In the UK: Tuesdays, 9pm, BBC2. Available on the iPlayer
In the US: Wednesdays, 10pm ET/PT, BBC America. Starts August 17
If you listened to me on Radio 5 a couple of Saturdays ago, you’d have heard me warbling on about US TV’s attempts to cash in on the Mad Men period vibe with two new shows: The Playboy Club and Pan Am. Now, before anyone over here starts to feel so superior about America’s supposed unoriginality – and it’s debatable just how much of a cash-in those two shows are – let’s have a look at BBC2’s The Hour, which doesn’t so much try to cash in on Mad Men as scream to the rafters, “Look! We’re doing a British Mad Men! Look!”
Set a little earlier than Mad Men in 1956, this slightly navel-gazing tale does what The Playboy Club is doing by marrying Mad Men with the crime drama. In this case, we have two heroic journalists (Ben Whishaw and Romola Garai) working at the BBC’s very dull newsreel service but wanting to produce the Corporation’s new properly journalistic, TV news service, all while juggling their emotional lives and the prejudices of the time – men-only bars and “no coloureds, no Irish” signs in hotels. But along the way, Whishaw discovers a conspiracy involving murders, suicide and Torchwood‘s very own Burn Gorman.
Cue the “Look how cool we are” trailer.
1956. At Alexandra Palace reporters and best friends Bel Rowley and Freddie Lyon are finishing another long day working on the BBC newsreels. Fed up with constantly overlooking the issues of the day in favour of royal engagements and sporting triumphs both yearn for bigger, bolder stories and a freedom to dictate their own agenda. But on this particular occasion both are hopeful. Clarence Fendley is assembling a team for new weekly current affairs programme The Hour at Lime Grove and there’s a sense that Bel and Freddie may just be about to get the break they need…
Freddie finds himself reporting from a young debutante’s engagement party and realises she is a childhood friend. There he is drawn into a murky world of subterfuge, intimidation and political scheming. It is a story which will lead him from a suspicious murder and a coded message, into the private dealings of the ruling elite and ultimately to a conspiracy which has the potential to shatter the society around him.
Freddie needs freedom to pursue his story and it seems that freedom will only be realised by joining the team of The Hour. Clarence has assembled a talented team around him. New front man Hector Madden brings a charismatic edge. Entitled and self-assured, Hector’s immediate spark with Bel triggers friction between he and Freddie and the tempestuous love-triangle which emerges drives their ambition and fuels the aspirations of The Hour.
The team of The Hour seek the bigger stories and with the looming crisis in Suez they soon find themselves at the heart of a fierce political struggle between the government and the BBC which will dominate their decisions and test their resolve.
Is it any good?
It’s very easy to caricature Mad Men and think all it is is period detail combined with slow narrative and eye-opening prejudices. Obviously, it’s not and while The Hour tries very hard to do the things Mad Men also does well – relationships, repressed ambition, stifling convention, handsome leads, the benefit of hindsight – it’s all done half as well, half as interestingly and with a horrible knowing wink to the audience. It’s also very boring.
So we have Romola Garai as reporter-turned-producer Bel Rowley trying to deal with discrimination against women, her handsome, flirtatious, married presenter (The Wire‘s Dominic West) and her mixed feelings towards best friend Freddie Lyon (Ben Whishaw), whose feelings towards her are even more mixed. Lyon wants to tell proper news stories so when another long-time friend tells him of a conspiracy involving a murder, he has to decide whether to follow the story, even if the BBC doesn’t really have the guts for anything more than reporting debutante balls.
Garai, last seen being very effective in The Crimson Petal and the White as an ambitious prostitute who wants to advance herself in the world, here acts almost exactly the same way, giving the impression that Rowley is actually hooked on opium. Whishaw is weak, scrabbling around like a little Jack Russell rather than a Rottweiler, while West gets to do very little except be moderately charming and provide obvious feed lines for Garai to put down, so can’t even try to do a Jon Hamm.
Oddly, for a BBC period piece, there are surprising anachronisms. Accents are definitely not of the time, particularly the debutantes’. Lyon keeps calling Rowley ‘Moneypenny’ and himself James: given there were only three Bond books out at this point, M’s secretary Moneypenny featuring very little in them, and the first Bond movie, Dr No, was still years away, this is odd to say the least – Lyon, if he were a Bond fan, would probably call her Loelia or Ponsonby, the name of Bond’s secretary in the first few novels and the one he does flirt with, Moneypenny getting most her lines come movie time. The fact Lyon does this almost every time he sees her is also incredibly irritating. We also get the zoom ins on TV to show what everyone was watching at the time – naturally this is always something that everyone has heard of, like Dixon of Dock Green, even though Dixon had only been on for a year at that point and wasn’t especially popular either. In other words, this isn’t the 50s – this is the tourist version of the 50s.
As with that first Mad Men episode, prejudice is rife and it’s everywhere anyone goes. Just in case we missed this, Lyon tries to highlight it at every point, using the amazing power of hindsight he has available. He obviously spots that Martin Luther King Jr is important and that JFK’s bid for vice presidency is going to be important: indeed, he seems to care more about American politics than he does for the ongoing Suez crisis, which is odd for someone in charge of Home Affairs.
Most irritating of all is the music. I hate jazz at the best of times, but this is knowing jazz that not only tries to demonstrate the show’s coolness at all times, drowning out dialogue occasionally, it’s actually almost comedically stereotypical jazz: every time it’s on, you feel taken out of the narrative because it’s practically cuing up the action while asking you to admire just how 1950s and Mad Men the show is.
This isn’t by any means a bad drama. It’s slow, the characters are uninvolving, the period detail is hammered home with a mallet and dialogue isn’t as clever as presumably the writer/producers were aiming for. But it has a great cast, including Juliet Stevenson, Julian Rhind-Tutt, Jason Watkins and Tim Piggott-Smith. Burn Gorman seems to have found his metier as a creepy looking murderer. And the crime story does at least look promising.
But it’s not gripping and it’s a pale imitation of American period dramas of the same era. What a shame.