By Caryn James | James on Screens August 23, 2011 at 2:35AM
Straight from the era of Good Night and Good Luck, BBC America’s absorbing series The Hour adds spies and romance to its glamorized, nostalgic look at what now counts as old-timey television journalism, with truth-seeking reporters battling timid network chiefs, women producers battling sexism, everyone drinking and smoking day and night. This swirling drama - impeccably cast with Romola Garai, Ben Whishaw and Dominic West – is a greatly entertaining soap opera with an undertone of serious commentary (much like TV journalism today).
Set in 1956, the plot centers around Bel Rowley, played by Garai with Grace Kelly poise and hair. She has just been named producer of a news program called The Hour – modeled on Britain’s Panorama but easily seen as a predecessor of 60 Minutes -- but that’s hardly a sign of progress. She eventually learns that she was given the job because her BBC boss thought a woman would be easier to push around; think again.
The new program's host is Hector Madden -- West, whose dapper pose here is far from The Wire’s Jimmy McNulty. Hector’s career has been built on his marriage to a rich, powerful man’s daughter, and he seems like a womanizer coasting on his charm and looks. When the Suez crisis sends The Hour into high gear, though, it turns out he might have a thought in his head. The question of what Britain will do in response a chaotic uprising in Egypt adds an unexpected, timely layer to the story, but there is an even more volatile question: will Bel and Hector act on their inevitable attraction to each other?
Hector’s arrival leaves poor, smart, working-class-born reporter Freddie Lyon (Whishaw) out in the cold professionally and personally. He wanted the anchor’s job and he is in love with Bel, whom he fondly calls Moneypenny. That’s his first mistake; whatever her relationship with James Bond was, there is nothing sexy about being called Moneypenny. But Freddie is a crack reporter. After a childhood friend apparently hangs herself, he assumes she was murdered; his investigation leads him to a nest of cold war spies and the series into a sleek espionage plot.
Writer/creator Abi Morgan is not well known in the U.S. but probably will be; she wrote The Iron Lady, the Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher awards-bait film. She seamlessly weaves all these plotlines together here, never losing sight of the human drama even as she draws a vivid picture of journalism at a time when pictures meant film that actually had to travel from Cairo to London. The series’ very first words, spoken by Freddie as he rehearses to pitch himself as the show’s host, is “The newsreels are dead.”
He grasps what a difference a visceral, challenging TV news program might make. As we see, the prime minister’s press advisor has been shaping the BBC’s coverage, and the trajectory of the drama has us rooting for the producers and reporters of The Hour to break free and show their independence. That’s an easy call. The nostalgia arrives when we compare Freddie’s crusading with the yelling that passes for commentary, and the fluff or rewritten press releases that pass for so much news today.
Garai, West and Whishaw create multi-dimensional, surprising characters; just when you think you’ve figured out that Hector is a cad or Bel fiercely self-possessed, they swerve. And the supporting characters are sharply etched, including Anna Chancellor as a hard-nosed reporter named Lix Storm (why a reporter has a stripper’s name is a good question) and Tim Pigott-Smith and Juliet Stevenson as the murdered woman’s parents, Lord and Lady Elms (where do they get those names?). As the BBC news head and the prime minister’s flack, Anton Lesser and Julian Rhind-Tutt (you'll know their faces) have a great time tangling with each other.
The period details, from Hector’s haircut to the living room lamps, are meticulous. But The Hour is a lively piece of history that links itself to the present, in its eternal romantic triangle and above all its image of a newsroom not so very far in time but endlessly distant from today’s.
The six-part series appears under BBC America’s new rubric Dramaville, hosted by Idris Elba (Stringer Bell from The Wire), whose own powerful series about an emotionally tortured detective, Luther, returns in September. Fans of The Wire probably know this already, but if you haven’t kept up: the former Jimmy McNulty and Stringer Bell come by those British accents naturally. They were faking Baltimore all along.