The Hour - BBC Two
episode 1 - review
Michael Deacon isn't convinced by the BBC's new drama series, set in a 1950s newsroom, that's being touted as the British Mad Men.
Until three weeks ago I’d have said that the problem with representations of journalism in TV drama is that they make it seem far more exciting than it is. Take State of Play, Paul Abbott’s 2003 thriller starring John Simm: terrific entertainment, but it makes it look as if a reporter’s life is a cyclone of violence, Holmesian deduction and affairs with MPs’ wives. The reality is nowhere near as eventful – or so I thought. But now we find out that some reporters allegedly spend their days hacking the voicemails of dead schoolgirls and making Gordon Brown cry. Poor old John Simm is left looking pretty dull.
I don’t think I would accuse The Hour – BBC Two’s new serial about a TV newsroom – of making journalism look excessively exciting. To be fair, Freddie Lyon (Ben Whishaw), a young reporter, has what looks like a fascinating murder to investigate, but so far he seems more interested in the launch of a drearily worthy current affairs programme, squawking pretentiously (“We are calcifying in television news!”) and sniping at Bel (Romola Garai), a female producer he obviously fancies.
But it isn’t Freddie’s pomposity I mind, so much as the drama’s. At times it appears to be less a story than an exercise in upbraiding the past for failing to live up to the politically correct ideals of the 21st century. The Hour is set in the Britain of the 1950s, when sexism and racism were more commonplace – or at any rate, more overt – than they are today. But The Hour isn’t content merely to portray this unpleasantness. It has to keep pointing at it and tutting.
“Martin Luther King [talks about] the birth of the new negro, one driven by dignity and destiny. But we don’t even challenge the fact that in every hotel window we still without shame say, ‘No coloureds, no Irish’,” scolds Freddie. Bel delivers similar lectures on male chauvinism. “Beyond that door [of the bar she’s in], women are not allowed. What is it about you men? You always need a tiny corner where we can’t reach you.” When Freddie suggests being a woman will hinder her career, she is incensed: “I can actually do this. Watch me.” She is also, she reminds him, “not your secretary”. It would have been no less subtle had the producers flashed up a sign on screen saying, “This is an example of sexism, which was rife in the 1950s. Sexism is bad. Root for the woman.” A male colleague (Dominic West) praises Bel for working “twice as hard as any man”, but no doubt he’s just trying to chat her up.
Most of the publicity for The Hour has likened it to Mad Men. The two are set in different decades, different countries and different lines of work, so I suppose the comparison is based on the observation that the men wear suits and everyone smokes. Mad Men is full of sexism too, but it tends to handle it more deftly: it allows you to tut for yourself, rather than trying to tut on your behalf.