Thursday, January 19, 2012

BBC's The Hour: A Period Drama Whose Time has Come

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on January 19, 2012. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.  

Ben Whishaw stars in The Hour on BBC

In the years before the US dominated the international scene, and decades before Jack Bauer started putting severed heads in bowling bags, a ripping spy story could be told without suitcase nukes and hacksaws. Giving us a glimpse into the early days of BBC television, at its heart BBC’s The Hour (broadcast by the BBC in the UK this past summer, by BBC America in the US this fall, and now available on Netflix in Canada) is just such an old-fashioned spy drama – complete with government operatives in identical trench coats, tapped telephones, and messages hidden in crossword puzzles.

Period dramas – and British period dramas especially – used to have a very particular reputation on this side of the ocean. In the years before premium cable, discerning television viewers could reliably turn to PBS and its stable of British dramas: Upstairs, Downstairs; The Jewel in the Crown; Brideshead Revisited; any of a number of adaptations of Pride and Prejudice. (And even as recently as this past fall, PBS has a well-justified hit with its broadcast of ITV’s Downton Abbey.) But however entertaining and distracting, one thing period dramas rarely have been is topical. If anything The Hour – despite the action taking place well over 50 years ago – may well suffer from too much topicality. Against the backdrop of a waning superpower trying to shore up its influence in a volatile Middle East with an unpopular and arguably illegal war, domestic journalists accused of unpatriotic activity for questioning a sitting government, a culture of suspicion and surveillance of average citizens, a lesser show than The Hour might almost buckle beneath the weight of its relevance. But it never does. With one short six-episode season under its belt, and a second season on its way in 2012, The Hour is a charming and eminently watchable drama told with understated production design, unassuming sexual tension, minimal but effective violence, and an ensemble of compelling characters.

Romola Garai and Ben Whishaw
Set in 1956 in BBC’s historic Lime Grove Studios, The Hour essentially tells the story of the birth of a new kind of television news magazine. When we meet our team – Freddie (Ben Whishaw, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer), a brash young reporter; Bel (Romola Garai, Atonement), a rising news producer; and Clarence (Anton Lesser), a veteran newsman – television news in the UK is still in its infancy. Still largely beholden to the newsreel culture of the last decade, TV news magazines consisted mainly of new copy being read over footage of debutantes, garden parties, and celebrity weddings. But all that is about the change. Tasked with producing a new weekly current affairs programme, the three are joined by the new show’s front man and host, Hector Madden (played with cadish glee by Dominic West, The Wire), an untested talent who gets the job because of his connections and social position. As the news heats up locally with the untimely death of old friend of Freddie’s and internationally with Egypt’s nationalization of the Suez Canal and populist uprisings in Hungary, a smoldering romantic triangle soon develops between Bel, Freddie, and Hector. In only a few episodes, the series does an amazing job of balancing its three dramatic storylines (the romance, the journalistic struggles, and the Cold War intrigue) in a way that keeps its viewers continually interested.

Created and written by screenwriter Abi Morgan (Shame, The Iron Lady), The Hour clearly draws a lot of its inspiration from the real-life story of Panorama, BBC’s groundbreaking TV news magazine which premiered in late 1953. Panorama (with its legendary host David Dimbleby, and producer Grace Wyndham Goldie) actually made its name with the same two stories that dominate the first season of The Hour – the uprising in Hungary and the Suez crisis of 1956. The real-life show, like its fictional counterpart, also went head to head against the so-called “14-day rule”, an agreement between the BBC and British government which stipulated that nothing currently under debate in Parliament could be discussed on television for two weeks. Panorama controversially got around the rule by reporting on the international reaction to the crisis – a decision mirrored by the actions of our heroes in The Hour.

Dominic West as Hector Madden
In this age of Mad Men and Boardwalk Empire, it isn’t all that surprising that a period drama can be so gripping. But the fact is that The Hour has learned the right lessons from its American cousins, both from their triumphs and from their failures. The Hour is less concerned with authentic clothing and hair styles than with telling a good story with fleshed out characters. Freddie, our main protagonist, is a young reporter who (despite a substantial ego) somehow believes himself to be almost invisible, and thereby invulnerable. These illusions are shattered, slowly but decisively, by the middle of this first short season. While the relationship between Freddie and Bel drives the story (and their playful Tracy-Hepburn dynamic is the emotional spine of the narrative), and West’s evolving characterization of Hector Madden is a continually pleasant surprise, Anton Lesser’s Clarence Fendley might be the quiet hero of the piece. As the veteran newsman in charge of these young rebels, Clarence knows better how to play this game, but as the stakes keep rising, he too finds himself out of his depth.

It is, in the end, a very British story. Class and social status are apparent in almost every on-screen relationship, and the newsroom setting turns out be ideally suited to witness what will turn out to be Britain’s final days as a world superpower. (The Suez Crisis will ultimately culminate in the resignation of British Prime Minister Anthony Eden in January 1957.) But it is still as much a story of today as of yesterday, and when a character reports on the US condemnation of a joint British/French military action as violating international law, a contemporary viewer will suffer an ironic shudder of familiarity.

The Hour is great television by any standard (British or otherwise). Find it on DVD or on Netflix, and don’t make any plans for the weekend: it wouldn’t surprise me if you ended up watching it all in one sitting.