EMBARRASSMENT OF RICHES
‘ LIGHTS on, everybody frock and suit up please! OK, people on camera pretend to smoke. Queue cliches and, we’re live!’’ Hello and welcome to the second series of The Hour, the hit BBC series about a TV current affairs show in the mid-1950s, which ABC1 premieres on Thursday night.
This episode sets up the same two-plot format that worked last year. One story is about the personal lives of the presenters and their passion for current affairs TV. The other is about a story they work on. Last year it was communist spies among the chatterati, this time it looks like corruption in high-ish places.
So settle in because there is a lot more in The Hour than Sixty Minutes!
There certainly is. Among the usual holiday dross (does the ABC secretly want to encourage its audience to subscribe to pay-TV?), The Hour is a seasonal standout.
A cracker cast helps. Dominic West, best known as hard-drinking, womanising Baltimore cop Jimmy McNulty in The Wire, plays hard-drinking, womanising London news anchor Hector Madden.
For Wire obsessives who struggle with McNulty being fictional, West’s new role is unsettling. For a start he sounds like an upperclass Brit rather than a Baltimore cop and where West as McNulty was whippet-thin, he has porked up to play Hector as a handsome man whose dissolute life is just starting to erode his finely chiselled features.
Still, West is very good indeed as a not especially competent newsreader (he’s no journalist) who has built a career on looks, charm and connections but is unsettled by the way the world is changing. Hector has a vague idea he should develop a news sense, work harder and perhaps treat women as people, not popsies, but decides to have another scotch, and woman, instead.
His performance is matched by Peter Capaldi, who will also spend the rest of his career hoping people will not expect him to reprise a certain role, in his case Downing Street spin doctor Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. Capaldi joins the cast as BBC news editor Randall Brown, brought in to shake up the team. The role lends itself to a Tucker-tone but Capaldi wisely avoids parodying his own famous character. While both are inveterate plotters, Malcolm has an abusive vocabulary as enormous as his temper, while Randall is as calm as he is cunning.
In the first episode, the pair overwhelms other key continuing characters. Romola Garai as producer Bel Rowley is given lines from the 70s sisterhood to spout. Anna Chancellor as sidekick Lix Storm is all Hildy Johnson scotch and cynicism on the rocks.
But Ben Whishaw stays strong as crusading reporter Freddie Lyon, both foundation and keystone of the series. Freddie is a contemporary writer’s take on the angry young men of London letters in the 50s — Alan Sillitoe, John Osborne and that ilk. Badly dressed and with a huge head of George Orwell-esque hair, Freddie is angry about all the standard 50s issue. He is enraged about the way the government spends more on defence than protecting people from crime, angry over racism as Caribbean immigrants flood into London and upset at the way Britain treats Colonel Nasser, founding father of the line of dictators that still holds sway in Egypt.
He is especially upset about class. In series one, Freddie is furious that Hector got the anchor’s job on the strength of who, rather than what, he knows. In 50s Britain, the message is that marrying well, having a bad degree from an ancient university and a medal won in the war trumps intellect, energy and ability every time.
To anybody old enough to have endured a British class structure based on whose parents were at school together, or who have read books by people who did, Freddie’s fury rings true.
But his enthusiasm for investigative reporting hits a less satisfying note. In his homilies about the need for accountability and the danger to democracy from government secrecy, Freddie sounds straight from the 70s or, more likely, a contemporary take on those times.
This accounts for some of the criticism the writer of The Hour, Abi Morgan (writer of the Margaret Thatcher biopic The Iron Lady), has copped. Some of it is unfair, notably the allegation that the show tries and fails to live up to Mad Men.
Certainly, characters in both shows knock back the booze and seem incapable of breathing unless assisted by tobacco. Certainly, both series are set in societies about to change.
Peter Capaldi, left, with other
cast members of