(Now with Part Two and new pics – scroll down – ahead of episode two tonight…Wed Nov 21.)
THE welcome clatter of typewriters is back in town tonight with the return of The Hour.
Set in 1957, the second BBC2 series is a step up from the acclaimed first season with the confidence to be even bigger and bolder in its storytelling and settings.
Presenter Hector Madden (Dominic West) is dining out – and more – on his national celebrity while producer Bel Rowley (Romola Garai) does all the work back at the BBC.
The deliciously dry Lix (Anna Chancellor) remains on the foreign beat and knows a lot more than she cares to tell, still clutching a glass of Scotch at all times of the day.
And just what is her link to the intriguing and ever so slightly OCD new Head of News Randall Brown, played by Peter Capaldi?
There’s a dramatic re-appearance for Freddie, played by new Bond star Ben Whishaw, who was fired in the first series.
And an unexpected new direction has been cooked up for Hector’s frustrated wife Marnie (Oona Chaplin).
While this six-part tale of London’s criminal underworld set against the backdrop of the Cold War and the space race also sees the arrival of Hannah Tointon as Soho club hostess Kiki.
Plus Tom Burke as producer Bill Kendall.
Back in the first few days of October I was among those lucky enough to be invited along to a preview screening of tonight’s first episode.
Followed by a showreel of highlights from the rest of the series and then a Q&A session involving award-winning writer Abi Morgan, producer Ruth Kenley-Letts, Dominic West and Hannah Tointon.
My full transcript of that Q&A is below – note the spoilers warning I’ve posted in bold immediately ahead of Part 2 of that transcript.
But first, here’s one of my news stories from the event:
The Hour star Dominic West turned into a heavyweight TV presenter when filming the new series of the period drama.
Dominic plays BBC anchorman and hearthrob Hector Madden in the BBC2 series set in 1957.
“We had incredibly good caterers on the set and I put on about two stone,” he revealed.
“I remember having two lunches and everyone looking at me. My suits were made to measure with elastic seams.”
Writer Abi Morgan wrote the weight gain into the script.
“There were lines about how fat Hector was and how he should lose weight,” laughed Dominic.
The second BBC 2 series sees Hector being offered a job with a rival current affairs show on ITV.
And also facing the fallout from the Soho criminal underworld involved in sex, crime and intimidation.
Hannah Tointon – younger sister of Kara – joins the cast as clubland’s Kiki with The Thick of It’s Peter Capaldi as new Head of News Randall Brown.
Former Hollyoaks star Hannah says: “Kiki just uses her sexuality to get what she wants. She thinks she’s untouchable.”
Now back to his fighting weight, Dominic played detective Jimmy McNulty in The Wire and won a BAFTA for his portrayal of serial killer Fred West in ITV1’s Appropriate Adult.
The Hour 2 also sees the return of Ben Whishaw – who plays Q in Skyfall – as BBC journalist Freddie Lyon.
The new series begins tonight (Wednesday Nov 14) on BBC2 at 9pm.
The BBC’s Head of Drama Ben Stephenson introduced the screening:
“It’s the first series to come back on BBC2 in about a hundred years. So it was a brilliant moment for us on BBC2 to see that. We’re incredibly proud of the show. We loved series one. But, as ever, series one just gives you a springboard into series two and to build on all the things that we thought were so wonderful. Starting, of course, with Abi’s fabulous writing and the characters that she created. And I think what she’s done this year is really build it around those wonderful actors and those wonderful characters in a scintillating workplace against a fascinating backdrop. But this year it is all about the lives and loves of this group of characters – joined by some new stars, including the absolutely brilliant Peter Capaldi. I’m constantly amazed that we’ve got one of the country’s premier writers writing a series for us on BBC2. May it continue for many years. She’s written beautiful, sensitive, startling scripts filled with many layers. They are worth watching time and time again.”
The post-screening Q&A:
Q: (From me, as it happens): Abi – obviously we saw the themes in that first episode and the series showreel that will run throughout the series. Can you expand on why you chose those themes and how they develop. And what you were able to explore in this series that, perhaps, you couldn’t do in the first series?
Abi Morgan: “I always think with The Hour, I’m chasing history. And so I knew I didn’t want to be away from the group for too long but I had to come back. And basically there wasn’t a big Suez Crisis, there wasn’t The Bay of Pigs yet. And so in many ways it was good for me because I had to look at the eclectic themes that were going on at that time. What I loved about ’57 is that Macmillan has said, ‘Spend, spend, spend,’ and we were dealing with huge threats about immigration and concerns about immigration and we were very seduced by the rise of Hollywood and glamour and that was affecting us culturally in Britain. But also you could start to see the starts of this big gangland – families, infrastructures and a lot of those were also related to huge migrant families at that time. So there were a lot of themes that instantly appealed to me and I think what I got very excited about was the notion of two time bombs ticking. The literal time bomb of the nuclear arms race and certainly the space race but also the domestic time bomb. And what I loved about what I found in series two – series one is very much about post-war austerity, it’s about a kind of generation of men recovering. And I think series two is really about us preparing ourselves for the Sixites and a time where London was sort of feeling a sense of glamour but the counterpoint to that was a sort of dark, seedy underworld. And so it’s a kind of macro and micro in one series, really.”
Q: Was it in some ways easier to write the second series because you had your characters under your belt and you could get on with it?
Abi Morgan: “Well I kind of hoped that I’d shaken off the Mad Men thing because I think inherently The Hour is…what possesses me is the notion of quest and slight thriller elements and I’m a huge fan of news, I love newspapers, I love The Newsroom, for example, and I love the idea of journalists being these noble creatures because I like good journalists, basically. So I was very possessed by those characters and I felt I really knew them. I think the brilliance of Dominic and Ben and Romola and Peter Capaldi and Anna Chancellor – as a writer you’re very enthused and you’re very driven by who you write for. They’re brilliant barometers of the work. But they also re-adopt those characters and own them. And so in many ways I felt very confident about listening to what they felt about the characters but also in many ways I didn’t have to work as hard, because I think they own them anyway. So I just responded to the brilliance of what they threw up in series one and I just tried to write the counterpoint of some of the things they did in series one. In the first series Dominic (Hector) is completely charming and invincible and strong and in many ways unbreakable. And I think series two is very much about this man being taken into a spiral and a catalyst of change. And so I was really inspired by Dominic and where he can go as an actor. So, yeah, it was easier series two in a way.”
Q: Dominic – you seem very comfortable in this role as Hector. Did you look at presenters of that time? Or did you look at the presenters of now? And did you get something from them or is it just somebody you have just made up in your own mind from a series of presenters you’ve watched?
Dominic West: “I felt I knew the period because I felt my dad – he wasn’t like Hector but he was a man of the Fifites, really, and dressed like that. And so I felt my affection towards the character and the period was, I suppose, because of my dad. But I did look at a lot of the presenters then and particularly the paternal or the avuncular Richard Dimblebys and, ‘Now then viewers, we’re all going to listen very carefuly to an expert, an academic. He’s going to teach you exactly what’s what.’ (laughter) I long for those days to return. Inevitably I did find you can’t get Paxman out of your head. And I suppose the more confrontational style of interviewing that I suppose only came about really with Robin Day after this period. So I think there’s may have been a bit of anachronism in the way one approaches the interviews that we did, anyway. But I have a great deal of affection for the BBC at that time. We had a character in series one who was an Egyptian man and I think he was involved in the Arab Section of the World Service. He worked in the BBC in the Fifites and he was telling us all about the guys who ran it then and he had a lot of affection for it as well.”
Q: Is there any historical evidence that in the Fifites ITV tried to poach BBC journalists?
Abi Morgan: “It could have happened. What was interesting, they weren’t doing viewing figures then, They weren’t so set on viewing figures. I think Britain was very influenced by the American style – the Ed Murrow, the Walter Cronkites and that slightly informal form of broadcasting. And certainly ITV copied that mould very early on. So there was very much a sense that the BBC was given a run for its money. And I played on that. But what we didn’t have then is how many people were tuning in every night because no-one had that black box in that small section of middle England that black boxes are in. But I liked the idea that it was a period where BBC wasn’t controlling – so there was more competition and it just felt like a rich vein. I liked that idea of a healthy sense of competition.”
Q: Hannah – did you perhaps look at Diana Dors from the past?
Hannah Tointon: “I think Kiki’s idol is Marilyn Monroe…I think she aspires to be that. I looked at all her films and tried to get her wiggle, actually.”
Q: What was the hardest thing to put over in the second series?
Abi Morgan: It sounds like a cliche, but you raise your game and you surround yourself with good people. And so I think when you get the calibre of actor like Dominic and Hannah and Ben and Romola and Peter, you raise your game all the time to try and do things that tonally still feel real and yet I also feel that The Hour does have that ‘other’. It is meant to be entertainment. It is meant to be this slightly heightened world and yet I think the good stories are those stories where you feel very transported – at the same time you’re constantly trying to resonate back to the 21st century. That’s what’s interesting. In series one, Ben Whishaw’s characters says, ‘History repeats itself. The first is tragedy, second is farce.’ And I think there is a truth in that. That history keeps turning itself round and round. So a lot of the the things that resonated when I was looking back – certainly series one was about a Middle Eastern leader who gets above himself and wants to take over the world and I wrote that at the time of the Iraq invasion. What I loved about series two is that it is about the undercurrent of the Right, which I think is still very prevalent in 21st century Britain, certainly in Europe. And it is about capitalism out of war, which is still very relevant. So I think the challenge for me is to try and write something that transports you and you enjoy the glamour and the escapism of the Fifties but still feel it’s relevant and contemporary. And also just raise your game so that the actors will say your words without catching you in the corridor and saying, ‘I don’t believe in this.’ And so that’s what I do on a personal level.”
Ruth Kenley-Letts: “One of the exciting things for us making it was that Abi was writing in the building that we were shooting in and our studio. So she was writing later episodes as were shooting earlier episodes. Often Abi would just quietly go and watch some of the scenes that the actors were shooting and come back kind of inspired almost, thinking, ‘I know what I can do.’ And a whole new storyline would suddenly emerge.”
Q: Surely isn’t the difference now we have this Peter Capaldi figure in? That’s surely the big difference? There’s a whole new sense of jeopardy in the newsroom?
Abi Morgan: “Yeah. Anton Lesser playing Clarence was a really hard ask. So they were big boots to fill. And the first day that Peter was on set, I met Ruth in the corridor and she went, ‘Come and have a look, come and have a look…’ I came very late to The Thick Of It and I’m really glad because I think I would have been incredibly intimidated had I seen how brilliant his performance was in that. I have to say it’s the greatest joy of being a writer. Most writers are frustrated egomaniacs who really want to act and just don’t have the talent or the charm to do it. And most writers want to give their words to brilliant people. I genuinely mean that. Most of writing is incredibly isolated. Most of you probably write on your own late at night having to file stories. So I always feel kindred spirits when I sit with other journalists. Most of the time I’m working at four, five in the morning and thinking, ‘Why bother going to bed? I might as well just have breakfast and get my kids up.’ And when I’m writing very late the thing that keeps me going is wanting to impress the actors that I work with. What I realise is actors are very intimidated by writers and I don’t think that what actors realise is that writers are incredibly intimidated by actors. And most of the time they’re desperately waiting for those moments when they say something good. Or they like something.”
Q: Did you know you were writing for Peter when you wrote the script?
Abi Morgan: “Yeah. Because I wanted Peter. I wrote that part specifically for Peter. Because I go to Gail’s in Crouch End and it’s a very small, middle class Guardian reader world and Peter goes there too. And Ruth lives in Crouch End…(laughter)
Q: Dominic – did life imitate art…did you get any fan mail after the first series that indicated that you’d become a matinee idol in the way that your character is?
Dominic West: “No, not in that way. But in terms of inspiring Abi’s writing, we had incredibly good caterers on the show and because it was very long hours and because filming can get…you look forward to lunch. I was talking to Romola about it and she’s pregnant so she’s alright now but I put on about two stone. And at the end of it Abi was writing lines like…first of all she put in – because I was always late – she always put in, ‘Hector was always late.’ And so lots of great speeches about being late and how rude that is and unprofessional is is. (laughter) Then it as how fat he was and how he’s got to lose weight. So it’s true, we do inspire our writers. I remember having two lunches and everybody looking at me. And I’m just looking down and thinking, ‘Crikey…they were made to measure those suits with elastic seams. Amazing caterers. Also it was freezing cold.”
Abi Morgan: “He’s a really intelligent actor. We were talking about more than the catering.”
And here’s part two of my Q&A transcript…
Warning: There are spoilers below so if you don’t want to know, don’t read:
Q: Abi – was this a very different way of writing it than you wrote the first series?
Abi Morgan: “I think most writers are waiting to be caught out. Actually I think in many ways art imitates art, really, which is you all chasing a deadline. I was writing very quickly on this. But actually what was great about that was I was constantly gear-changing with what I saw in the corridor. So I would walk down the corridor. If I was unsure about something I could literally walk down the corridor and see something. And it was quite Charlie Kaufman-eque, in terms I would tweak a scene and then I’d hear it the next day and think, ‘That final scene is not going to work now because Dominic has dropped a crucial line.’ (laughter) Or you’d suddenly think, ‘God, she’s so good.’ And that’s really, genuinely what happened with Hannah, was I was going to kill her off…but you find little gems…you get really excited about it. I think most writers have 10 good years and you’re really lucky if you hit your 10 good years with an actress. And I think I was very lucky to hit someone like Hannah and someone like Dominic…I didn’t write it differently but I felt much more connected to the actors. So I felt much more open to write for them.”
Q: Hannah – did you realise you were going to be killed off and, if so, how did it feel when Abi changed her mind?
Hannah Tointon: “I did know this and I was feeling quite scared. I didn’t know how long I was going to be in it so, to be honest, I was just taking each day as it came and trying to do my best. It probably gave me a bit of incentive. But actually I was so chuffed when I got more scripts. It was just a bonus every time. So, no, I was really pleased.”
Ruth Kenley-Letts: “You (Hannah) had virtually a couple of lines and ended up doing four episodes and that was very much because of Abi being able to watch the process as it was unfolding and your part grew and grew and grew.”
Hannah Tointon: “Absolutely.”
Abi Morgan: “And also I think that’s the great gift of probably working with people you know really well – working with Kudos, working with the BBC – is that they allow you to really organically build something while you’re making it. You don’t get that early on in your career. And so it’s a real luxury. I hope it works but I think it also allows you…if feels closer to theatre actually. When you’re writing in theatre and you’re adjusting on stage because you’re watching something rehearse, that’s really what happened with this. So it was quite a unique experience. I don’t think I’ll get that again. I’ve said it before, but most of the time it’s the writer talking to the catering staff, slightly hanging around. You feel very irrelevant and it’s a very nice thing to feel like all the things come together and you still are tweaking right the way through to the end.”
Q: Dominic – Was it a challenge to play a man who is slowly coming apart at the seams? And do you think the viewers will appreciate this new vulnerability to his character?
Dominic West: “Well it was a dream really. It was an actor’s dream to do the arc. In episode one I start as this celebrity on top of the world and certainly within the first two or three episodes he descends into the pits of shame and ignominy. And you very rarely get a part like that. It was a challenge but it was a great opportunity. I don’t know what viewers will think. I don’t tend to think about that. But just in terms of a character arc, you very rarely get something so dynamic and it goes with the highs and the lows and then back up to the highs again. It was a wonderful season for me. It was great.”
Q: Is the plan for The Hour to go on as long as it can sustain, through ’58, ’59, ’60, ’61?
Abi Morgan: “Well I’ve got 10 years of school fees to get through, so…(laughter) You know what…I’d approach it if it goes…I’d love it to keep going in some form. Certainly there are models out there. I don’t know. I really would love it to go on and it would be great for it to grow. But I feel so lucky to have got to two series. It’s such a new thing, on a personal level, to write series. I mean, you’re (Dominic) an old hand because you’ve done The Wire…”
Dominic West: “An old ham?” (Laughter)
Abi Morgan: “But I don’t know. It would be nice. But I also have enjoyed two series. But yeah, if it went on it would be lovely.”
Q: Do you already have a year in mind, perhaps?
Abi Morgan: “I’d like to come back a bit later. I’d like to come ’60, ’61, make that leap, I think. I’d like to tell you a great moment in history…but I’d like to come back a little bit later on.”
Q: Do you think we misunderstand the Fifties? We see it now through a lens as a very grey and boring period. Having researched this, do you think that’s not the case?
Abi Morgan: “I think it’s just ‘now’. You (Dominic) talk about your father. My mum was in the Fifties, at drama school in the Fifties and I hear about it. I think things aren’t that much different fundamentally. I think the human condition is probably still the same. We probably define it. I was talking to someone, funnily enough, about coming out of university in the early Nineties. And someone said to me, ‘Oh God, that was really hard for you coming out then.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ They said, ‘It was so PC wasn’t it? You couldn’t shave your legs, could you?’ And I’m going, ‘Oh God, you’re right, I really wanted to shave my legs. I couldn’t shave my legs.’ And thinking – even in the early Nineties there was this slighly suppressive period and I could already define it like that. So, yes, I remember there were things about periods and my own time, you create history. But fundamentally I think the human condition is the same. So I wasn’t there but I hear from my mother.”
Q: (Me again, I’m afraid) The Hour always looks really authentic from the typewriters to the drawing pins on the board. Were there any particular production or filming challenges in this series on, obviously, no doubt the usual challenging budget?
Ruth Kenley-Letts: “The Telex machine. Finding Telex machines that actually work. We did find one that came with a very expensive man who was the only person that could work the machine. So there was lots of, ‘Abi, we can’t have too much Telex machines going in the background.’ The challenges of shooting this show in London are doing exteriors and there just aren’t very many places you can go to in London to clear the streets. Because we’d established the studio and the set, really we just wanted to evolve things just a little bit. It’s very helpful, again, working so closely with Abi because she can come into my office and say, ‘Could we do this?’”
Abi Morgan: “‘Can we have a fish and chip shop?’ And you go, ‘No.’ And I say, ‘What about Arsenal stadium?’ And you go, ‘Definitely not.’ It’s amazing the building, actually, in Crouch End that we keep banging on about. But it is an amazing find. It is like a little theme park. I do think, if it does go on to series 13, that’s where we’ll have our little theme park there.”
Q: Where were the Soho sets?
Ruth Kenley-Letts: “We did that in east London. Columbia Road. And actually I keep spotting it now in other people’s shows…the same corner. But it is very difficult in London. And I think if you go up north to film it’s easier to get those kind of locations.”
Q: Dominic – what’s the difference between working for the BBC and ITV from your point of view as an actor?
Dominic West: “Oh, Appropriate Adult? I don’t know. That was so different because there were so many compliance issues with Appropriate Adult. So that was a very different set up. And it was also a one-off. But in terms of…I don’t know. I suppose compared to HBO or somewhere like that, it’s much more intimate and there seems to be much more communication between everybody, with the BBC and certainly with The Hour production. Although it was in America but I suppose people were further away. It’s such a boring cliche but the family element of…I could a huge sense coming back for the second season of familiarity which saves you so much time and so much effort. Particularly among actors, because you have a rapport that in the first season we had to establish and we had it already and we knew each other’s foibles. I just felt very glad to be back with everyone involved and that’s the nice thing about it continuing and doing a second season is that I suppose you get stuff done more quickly because you’ve got a rapport with everybody. I can’t really characterise it but there was a sense that we had to get stuff done and there wasn’t necessarily a load of money but you’d be listened to.”
Q: It seems very confident and playful this second series. Did you find that you had more time to enjoy the characters and didn’t have to drive it so much with the thriller element?
Abi Morgan: “Yeah. I think those characters…you enjoy writing for them. But I also think you’re trying to push the story forward the whole time. So I hope it’s a healthy balance. But maybe it’s just found its feet a little bit more. It was still defining itself. I know a little bit more what the animal is, really, I guess.”
Q: What’s going to happen with Oona’s (Marnie Madden) character? Does she become a celebrity in her own right?
Ruth Kenley-Letts: “She gets her own show on ITV. A cookery show.”
Q: So that’s her revenge against Hector?
Dominic West: “And salvation?”
Ruth Kenley-Letts: “Yes. Because she’s a bored, clever woman. There’s lots of fun to be had with Oona and her cookery show and their relationship. I think Abi’s written that absolutely brilliantly and very moving, poignantly.”
Abi Morgan: “And, again, a great actress.”
Ruth Kenley-Watts: “And she’s fantastic, yeah.”
Abi Morgan: “Get what you can before they move into Game of Thrones.”
Q: How much of a fightback can we expect from Hector over the coming episodes?
Dominic West: “A fightback after episode one? Oh, pretty considerable. (laughter) He’s innocent, obviously. Or is he? He has a very interesting relationship with the Peter Sullivan part, who is the Metropolitan police chief (Commander Laurence Stern). And that was the other thing – you get a glimpse of his war story and what happened to him during the war and what happened to men like that during the war and how those stories overshadowed the late Fifties and were so much a background to the late Fifties. But, yes, he fights back. And he finds redemption and salvation. So it’s great. It was great for Hector.”
Q: Hannah – did you relish playing the treacherous femme fatale. Because that’s a role we’ve not seen from you before?
Hannah Tointon: “Yes. I think Kiki just uses her sexuality to get what she wants. It was just so fun to play someone that’s just…she’s an opportunist and I think she takes a negative and she makes it a positive. She comes from a hard background and I think she’s just trying to get where she can. So it was very fun to play that. And like Dominic said, my character has such a great arc. So it was just great. She goes on this rollercoaster and I think she suddenly does the right thing in the end.”
Q: She gets out of her depth?
Hannah Tointon: “She does, yes. She’s in this world…she thinks she’s untouchable because she’s Mr Cilenti’s supposed favourite. And so she think nothing can really happen to her. And she realises that that’s not really the case and she gets into this world of…too out of her depth.”
Q: Can I ask about the smoking and the drinking? Bearing in mind you do so much of it, certainly in the first episode. Did you give Dominic something nice to drink and something more pleasant to smoke than a herbal cigarette?
Ruth Kenley-Letts: “Always. Always. He’s very demanding in that way.”
Abi Morgan: “You got to watch a lot of burlesque girls, I seem to remember?”
Dominic West: “I think everybody did.”
Abi Morgan: “I must say, they actually got risquer and risquer as the episodes went on and by the end there was the girl who did all that thing with the…”
Ruth Kenley-Letts: “You liked her Dominic.” (laughter)
Abi Morgan: “There was definitely a moment where I said, ‘No she’s not…oh my God, she does, she’s taken her top off.”
Abi Morgan: “The Dita Von Teese-ey girl at the end?”
Dominic: “She took her top off?”
Abi Morgan: “I don’t know if you were there. Maybe you weren’t there.”
Dominic: “I wasn’t in the bloody scene. (laughter) Smoking was awful. You know those honeydew cigarettes? We tried every brand. They’re all awful.”
Q: And the booze is just cold tea?
Ruth Kenley-Letts: “Something like that, yeah. It’s tea bags they use.”
Dominic: “No, I think it’s flat Coke, actually. Horrible.”
Q: Are you a non-smoker, then?
Dominic: “Yeah. Actually tobacco is so much better for you, I think.” (laughter)