“THE newsreels are dead. We’ve bored the public for too long.”
So begins The Hour, a fascinating new BBC2 drama series set in the changing media and political world of the 1950s.
Episode one finds the BBC News at London’s Alexandra Palace still fixated with reporting on the daily lives of society darlings.
Frustrated TV news reporter Freddie Lyon (Ben Whishaw), working alongside Bel Rowley (Romola Garai) knows there are far more important stories to tell.
Both seize their chance with a move to Lime Grove studios in west London, heralding the dawn on a modern and questioning topical news programme called The Hour.
It will be fronted by “face of tomorrow” Hector Madden (Dominic West), paving the way for a new era of television news.
The Hour begins a few months before the October 1956 Suez Crisis and includes a dark thriller element – watch out for a few shocks in the opening hour.
Critics already appeared divided by this six-part Kudos series, which begins at 9pm tomorrow (Tuesday) night.
For what it’s worth, I loved the first episode.
I saw it at a special BAFTA premiere in London on May 11, which was followed by an on stage Q&A session.
Taking part were writer Abi Morgan, lead director Coky Giedroyc, Romola Garai, Dominic West, executive producer Jane Featherstone and chair Maggie Brown.
Below are the edited highlights of what they said.
You can also check out details of all the characters here.
As Freddie says in episode one: “It has to be The Hour that you can’t miss.”
1. Is the storyline about the BBC’s clash with the government partly true?
Jane Featherstone: “The Suez incident is obviously true and that’s background. But what Abi’s done, and it’s really all down to Abi – she’s created the world, the characters and the universe that you’ve just seen. So we did a lot of research and Abi did a lot of research herself.
“We wanted to do something in a newsroom and the fifties felt like an interesting time because it’s the birth of television news. That was such a crucial time in terms of the development of journalism and current affairs. But as much as anything, it was also such a turning point for Britain. The end of the Empire, the Suez crisis, represented such a transitional phase for the country. So it was all over to Abi. We handed her some early research and Abi created the brilliance that you saw.”
2. There weren’t many powerful women in news and current affairs in the 1950s Was Grace Wyndham Goldie (who became the BBC’s Head of News and Current Affairs), one of the inspirations for Bel?
Abi Morgan: “There were only a handful of women working at the BBC at that time. And so you couldn’t really circumnavigate Grace Wyndham Goldie because she was in many ways a pioneer and she had such a great energy. I didn’t want to do a parody of her. She was very much for me, in essence, the kind of kick off point for the character of Bel. And more than anything it was just very inspiring to find a woman like that. Not only working within the BBC but was also at the helm of a show. So I certainly feel that the genesis of that character has been inspired by her.
“But it’s very difficult to steer close to the truth of a real character. So I didn’t want to confine myself by basing any of the characters on any one actual historical figure. So they are all amalgams and have aspects of lots of different characters who, I think, were a type in the BBC but also had aspects of very specific people as well.”
Coky Giedroyc: “I felt really strongly that this piece is gorgeous and thrilling at the same time. And I wanted the period to feel really textured and lush and colourful and rich and to go on a journey in episode one from the dark, shadowy Alexandra Palace to the bright new modernity of Lime Grove. So I was really keen to get that absolutely right with Eve Stewart, our brilliant designer, and costume and make-up.
“But at the same time it’s got to grab an audience and stand out and be breathless, as Abi’s writing is. Basically it’s got to grab the period by the scruff of the neck and run, that’s what I felt.”
3. Parts are visually funny, plus scripted humour?
Coky Giedroyc: “There’s lots there. It’s incredibly layered. It was one of the most knackering jobs I’ve ever done, just unpicking Abi’s ideas and not wanting to be too slavish to them but to catch the beats that I thought you wanted.”
4. Dominic – this bridges two worlds. Both old school and new school BBC?
Dominic West: “Yes, very much. I think that’s what Hector’s about. It’s interesting, we had a character in the show who plays a friend of Nasser (the Egyptian President). He was a lovely guy and he worked for the BBC in the fifties for the Arabic service of the World Service. He was telling me a lot about that transition that happened in the fifties, where people had come out of the war and the feelings of deference towards the establishment, that everybody had, including the BBC, that was not changing. And those who had either not been in the war or who had been upset by the war…it was a period of transition. He loved the old school guys and saw that the new guns were the future. And I think that’s really what my character was trying to bridge. And he does it quite successfully by being venal, really, I suppose.”
5. He’s involved in a love triangle?
Dominic West: “Well, I think you’d be right there.”
6. Romola – what attracted you to the part?
Romola Garai: “The role was very attractive to me. I don’t think it was a really fascinating time for women in the workplace. They were still, effectively, unable to work in any serious way if they were married. So it became a real choice. You had marriage and children or you did not, you were married to your career. And so I find any woman who made that choice, who chose work above everything else, really fascinating. And it’s a great place to start because you can really run with that in lots of different ways when you’re trying to represent a character.”
Dominic – how did you feel about having your character described as a pretty boy at one point, and being this sort of poster boy? And what about the smoking that takes place in this drama? Were they real cigarettes?
Dominic West: “I’m not sure you’re allowed real cigarettes. No, they were absolutely horrible. I’d much rather die of cancer, actually, than smoke them. But we were constantly puffing on these and I developed a lung complaint which in 20 or so years’ time will be an interesting court case…” (joke)
Poster boy? “Oh yes. Isn’t that amazing? I’m debonair. My wife would be just rolling in the aisles at the idea. It was deeply shocking walking on the set and seeing that enormous picture of me. Fortunately it looks a lot better. The grading is really good here.”
Did they not give you a copy of it as a memento?
“No. I thought about sticking it up at the end of the garden.”
Everyone chain smokes and drinks like fishes?
“The period detail was in it. It really hit me when we hit the BBC canteen. The art department, who were really amazing, had authentic pictures of dishes of the day from the fifties – Spam and jelly. We were in the canteen smoking while we were eating this Spam. I love the suit and the hair and everything but planned not to be smoking while eating Spam.”
Coky – parts of it were claustrophobic. Was that deliberate?
Coky Giedroyc: “It was. The whole first two-thirds of the first episode, I felt, was deeply steeped in the old establishment and the old world. The post-war, just recovering from the Blitz world of London. The world of Claringdon Hotel, with the old buffers and the aristos and the debutantes being sent into hideous marriages. So I really wanted it to feel oppressive and not be able to see vistas and not make journeys where you could see out buildings. And I wanted that to develop through the first episode and become lighter as we went along. So that Lime Grove represents, in a way, the light coming into the story. That was one of the ideas.”
Will there be lots of stories or one story?
Abi Morgan: “Well, primarily, the arc of Suez and the Suez Crisis is the big news story. And there are little stories that tick away through the six. But I wanted to take a really big, critical, news story that had a massive impact, not only on the BBC but the government. So there’s that. And then, of course, there’s the machinations of the love triangle and then the unpicking and playing out of the thriller that runs through that. So there’s this big story that goes over six. But one week they’re talking about The Clean Air Act and another week they’re talking about some small scandal.”
Is there a plan that this might be a returning series?
Jane Featherstone: “Yeah, that’s the idea. If it’s successful. The story is resolved at the end of episode six but the character threads are very much left hanging. So we hope everyone will come back and spend more time with the team that you’ve met. And we expand – Anna Chancellor and Josh (Joshua McGuire who plays Isaac) and Lisa (Lisa Greenwood who plays Sissy), who were in the first episode, we see more of them and the team. You get to spend more time with them all. So that’s the plan. If you all watch it.”
Are both Dominic and Romola optioned?
Romola Garai: “I’d love to. Absolutely.”
Abi – what were the main challenges writing those six hours?
Abi Morgan: “It was bloody hard work. I think I was quite arrogant to think that…to be absolutely honest, I had a fantastic creative team. I know that people always use this slight blanket statement but it was really true and I think when you’re navigating your way through a very complex thriller like this…they were a very key team. So I think they really kept my eyes open with matchsticks and just kept me going. Because it is a maze and you do tie yourself up in knots.
“The inspiration for this was very much, His Girl Friday and Broadcast News. But there was also, for me, All The President’s Men and Network and even a little bit of Jagged Edge there. So I was quite inspired by a lot of movies and I wanted a piece that had a sense of thrill. But that does take a lot of plotting. So there’s a lot of riddle-making that goes on in it. I think the creative team were very good at pulling me back.
“The joy of working on a six-part thing was just surprising because the creative team, we were all in one building. So it was an incredible thing to be working on episode four and then watching your episode one and two being filmed in the next room. So you would have the opportunity of, say, seeing Dominic doing something brilliant and think, ‘Well, I want more of that.’ Or seeing Romola portray something you didn’t think she was going to do. And so that was very exciting to start to feed that into the writing process as well.
“So on a creative level it’s genuinely been the most exciting creative project I’ve ever done. It was like an old studio system. The actors were on set, the art department were on set, Coky the director was just in the next room. Jane was constantly there, in and out.”
Jane Featherstone: “Abi is being incredibly modest. I literally don’t know of any other writer in Britain or almost anywhere who could have achieved that level of detail. And as you watch the episodes, I think they’re all at this standard, every single one, if not better, some of them. I literally don’t know anyone else who just has the focus, the clarity of thought and the speed. It’s truly remarkable.”
How long did it take to write?
Abi Morgan: “From the moment I heard in Yo Sushi that it was going to get green lit, which was probably late spring – five or six months.”
(The Hour went into production last September)
Romola Garai: “I auditioned for The Hour about halfway through shooting Crimson Petal.”
Suez began in 1956 So World War Two was pretty recent? Time of change? Older male characters would have had a war background?
Abi Morgan: “That emerges through the whole series. It becomes very integral to it. Hector is one to watch.”
Getting the period detail just right?
Coky Giedroyc: “The fifties is irresistable and lush and has been brilliantly done with Mad Men. It’s a benchmark in a way. You want to get the period detail right but I hope you’re so busy following the characters’ journeys that you’ll forgive us the odd 1968 motorbike when I zoom in at some point.”
She also explained how one of the main locations was Hornsey Town Hall in London, a listed 1930s’ building, full of period details offering offices, corridors and a huge studio space.