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Idealism and Conspiracy in The Hour

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The Hour has a little bit of everything. I am falling in love with its setting, its characters and its plot lines. On paper a stuffy newsroom and sepia period detail might not seem ideal for summer viewing. But there is something refreshingly different and gripping about this very versatile new series.

The key ingredient to its seductive and exciting charm is hard to isolate. Certainly I was already predisposed to its particular portion of the past. I’ve read about the panicked political intrigue and rushed reactions of the Suez crisis. I am an aspiring writer and journalist, interested and inspired by current affairs, and therefore susceptible to characters who feel passionately about the issues of their time. Everything about the ’50s as a decade seems at once British and strangely exotic, creating a fascinating cocktail of cultural change, from rationing to the Cold War, from crooners to rock ‘n roll. The costumes, the lipstick, the hair; were all part of an irresistible style.

And yet The Hour has prompted considerable criticism from some quarters, reigniting a debate about authenticity and historical accuracy. Producer Bel, played by Romola Garai, seems too weak for a successful woman in a man’s world at times during Episode 2. It’s also questionable whether the particular shade of her stunning hairdo was achievable in 1956. Reporting veterans that lived TV news in the ’50s have written in to national newspapers to bemoan the inaccurate methods on show. There wasn’t the sort of investigative journalism seen from Ben Whishaw’s character Freddie. Underlings were simply given assignments by editors and sent out with a camera crew.

But ultimately Whishaw is playing a character in a drama. Some of the intricacies may be wrong but The Hour works tremendously well as a story and has truly ambitious scope. On Twitter most of the praise singles out the perfect casting. Garai is as good as she usually is in costume drama, exchanging flirtatious banter with Dominic West’s Hector and friendly jibes with Whishaw’s Freddie. In Episode 1 Freddie dominated and got me hooked, whilst in Episode 2, as Hector struggled with presenting duties, he emerged as something more complicated than a connected charmer.

Aside from the overlapping relationships behind the scenes of The Hour itself, a cutting edge flagship TV news programme for the BBC, there is a conspiracy theory bubbling in the background. This occasionally gives the programme the flavour of a thriller to go with its period drama and romantic credentials. It centres on a couple of murders we witness in Episode 1, perpetrated by Burn Gorman’s mostly mute and hat wearing enigma. Gorman was in previous series of Torchwood, now enjoying an American financed revival. He ended up being an annoying presence in the sci-fi spin off but works well here because his extraordinary eyes ooze sinister menace.

As part of the BBC’s financial restructuring, BBC 2 has become the corporation’s home of original drama. We’ve already seen, as a result of this new strategy, complexly plotted series like The Shadow Line which focus strongly on conspiracy. The Shadow Line was set in the present day and the recent phone hacking scandal proves the potential for conspiracy in modern society. It isn’t necessary to delve into the past for compelling and devious plotting by powerful men in high places.

However, genuine idealism is something distinctly lacking in today’s world of cynicism. In a world where we can access news and hordes of information with a few clicks, it can feel as if there is no longer any point to saying what you feel. There is no new ground to break and nothing left to discover. Strong ethical convictions are less common even in students, who should be protesting and staying up to discuss the philosophical ills of the world, rather than liking “funny” groups on Facebook. If the exposure of hacking at the News of the World reassured storytellers that shocking conspiracy could still be rife in vital industries, it will also have confirmed the pessimism and ignorance many feel about the workings of the world every day.

Ben Whishaw’s Freddie Lyon is the sort of idealist that doesn’t seem to exist anymore, at least openly. His fiercely held convictions, combined with his affectionate sparring with Bel, were a breath of fresh air in Episode 1 of The Hour. It’s his range of principles that allows the show to touch on themes as different as relationships, privilege, power and media content.

He has his flaws, as The Hour does. He is messy, like the plotting at times, and he is in love with a friend who will probably never see him that way. He is ignorant of his own hypocritical snobbery. He holds himself back by speaking too rashly. He is blunt, as the show can be when it telegraphs the trajectory of a scene with its moody period soundtrack. But he also cares about quality. And The Hour is quality television.

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About Liam Trim