Words: James Ekron
It has to be the hour that you can’t miss, the hour that you have to see
Before Twitter made every Tom, Dick and Habibi with a phone camera their own citizen journalist on what was happening in Tahir Square there was the BBC of the 1950’s. The news was simply the business of governance and government was in the business of delivering the news. Everybody smoked, digital media was more of a fairy tale than actual fairy tales and everything was done to the small-calibre pistol shot of typewriters. Consider, if you would, spending your day in a room where everyone’s Blackberry pinged. All. The. Time. It sounds like the level of Hell which Dante forgot to cover.
Ben Whishaw (the chain-smoking narrator of I’m Not There and Zuckerberg-esque “Q” of Skyfall) is the preppy protagonist whose excitement for garden parties, debutante weddings and cows with 20 calves has worn out. Frustrated by the insular nature of British news broadcasting he proposes a topical news show which holds politicians feet to the fire to elevate the level of discussion and inform public debate on foreign affairs.
Creator Abi Morgan has given us a Mad Men meets The Newsroom hybrid of Cold War reporting, dodgy MI6 dealings and that trademark reserve which the English practice in their hostility towards incivility. Cultural disposition clashes with the rise of the anti-establishment in a show whose central premise is that, in a democracy, the “only thing one can be right about is the right to ask a question and the real question is: do we live in a democracy or under the illusion of one?”
The show juxtaposes the Suez Canal crisis – and the British Empire’s undettered aggression there – against the rise of competitive media in a world waking up to the idea of massive global consumption. With a smattering of murder, infidelity and the traditional trope of will-they-wontthey between Ben Whishaw and his producer, Morola Garai (the young writer in Atonement), the show delivers a tense period drama relatively successfully. Of the BBC drama on offer Dr Who, Sherlock and Downtown Abbey are arguably the better shows – more gripping and diverse than The Hour – yet still delivering fascinating insight for anyone whose BA degree involved the Cold War.
The cast is filled with talent as Dominic West (The Wire, Chicago) plays the ham fisted soldier-turned-presenter of The Hour with Oona Chaplin (yes *that* Chaplin’s grand-daughter from Game of Thrones) playing his wife – in a strong argument for having Chaplin’s in technicolour. The beating heart of the show, however, is Whishaw and Garai’s relationship. She is a foil to his indeterminate stammering against the machine with cool leadership as the show’s producer. A clear allusion to the stirrings of feminism, The Hour places her narrative in directing “balanced” news within the wider context of patriarchy, one G-Man finding her maternal instincts “wasted in the news.” If the show does anything, it forces us to compare her story to that of female journalists of today.
At times, the music is hammy and ill-suited to a period of time in which seismic changes in popular music were occurring. Whishaw’s doggedness turns rabid at times making him alien and unlike-able to an audience searching for reasons to be drawn in. The show’s pacing resembled that of a drip with a knot in it as plot points eked themselves out rather slowly for
a series only 6 episodes long. In the marketplace of options The Hour is not especially appealing, however, for the aficionado it is essential viewing. With the resurgence of retro in fashion, art and music it makes sense that television would follow. In that way, The Hour is more homage than white-knuckled television and, as such, may not appeal broadly, or, even
necessarily want to do so.
Viewers are invited to behold and revel in the zeitgeist, not avidly return with the fervour of fans invested in a zombie apocalypse. Critically, the show received an 81 on Metacritic receiving the status of “Universal Critical Acclaim”, however, it was cancelled in February 2013 before Season Three could shoot. It’s a shame, really, as the world they depicted is one we could all by enriched, and not merely entertained, by watching.