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The Hour: news, corruption and conspiracy - 1950s style

Patrick Ward enjoys BBC Two’s new drama, The Hour—a newsroom drama set in 1956 with a strong resonance for today

Issue No. 2262

Romola Garai, Ben Whishaw and Dominic West break the news in The Hour (Pic: © BBC/Kudos Film & TV)

Romola Garai, Ben Whishaw and Dominic West break the news in The Hour (Pic: © BBC/Kudos Film & TV)

The timing couldn’t be better for the launch of this new BBC Two newsroom drama.

It’s 1956, and amid the newsreels charting imperial glory a few young journalists want to break free of the stranglehold of BBC banality.

The hyperactive Freddie Lyon (played by the jittering Ben Whishaw) is a maverick young journalist with ideas above his station.

He’s tired of providing reports for the BBC newsreels about what the ruling class see as the important issues of the day—the Queen Mother’s latest hat, bland meetings between bland ministers, and the general message that “everything’s alright in the world”.


Freddie is looking at the bigger picture—and it’s one that’s very familiar.

Cops taking envelopes of cash, media and government locked into a wretched embrace, the death of a whistleblower, and the voices of ordinary people faded out of news reports as plummy-voiced newsreaders focus on the achievements of the great and the good.

And all this is set against the backdrop of imperialism fretting about a new regime in Egypt, as Nasser takes power.

The only thing missing is the hacked voicemails—though at this rate wouldn’t be surprised to see a telegram interception scandal work its way into the plot at some point.

There seems to be a conspiracy among the elite, with an apparently politically motivated murder, reported in the press as a robbery.

Freddie pays off a cop and is allowed to poke at the dead body in the back of the police station—but only after MI6 has been there first.

A lot has been made of the show’s similarities to the US drama Mad Men. And there is some crossover, as both deal with changing attitudes to women, race and class.

“Martin Luther King [talks about] the birth of the new negro, one driven by dignity and destiny,” Freddie says in the show. “But we don’t even challenge the fact that in every hotel window we still without shame say, ‘No coloureds, no Irish’.”

Freddie is joined by his old friend, now his producer, Bel Rowley (Romola Garai), in his quest. The thought of a woman having any sort of role in society, other than a wife, sex object or—at best—secretary, clearly grates with the stuffed-shirts of authority.

In one scene, Freddie and Bel discuss how they are going to pitch their ideas for their new BBC news programme as they ride the lift up through Broadcasting House. Freddie produces a “manifesto”—laying out the ideas for how he believes the news should be.

The elevator door opens, and Bel is left behind as Freddie is taken off to talk business with the head of news. It goes without comment, and as Freddie walks down the corridor to his meeting you see Bel fall out of focus as she is left behind.


There’s always the danger of these social issues being laid on with a trowel, but The Hour seems to avoid that.

Dominic “McNulty off The Wire” West joins Freddie and Bel as Hector Madden, the new programme’s front man. He’s posh, charming and sleazy as hell. His family connections mean he’s made it big.

The first episode saw the set-up for what we can assume will be a love triangle of some sort between the three central characters. We see not so subtle long, awkward glances from Freddie to Bel, Bel to Hector, and Hector to most of the women who pass him by.

The Hour has a different feel about it to Mad Men. It shows the 1950s as a time when the sharp suits contrast to the scruffiness of characters like Freddie, as he bashes out copy on a typewriter in the smoke-filled gloom of the BBC newsrooms.

As with today, the battle in The Hour is over what the media is for, who controls it and in whose interest it is run.

The Hour is on BBC2 on Tuesdays at 9pm

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Article information

Tue 26 Jul 2011, 18:32 BST
Issue No. 2262
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