BBC’s ‘The Hour’: A Cold War enigma, layered in ’50s style

August 16, 2011

Maybe the haze believed to be “Mad Men’s” excess cigarette smoke is instead exhaust fumes from a fritzy time machine. Television’s attempts to transport viewers back to the world of institutional sexism, racism, hi-fis and highballs may succeed as retromania and light social studies, but they often fail to fully sate the viewer’s fixation on 1964 or 1962 or 1956.

So many people apparently want even more of the back there, back when, back then. It’s a grief we must work through; one salve is to find mid-century teak consoles above which to place one’s flat-screen TV and then command it to seek out high-def shows set in yesteryear.

“The Hour,” an engaging yet taciturn new miniseries beginning Wednesday night on BBC America, is similar to such fare but also exceedingly, meticulously different. Set in a fictionalized depiction of BBC’s still-nascent television news operation in 1956, it is part spy thriller, part murder mystery, part love affair and part nostalgia trip. Though the six-part series does perk up a little as it plods along, it begins with a somewhat lethargic and confusing pilot episode, in which it is difficult to know what exactly “The Hour” wants to be — besides stylish.

On the plus side, it has Dominic West (“The Wire’s” Detective Jimmy McNulty) starring as a handsome if somewhat clueless news anchor who is unwittingly caught up in a complicated, multilayered plot.

The story: Freddie Lyon (played by Ben Whishaw) is a young BBC TV reporter who chafes at the network’s passive approach to newscasts, which are packed with official spin and feel-good footage of debutante parties and royal goings-on, all narrated in lifeless monotone. The Beeb, it seems, has an ingrained aversion to scandal, scoop and other aggressive journalistic jujitsu that we commonly associate with the modern British press.

“The Hour,” written and created by Abi Morgan, fixates on coverups, conspiracies and other averted glances that color the postwar mood as Britain readjusts to a somewhat lessened global sphere of influence. It’s all about spies, yes, but it’s also all about the waning days of the monarchy’s reach. The Suez Canal crisis of ’56 is the story of the moment, and it works as a symbolic backdrop to “The Hour’s” essential sense of national loss.

Freddie is sent to cover yet another society fete — this time featuring Ruth Elms (Vanessa Kirby), the daughter of Lord and Lady Elms, who is engaged to an actor. In a dramatic coinkydink, when Freddie was a young working-class lad, he lived with the Elmses during the Blitz. A depressed and paranoid Ruth tries to tip Freddie off to a big story involving the recent murder of a history professor in a subway station. Soon enough, Ruth is dead, too.

This is enough to lure Freddie into investigating both deaths, which leads to the discovery that the professor had a side hobby of submitting crossword puzzles to newspapers, which, when printed, seemed to be delivering coded messages to certain readers. Yet Freddie can’t get anyone in the news department interested enough to let him pursue it.

But enough of that. On still another track, “The Hour” is really about the creation of a BBC newsmagazine show in the vein of Edward R. Murrow’s “See It Now” and the love triangle among the show’s producer, anchor and star reporter. Freddie’s best friend (and unrequited love interest), Bel Rowley, is recruited to produce the new show, and she persuades her bosses to let her add Freddie to the staff.

Bel is played with reserved and striking assurance by Romola Garai (from the 2009 version of “Emma”), her character working against the usual undertow of chauvinism: The prime minister’s press aide — a menacing presence around the BBC newsroom — tells her she’s wasting her maternal instincts on a career; after a network meeting, the men adjourn to a private barroom that doesn’t allow women. “What is it about you men?” Bel asks. “You always need a tiny corner where we can’t quite reach you.”

“The Hour” would be busy enough with Freddie’s mystery murders and Bel’s foray into women’s rights, but when West’s character, Hector Madden, is brought on to anchor the newsmagazine (also called “The Hour”), things start to crackle. Hector, a product of the upper crust (and married to the daughter of a rich industrialist), got the gig through connections rather than experience or skill, so it’s up to Bel to mold him into a competent anchor. This drives Freddie crazy with envy, as he sees Bel become attracted to Hector.

“When we first met, you couldn’t even knot your tie,” Bel explains to Freddie. “You’d never tried an oyster, been to the theater, read Wolfe or Wilde. I did that. It’s what you do when you believe in someone.”

“And you believe in him?” Freddie marvels.

This particular plot thread — Freddie loves Bel who cannot help but fall for Hector, and all the while there’s a deadline to meet — tracks too close for comfort to “Broadcast News.” But all is forgiven in Episode 3, when the gang journeys out to Hector’s in-laws’ estate in the country. Here, men dress for the hunt, women dress for cocktails, a mist settles across the hills, the mystery deepens and “The Hour” finds a nostalgic sweet spot after all. Its sentimentality for British society is more authentic than its ’50s vibe.

The Hour

(75 minutes) premieres Wednesday

at 10 p.m. on BBC America.

Hank Stuever has been The Post's TV critic since 2009. He joined the paper in 1999 as a writer for the Style section, where he has covered an array of popular (and unpopular) culture across the nation.
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