Think 60 Minutes mixed with a touch of Broadcast News in a stylish British spy thriller set against the backdrop of the Suez Canal crisis and the Soviet crushing of the Hungarian Revolution in the 50’s and you’ve got a sense of what you’re in for in the six episode BBC production The Hour now available on DVD. It’s got spies and secret agents. It’s got a bit of sex. It’s got a bit of betrayal, and it’s got shocks and surprises enough to keep you guessing about what’s going to happen next. All in all, it is a thriller in the best British tradition.
In the opening episode, the BBC is starting a new hour long investigative news journal called The Hour. Ambitious young beauty, Bel Rowley (Romola Garai) is chosen to produce the show. Her friend, colleague, and unacknowledged love interest, the earnest idealistic Freddy Lyon ( Ben Whishaw) comes along with her as a reporter although her had hoped for a more significant role.
The cynical Hector Manning (Dominic West), less qualified professionally but with a made for TV face signs on as the show’s anchor. If this doesn’t remind you of Holly Hunter, Albert Brooks and William Hurt, check out Broadcast News again. Manning, although married, is not above making the moves on an attractive woman, and so you’ve got the perfect set up for a nice little love triangle. Then when a terrified old friend pleads for his help, Lyon becomes involved in soviet espionage, coded messages, traitorous moles and political intrigue, all played out against the production of the new TV show and the budding romantic rivalry.
Whishaw, with his slight almost undernourished physique, is a most unlikely hero for the typical thriller, but as a journalist with a passion for his craft and its importance in a democracy he is entirely convincing. Garai as a woman trying to make her way in a man’s world is appropriately feisty even if it is hard to see how she can succumb so easily to West’s seductions. Clearly he is a charmer, but one would think someone in her position would be more hardened to that sort of thing.
West, no doubt best known for his performance in The Wire, is at his best as a self centered ladies man. They are joined by an excellent supporting cast of low key British character actors. Anton Lesser turns in an effective job as the network’s head for the newly developing show. Juliet Stevenson is intense as a stoically bereaved mother, and Tim Pigott-Smith is subdued as her guilt ridden husband. Julian Rhind-Tutt is appropriately slimy as the government’s liaison with the media. Anna Chancellor is right at home as a hard-nosed foreign correspondent.
Set back in the ’50s, The Hour will, of course, invite comparison with Mad Men and this season’s Mad Men wannabees. And, indeed, there is plenty of cigarette smoking. Like Mad Men, The Hour is very good at holding the mirror up to the period. The From the typically amateurish set for the new show to the small screen TV’s scattered through clubs, offices and homes, from the flowing dresses, the hair styles and the bright toned makeup, the show creates a sense of time reminiscent of the films of the period. Moreover the newsreels and the references to the events of the day all over the world—the Eisenhower election in the U.S., Israel’s invasion of Egypt, Anthony Eden’s government—give the show as convincing a historical reality almost as if were made at the time.
Included on the two disc DVD set are two extra features: a behind the scenes look at the production and a making of special.