eden. Angus openly snubs Bel, and she retaliates by asking after the prime minister’s health.

“Such maternal instincts,” Angus replies cattily. “I do think you are rather wasted in news.”

Mr. West, who played McNulty on “The Wire,” is almost unrecognizable here as a well-bred charmer whose ambition is flecked with self-awareness. Ms. Garai, who was the star of a 2010 production of “Emma” on PBS, is alluringly not conventionally pretty: Bel has a sense of humor and a grave demeanor, delicate features and a sexy figure verging on the Junoesque. Her healthy physique accentuates Freddie’s fragility.

Mr. Whishaw, who played Sebastian Flyte in the 2008 movie of “Brideshead Revisited,” has the unnourished body of a London youth reared on wartime rations. There is a sexual chemistry, but it’s a three-way street.

Engaging secondary characters bolster these three, particularly Lix Storm (Anna Chancellor), a former war correspondent in charge of foreign news who stays alert — and sardonic — on a prodigious and steady supply of cigarettes and whiskey.

“The Hour” is so good that it seems far too short, and that makes its six-episode arc just right: Some of the most promising series, like “The Killing” on AMC, lose steam midway, slowing down too much ever to recover the initial exhilarating pace.

The plot twists of “The Hour” can at times be puzzling, but the series is never dull. If only there were a few more minutes in “The Hour.”

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