Review: The Hour 1×1

A pale UK imitation of Mad Men

The Hour

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.

  • Stu

    “Burn Gorman seems to have found his metier as a creepy looking murderer”
    And in a nutshell, we have why he was so useless in Torchwood. His face just doesn’t fit as a sympathetic character. (On the other hand, a murderer? The academic tried to kill him, and was actually killed in self-defence using his own knife).
    The murder sub-plot annoyed me. It’s like someone looked at a script about the setting-up of a BBC current events programme in the 50s, all interpersonal relationships and office politics and how the political climate of the time shaped and affected its development — something like Mad Men, in other words — and decided that it was boring, or that the audience wouldn’t find it involving enough. So they grafted on yet another conspiracy murder (just like the ones in State of Play or Edge of Darkness which everyone liked, right? So that’s what we have to do to make a drama work). And lo and behold, they’re the most boring part of the programme.

  • MediumRob

    Looked like a murderer to me: he seemed a bit stab-happy, if you ask me.
    To me – possibly action addicted, admittedly – the murder/fight/conspiracy was the most interesting bit about the whole show. If it were purely about a bunch of uninteresting fictional people setting up a fake BBC news service in the 50s, I doubt I’d be riveted – or at least if it were these uninteresting fictional people, I wouldn’t. The conspiracy does at least make it moderately palatable, although I doubt I’ll be around for episode 2 unless everyone tells me it’s brilliant.

  • Haven’t watched it, but you’re right re Burn Gorman. He was AWESOME as Bill Sykes in Oliver! & made to play the bad guy!

  • Elisabeth

    Well I’m gripped actually. I’m enjoying it a lot, and I am looking forward to the next episode.

  • MediumRob

    Anyone else reckon it’s good?

  • Marie

    Me! Mainly for Romala Garai, who I think is brilliant in pretty much everything. I like that character and the woman in a man’s world thing. And her clothes. Shallow but there you go. I’m interested to see what they’re going to do with her. I do wish Anna Chancellor had more screen time as she’s wonderful, and it would be nice to see the female friendship get some space, as it’s such a rare thing to focus on on TV, unless the whole show is a woman show.
    Re Burn Gorman, every time he’s on I burst out laughing. He just looks so much like a baddie.

  • andre van den berg

    Ok, maybe it is because I’m a bloody (Dutch) foreigner who’s English is not his native tongue but I have all the episodes of Mad men on DVD; The Hour is highly superior to MM (better plot and better acting).

  • Wretched Gnu

    Well observed, Mr. Buckley. But it’s not Mad Men, unfortunately — it’s a remake of Broadcast News.
    I do appreciate that the dialogue in The Hour does not make me want to cry. A rare feat. But the full development of the story and the characters is already before us.
    The hard-news kid is the hard-news Albert Brooks, the glitzy host is the glitzy host Will Hurt, and the producer is the producer Holly Hunter. The added layer of government conspiracy only makes the historical removal less topical and believable.
    It will be *really* embarrassing if the show suggests that the powers that be were out to silence the academic because of his dangerous political ideas. I hope the writers don’t think that even the most reactionary elements of British society were ever quaking in their boots at any academic discourse. If that is the suggestion, the show will succeed in outraging college freshmen everywhere.
    Even worse, the script doesn’t disguise the emptiness of the woman, whose mere desire is nonetheless supposed to determine who wins: the pragmatic face of the program or the uncompromising-to-a-fault news kid. It is an exercise as old as it is pointless, since the script has already instructed us that, morally and ideologically, the kid is the winner no matter what. The only question is whether we’ll feel sorry for him at the end because he doesn’t get the girl and/or the professional accolades.
    But even though that’s up in the air, there is no question the Dominic West character will resist the Important Story at first — and then save the day at the last minute by capitulating to the kid. He might even let him break the huge story himself on the air. That is, until the authorities come in and shut it down at the last minute. Bank on it.

  • Philip

    I watched the first two episodes, the first once it got going turned out to be quite, the second improved. I have just watched half of the third episode, it got so bad I just switched off. I am back to just watching the BBC news in the morning at thats it. Why is the BBC just piling out rubbish?

  • Katherine

    Enjoying ‘The Hour’, in fact it is the only programme I am seriously watching this summer. The characters are good, the dialogue is snappy and the plot is slowly developing. The period detail and costumes are also a great attraction for me. Far better viewing thsn rubbish like Eastenders!

  • SK

    First episode was set-up. Second was not bad, but very contrived: slightly tedious that every character had to have an ‘issue’, so we had Dominic West who is handsome and charming and slimy oh but he must have some sympathetic point so let’s make him camera-shy (which I bet is never referred to again, now he’s back to his slimy self).
    The third episode was incredibly boring for the first three-quarters, and then something happened, the significance of which I am not sure (though that might have been because the first half-hour was so boring my blood pressure crashed and I slipped into a coma, so I might have missed something).
    Still, the great thing about the British TV system is that there’s only another three episodes, so I will watch those and judge it in its entirety and then move on to something else. Just think, if this was America those of us who have finish-what-we’ve-started OCD would have to sit through twenty hours of this stuff!

  • MediumRob

    “Still, the great thing about the British TV system is that there’s only another three episodes, so I will watch those and judge it in its entirety and then move on to something else. Just think, if this was America those of us who have finish-what-we’ve-started OCD would have to sit through twenty hours of this stuff!”
    The trick is to give up after three episodes at most if it’s rubbish. That’s what the Carusometer is for – it gives you discipline, even if you don’t have it yourself, I find.
    Ben Hur (4 eps), 100 Questions (6 eps), Empire (6 eps), Tru Calling series 2 (6 eps), Generation Kill (7 episodes), John Adams (7 episodes), Sex and the City series 5 (eight episodes), Dark Blue (10 eps), Rizzoli & Isles (10 episodes), the Librarian TV movies with Noah Wyle (three so far, one every two years), Spartacus series 2 (6 episodes), Gravity (10 eps), Nurse Jackie (12 eps/season), Torchwood (10 eps). In fact, Starz and other cable networks are edging towards 10 episodes per season now.
    SyFy, of course, does at least one mini-series a year and has done for years, including 5ive Days to Midnight, Alice, Battlestar Galactica (two-part mini-series originally), Dark Kingdom: The Dragon King, Farscape: The Peacekeeper Wars, Firestarter: Rekindled, Frank Herbert’s Dune, Frank Herbert’s Children of Dune, Legend of Earthsea, Steven Spielberg Presents: Nine Lives, Steven Spielberg Presents: Taken, The Triangle, The Lost Room, Tin Man and The Phantom.
    And lest we think the BBC only does 6 episodes or fewer at a time, Outcasts was 8 episodes. It’s also worth noting that when AMC remade The Killing, it reduced the number of eps from 20 for the Danish original to 13.
    In other words, you is wrong and your OCD is safe.

  • SK

    Actually, I tend to see the US coming around to my way of thinking as confirming that I am and in fact always was right (give or take an episode or two)…
    (Though some of those don’t really count as I believe the intention was that, for example, Gravity and Tru Calling at least, would have had more episodes had the channels been willing to pay for them; that is, they were not, like Generation Kill or Torchwood, designed to have a certain lowish number of episodes and then stop.

  • MediumRob

    “For example, Gravity and Tru Calling at least, would have had more episodes had the channels been willing to pay for them; that is, they were not, like Generation Kill or Torchwood, designed to have a certain lowish number of episodes and then stop.”
    Gravity was always going to have 10 eps since that’s how many Starz commissions per season (cf Camelot, Spartacus: Blood and Sand). The producers of Tru Calling would have liked more, sure, but they only got picked up for six episodes and that’s how many they aimed for (with the hope they’d get more, but not actually getting them). I’m sure if The Hour is a success, it’ll get picked up for a second series (I don’t think it’s intended as a one-off necessarily), at which point, you’ll presumably have to watch that, too.
    Historically, the number of episodes per season has been decreasing for years. Bonanza had a 30-episode season count. The BBC’s standard series length was 13 episodes, even for mini-series. The exception is US mini-series which have been getting longer: they were only two or three eps in the 80s and now stretch to six-eight.
    However, I think the BBC has now actually over-shot your optimal episode count, with Sherlock and Exile, for example, now on three episodes per series/mini-series. At this rate, the Beeb will be on TV movies and one-offs only within the decade, although I hear Danny Cohen is reversing the policy and is aiming for longer running shows now.

  • SK

    Yes, I noticed that too. Of course, Sherlock is three ninety-minute episodes, so that’s the same amount of television as four-and-a-half one-hour episodes. But yes, I think it’s gone too far and hopefully the pendulum will settle with ideas going for the best natural length somewhere between four and eight episodes.
    (Oh! I’m thinking of Defying Gravity! I saw a couple of episode of that and I wondered if it would have seemed better if I’d seen them all, but I decided probably not. I hadn’t heard of Gravity hence my confusion).
    I find that series breaks are the thing which allows me to decide that something either isn’t worth the trouble. That’s how I said good riddance to trash like Alias, Without a Trace and Ugly Betty after it stopped being funny. I’m currently deciding whether or not to junk Desperate Housewives which still has the occasional good line but is looking, well, increasingly desperate.

  • MediumRob
  • Jay Antony

    For all its perception as being a cash-in-copy of “Mad Men” meets shoddy crime drama, I happen to find “The Hour” the most arresting drama the BBC have produced in years. Its genius lies in the script’s understatement of the characters, and in the flawless quality of acting throughout; particularly lead protagonist Whishaw. Eerily reminiscent to Smith’s incarnation of the Doctor, his performance has all the wistful boyish innocence and quiet eccentricism perfectly suited to the role and to the period; the result is an insanely believable persona to which one is left captivated. But if we must compare “The Hour” to “Mad Men”, so be it. I wish to argue the British fledgling to be, at least in its current infancy, far superior.

  • robin kaye

    @medium rob. unfortunately, i couldn’t agree less with your review. i don’t find ‘the hour’ slow or the characters ‘uninvolving.’ nor do i think the show is trying to be another ‘mad men.’ it’s far more of a crime noir. ben whishaw’s performance gives his character, freddie, emotional depth– cracking cheeky one liners one moment, espousing passionately about politics or deftly reciting poetry the next. as mentioned above, anna chancellor is also very good, as are burn goram, vanessa kirby and oona chaplin, and i think dominic west and romola garai’s physical appearances serve to help define their characters (even today, they don’t let the ugly guy present the news)! sure, the main plot is building at a measured pace, but that detract at all from the show’s appeal. that is the show’s appeal.

  • Jonathan

    “Oddly, for a BBC period piece, there are surprising anachronisms. Accents are definitely not of the time, particularly the debutantes’. ” Yes, a real own goal particularly when the drama is trying to include the class tensions of the time. Everyone sounds far too contemporary. A pity as it gets in the way for me.

  • Vicky B

    The Hour is a real disappointment after all the hype. Great actors (Garai, West, Wishaw and Chancellor) but they are struggling with a very poor script. Badly written and full of anachronisms. The language and mannerisms are modern, not 1950s. Whoever has brought this to the screen should take a lesson from Foyle’s War which meticulously researched and scripted to evoke the period.

  • Mark Carroll

    I like a tight well-written miniseries, like The Lost Room, but there’s certainly a place in my viewing for shows where watching them becomes a pleasant habit. Doctor Who was like this years ago when it was on television not much fewer weeks than it was off. I’d rather have slower pacing and cheaper effects for multi-season shows; otherwise I get a brief glimpse of something good, then it’s taken away for the most part and I spend most of the year having largely forgotten it. (Girl Scouts here is the US do some crazy thing where they sell tasty cookies, once per year. Why start to hook me and then leave me hanging?) Soap operas are too far off at the other end, of course (my mother watches things like Casualty and Emmerdale and I find them somewhat excruciating), and good shorter series are rather rare (I’m not all that blown away by Mad Men, actually: it’s watchable but missable) and take some effort to find among the chaff (so thanks for helping there, Rob), and I miss the days of having some predictability in there being something half-decent to watch. I’d just like a return to when there were more shows that weren’t too bad nor too brief so I can more usually and easily find acceptable viewing. Especially, it’s silly when short series try to end on cliff hangers where by the time the next series comes around I intellectually half-remember the situation and any emotional build-up is long dissipated.

  • Vicky B

    Gave The Hour one last chance tonight (9th) and liked it much more. Think it’s beginning to come together. More absorbing, less clunky. If it continues like this, might even start to care about the characters.

  • Uriel

    [this is good] amazing show !! two things:
    1. Episode 4: how comes the hour crew goes to a salsa place when still left more than 10 years for salsa birth ?
    2. is in real life any of the cast a smoker ? (wow)
    congratulations !!

  • Derek Crawley

    On the subject of anachronisms! I am absolutely certain that they did not use the overworked “on air” in 1956. It would have been “on THE air”.

  • April

    I think this is a fabulous series. It has kept me interested throughout and I always look forward to the next episode. I think the sexual tension between Belle and Hector and her indecision about having an ‘obvious’ affair has been nicely done. Belles conflict between professionalism and plain attraction seems real and who can blame her for throwing feminist theory to one side when presented with Dominic West/Hector on a plate. I loved the flirtation at the Country House party culminating in her jumping him on the sofa. I honestly don’t know where the thriller part is going and although Freddie is irritating I think he’s developing more depth. Out and out entertainment – isn’t that what tellys about. Oh and Mad Men is good but why does everone say so boringly that any other drams set in the fifties is copycat telly?

  • Valerie

    I agree with all that April, above comment, had to say.I was twenty at this time and appreciate the accurate ‘feel’ of the time. Good story, gripping, and who cares about current youngsters who say it is ‘navel gazing’ etc and just like Mad Men which, in my opinion, is nothing like as subtly entertaining.

  • Jen

    [this is good] I look forward to the Hour every week. I have not seen Mad Men , however, I did see Glorious 39 on Sunday evening and saw the same story of England’s upper classes protecting the status Quo.
    I was a child i the 50ies, but I remember the suez crisis well. Dixon of Dock Green was huge in our home – every Saturday night, we were glued to the telly – at 5pm if I remember rightly. I do not find the series slow, I find it absolutely gripping. It is evocative and realistic and considering it’s summer when we usually get rubbish, I am delighted that the BBC has commissioned such a programme, whether it imitates an American programme or not. Romala Garai is an amazing young woman and I am impressed by all the actors in the programme.

  • helen taylor

    [this is good] i loved this drama well done to everyone making it is amazing i need more of this please

  • Geraint M

    [dyma lush] Actually, I reckon it’s brilliant. Love the kitchiness, the hooky combination of Lyon’s compulsiveness, motivation and irritation and the oh so 50s blend of character backstories, all to the backdrop of full-fat slap-you-in-the-face-with-a-fish film noir Jazz. What a corker!

  • Ian R Smith

    The Hour. Great drama. Well worth staying with the twists and turns for a fantastic last episode.

  • DS

    Knockout drama, great period accuracy to suit the dramatisation. Good acting, parallel personal plots and twists. This is the sort of drama I’m glad to support by paying a license fee.

  • gavan

    having watched the entire series i have to say it was a slow burner and improved episode by episode. the stand out actors being Freddie and clarence. i thought their acting abilities and charatherisation were excellent. The leads who undertook bel and hector were the weakest chratchers and their infacuation and affair seemed staged and lacked any depth. the series aim was to highlight the changing of the guard in british society and the new aspirations that came to the fore within the 1960 `s the challenge to class and the final throes of the british empirical mindset. it succeeed in aspects of this storyline while some aspects were paperthin or merley suggested and not explored as deeply as they may have done i.e. the lifestyles and position of the secoundary female charatchers. their is discussion of a 2nd series that may follow the stories and changing times and perceptions to another level. let hope so as we all need to see if bel and freddie admit their feelings to one another.

  • Chris Clarke

    Well I liked it. I loved Broadcast news too, though I’ve not seen Mad Men.
    I was interested in the characters here, except Burn Gormans’, I thought that his was too much of a cartoon villain. I found it difficult to believe that the other characters didn’t appear to know he was a villain right from the start. I felt like shouting “He’s behind you!” panto style.
    I’m surprised to read the very negative review of the original poster, I didn’t expect it to get slagged so much.
    Just because its like something else doesn’t automatically make it bad. I thought that in the main, the characters and their interactions were stimulating and interesting and i was engaged.

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