I wonder if the critics who dismissed The Hour as sub-par British version of Mad Men ever actually watched the program. There may be superficial similarities, but that is where the comparison ends. The second season of The Hour has just been released by BBC Home Entertainment in a two-DVD set titled The Hour 2. I believe it to be one of the finest British dramas on television.
For those who are unfamiliar with the show, The Hour is the title of a fictional BBC news program. It could be compared to 60 Minutes, although The Hour is set in the late ’50s. To be specific, The Hour 2 takes place in 1957. The three main characters’ lives are devoted to the weekly series. The two anchors are Hector Madden (Dominic West), his younger co-chair Freddie Lyon (Ben Whishaw), and their female producer Bel Rowley (Romola Garai). Their quest to break the biggest stories is a constant source of conflict. In the second season they discover a blackmail plot which has compromised government at the highest levels.
This is life and death stuff, and everyone is playing for keeps. The season opens with a scandalous accusation from one of the showgirls at the sleazy El Paradis club. The battered and bruised dancer Kiki Delaine (Hannah Tointon) comes forward with allegations that Hector had beaten her after a tryst, and he is arrested for it. Hector did not do it, but it is his word against hers, until a friend in the police department clears him. The friend in the department turns out to be the one who actually hurt the girl. Although the whole incident is swept under the rug, it sets the stage for the intense drama to follow.
Rafael Cilenti (Vincent Riotta) is the Italian owner of the El Paradis, and it becomes clear early on that he is behind everything. Cilenti specializes in setting “honey traps,” which is blackmail on a grand scale. The beautiful young women who dance at the club entice powerful men with a weakness for the flesh. The photographic evidence of their dalliances is then used against them to further Cilenti’s nefarious career.
As it turns out, getting Hector involved was not Cilenti’s idea, it was the spurned Kiki’s attempt at revenge. The situation leads the muckraking journalist and his cohorts to investigate the El Paradis, which was the last thing Cilenti wanted. With the discovery of the photographs, and just how deeply the organized crime boss has compromised the government, the story become a very dangerous prospect.
The scandal is the main focus of the six-episode season, but it is not the only one. An eccentric older producer by the name of Randall Brown (Peter Capaldi) joins The Hour this year, and relentlessly pushes the team forward. We learn that he was once involved with the female assistant Lix Strong (Anna Chancellor), who appears to be around his age. Their attempts to find the child they gave up during World War II draw them together, and illuminate their seemingly repressed personalities in fascinating ways.
There is also the ongoing mutual attraction between Freddie and Bel, which is tested when he returns from abroad with a wife, Camille (Oona Chaplin). While these romantic subplots may sound extraneous, they actually move the story forward in surprising ways. On a side note, Oona Chaplin is The Little Tramp’s (Charlie Chaplin) granddaughter.
Although the Profumo scandal would not break in Britain until the early ’60s, The Hour 2 sets the stage for it. The bonus feature of the set is a 12-minute “Behind the Scenes” segment, which features interviews with the cast and crew.
I find it disappointing that The Hour was initially compared to Mad Men, because it was very misleading. I believe that any Mad Men fan would love this show. The program deals with frightening issues, such as the influence of organized crime on nuclear weapons policies. The subjects explored are provocative, as is the fictional backstage look at television in the late ‘50s.
The Hour is one of the best British dramas I have seen in a long time, and I hoping that there will be a third season. For now we have The Hour 2, and the six-part series is highly recommended.