08/10/2011

Current Affairs

John Connors reviews `The Hour`

About half way through The Hour something surprising happens. The hitherto enjoyable enough series becomes something quite gripping and the disparate elements that had seemed so odd suddenly splice together to begin a tremendous surge to the conclusion. Abi Morgan’s script is ambitious in scope- she is simultaneously trying to depict political and social commentary via the story of a pioneering current affairs TV series and she is also writing a spy thriller. On top of that, it is also a love story.  The chance of these fragments working together seems remote and indeed over the first couple of episodes they do jar.

We’re in 1956 and the BBC is preparing to launch `The Hour`, a show that will analyse the news with more of a critical eye than the media of the time were wont to do. In place of propaganda will come free speech, scrutiny and unfettered opinion. Naturally the government of the day – represented by Julian Rhind- Tutt’s subtly threatening Angus McCain - are none too pleased slotting in urbane presenter  Hector Madden (Dominic West) and approving the appointment of rare female producer Bel Rowley (Romola Garai) in an attempt to ensure things don’t get out of hand. The Cabinet’s wariness turns to dismay as the Suez Crisis breaks as the programme debuts. Not only that but firebrand reporter Freddie Lyon (Ben Whishaw) is on a trail of his own investigating the death of childhood friend Ruth Elms which leads him into a maze of conspiracies and dead ends. Freddie’s friendship with and unrequited love for Bel  and her affair with Hector add a more human element to the technical and the political.

If it sounds complex and farfetched, it initially is. While verisimilitude is difficult to pinpoint from this distance, there is a modern sheen over the way the team conduct their business that you feel derives more from hindsight than authenticity. It also seems unlikely the BBC could defy the government, even covertly, for as long as they do. The jumps between the busy studio sequences to the noir-ish spy strand and then to the personal  relationships suggest the series doesn’t know what it is supposed to be.
Some people have been snooty about this lack of true authenticity but this is a drama in the true sense of the word and what accuracy might have been sacrificed is worth it because this is very much, for all its trappings, about the people. If Abi Morgan’s attempts to navigate us through social change are only partially successful her characters dance off the screen and into our sitting rooms. 
Gradually the whole thing  starts to cook- McCain’s eyes narrow each time the show steps out of line while executive producer Clarence Fendley (Anton Lesser) struggles to contain his lively team. The initially clich├ęd thriller segments begin to develop into something more complex. The relationship issues become as labyrinthine as the conspiracy ones. During the second three episodes all these ingredients fuse together superbly.


The Hour team don't like the look of us, do they?
The cast are tremendous – in particular Garai and Whishaw’s chemistry makes you believe totally in their strange friendship- neither of them is always likeable and that makes them seem real. With the more difficult role of the out of place smoothie, West is also excellent in a role that could easily have been over played- his internal conflicts wether over his affiar or where his political allegiances lie are so well essayed. Lesser’s increasingly strained attempts to keep everything together is impressive too.
It is rare for a series to just get better with each episode, but The Hour does that with style, wit and danger unveiling some fascinating plot twists that deserve to be watched rather than relayed by reviewers. So give it a watch and you'll hopefully find it as addictive as I did.

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