The Hour: It's good news

By Gerard Gilbert

The Fifties get another outing with drama series The Hour, this time with a focus on the changing face of the British media, writes Gerard Gilbert.

Dominic West and Romola Garai in The Hour. Photo / Supplied
Dominic West and Romola Garai in The Hour. Photo / Supplied

Writer Abi Morgan emits an audible groan when asked if her 1950s-set drama, The Hour, was - as it's already been dubbed - "British Mad Men".

With so many actresses and extras sashaying around in hourglass dresses on the set in the now defunct Hornsey Town Hall in north London (standing in for the BBC's now defunct Lime Grove studios in west London), it's not unlike being transported into the secretarial pool at Sterling Cooper.

"I'm a huge fan of Mad Men, and I'll take that as flattery, but it's a very different show", says Morgan, who also wrote Sex Traffic, 1980s immigration drama Brick Lane and the upcoming Meryl Streep-as-Mrs Thatcher biopic, The Iron Lady. "It's those darned dresses - you get a girl in that beautiful hour-glass dress, it's so definitive. But I was really inspired by the news programmes, and the discovery of the 1950s came much later when I thought this was a fantastic period to set it in. Other than the period there really isn't any other comparison."

While Morgan wants to stay well clear of being mentioned in the same breath as Matthew Weiner's acknowledged television masterpiece her reasons for writing The Hour are probably not that far removed from Weiner's - the chance to get her hooks into a period of lasting social change.

"What attracted me specifically to 1956 was that I was trying to find an historical event and the Suez Crisis was just a brilliant moment because it had so many parallels with today, which was whether this country was right to go to war in the Middle East," she says. "But it's also a country in transition, there's a huge movement coming up in art and novels. You know, Look Back in Anger at the Royal Court Theatre, clothes and teenagers. There were riots in cinemas when Rock Around the Clock came out - there was a sense of change. It's the cusp of the Sixties really."

Not only a period when society was changing, but also the BBC with it. The Hour follows the creation of a fictional news programme similarly striving to break away from the static, staid and deferential newsreels of the era - all royal walkabouts and debutante coming-out parties.

The drama centres on the triumvirate of Romola Garai as Bel Rowley, the show's producer, a young woman in a man's world, Ben Whishaw's chippy working-class reporter, Freddie Lyon, and Dominic West from The Wire, as the show's front man, Hector Madden, a public-school war veteran and married ladies' man who sets his sights on Bel.

Bel is based on BBC's legendary head of News and Current Affairs, Grace Wyndham Goldie, who was responsible for such groundbreaking shows as Panorama, Tonight and That Was the Week That Was. Romola Garai gives an earthily intelligent performance as Bel, and what's more, she's not shy of mentioning the M words.

"People might want to watch The Hour because of Mad Men and then they'll see that the worlds are vastly different," she says. "When I watch Mad Men it makes me very aware of how different America was in the Fifties. The war affected Europe so differently, and what's interesting about Suez is that the Americans didn't get involved because they had moved past that desperate, very public colonialism. Britain was still marching round the world thinking they could stick flags in places."

Dominic West agrees with Morgan that the 1950s are a rediscovered decade. "Ten years ago nobody gave a thought about the 1950s," he says. "Now it seems to be very much of the time. Originally, I thought that that's not a very great thing - the Fifties is what we all try and get away from. But now I see there are so many parallels."

LOWDOWN

What: The Hour
When: Saturdays 8.30pm from Nov 5; encores from Wednesdays 7.30pm
Where: SoHo, Sky Channel 010

-TimeOut / Independent

- NZ Herald

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