Sunday, 28 August 2011

The Hour: Crosswords and Soviet Spies

BBC 2 Drama by Abi Morgan

So big shocker then viewers, the media, print and broadcasting, kowtow to the government as far back as the stylish 50’s. 

This web of media collusion is all via crossword puzzles and soviet spies resulting in the big riddle ‘Brightstones’. Feel scared if you’re on that list basically. And no I’m not going to mention ‘Mad Men’, mostly as I’ve never seen it.

 So to set the scene, it’s 1956 and the BBC are launching a new magazine programme under the watchful eyes of producer Bel Rowley (later revealed as picked by Clarence Fendley, Head of News, mostly at the easier option over a male producer, this was the era epitomising gender inequality)

The opening episode kicked off with intrigue and hints of deep seated conspiracy with a distress call from Lady Ruth,  an old friend of investigative journalist Freddie Lyon, the creepy crossword guy, Thomas Kish, the murder of political/academic mover and shaker Peter Darral against the background of 50’s London and posters such as ‘Keep Mum, The World Has Ears’. Starting with a bloody murder on the London Underground and ending with the suspicious hanging of Lady Ruth Elms, the next few episodes were about knitting this all together in an elaborate plot of ‘Who’s the baddie/spy/traitor?’

There are a few references to the gender issues of the time; the reference to Bel’s ‘nurturing’ instinct in a patronising manner, dubious reasons for her appointment as producer and later ticking off for the affair with presenter, Hector.

Hector’s wife Marnie’s inane Bridge playing and acceptance of her husband’s infidelity after a high society arranged marriage was frustrating.

She briefly showed some ‘balls’ confronting Bel but later slips back into dutiful daughter/wife role when her options were more open than most women of the time with ‘daddy’ being able to arrange a divorce.

There was some loyalty to the era but for me, considering it was written by a woman, these issues were not really brought to the front and to be honest I didn’t find Bel a convincing career woman, especially with her fast action jumping into bed with her presenter and ‘oh god’ she blubbed at the end, that’s how hard hitting 'journo' she was. There is also the telling moment as Bel walks away from the ‘men only’ bar that she is excluded from despite being the producer.

The female characters were not particularly strong other than the brilliant Lix Storm whose character was a little under developed after some teasing about a broken love affair and her flawed affections.

I wanted to know about her photography career, why she hadn’t danced since the 40’s, why she drank so much and actually I think she was miscast and would have made a more convincing Bel Rowley.

There are rumours afoot of another series so maybe the women will be more of the backbone of the conspiracy theorising/solving while in keeping with the time. Very simply I would have liked a character like Marnie to be meatier but let’s wait and see.  Having modernist ideals in an era of such inequality is a tricky balance though and I thought the open dating between Sissy and the black guy was a little ahead of its time perhaps?

 I really liked the link in with the ‘woman in trouble’ Ruth dilemma  and the way high society ‘killed two birds with one stone’ by trying to marry her off to the gay actor, Adam Le Ray,  who later turned out to be involved with the slimy politician, Angus McCain.

Episode two and three were ‘fillers’ for me (great shots of English countryside estates and ‘hunting, shooting and fishing’ nonsense plus the links with aristocracy, politicians and media moguls)  but episode four moved things on with the affair between Bel and Hector and the ‘connection’ between Bel and Freddie (Will they, won’t they, did they ever?)  but mostly the escalation of historical events such as the Suez Canal Crisis in a country still in recovery from the war and unravelling of the Empire, the beginnings of the downfall of Anthony Eden and overlooking of Budapest and the Hungarian revolution started to liven it all up a bit.

The final episode really brought Freddie Lyon to the forefront and upped the risk factor with the programming and sudden revelations from Lord and Lady Elms and the dreaded Brightstone list.

Bel Rowley showed more backbone in the finale with her hellbent focus to keep to the overall claim by Freddy ‘newsreels are dead, we’ve bored the public for too long’ exposure type reporting going dangerously against Clarence and McCain in order to report the truth at the expense of her career.

Ultimately though, Freddy was the one who ‘pulled it off’ and got the programme taken off air despite the later revelation from Clarence about his motives in information sharing and 'running' stories.

To the bitter end Freddie stamps Bel with the pet name ‘Moneypenny’ even though she was his boss, friendly joshing but again a reality check for the time.

Overall’ The Hour’ was a good Beeb drama with, admittedly, some sleepy parts that maybe could have been cut down and speeded up for three episodes rather than six. Certainly not exclusively for the interest of those working in the media business and timely programming with the current news domination of control issues in the media and civil disquiet on the streets. Biggups for Freddie Lyons, Lix Storm and Sissy (Now why wasn’t she a spy?) for me in this…and well done for those on the peripheral. Not bad at all for a corporation making a programme about itself?

Jump on iplayer here to catch up if you missed...all episodes can be seen now, please check iplayer for availability as all are off by 2nd September.

Jump to the official BBC website : The Hour


Bel Rowley -  Romola Garai
Freddie Lyon - Ben Whishaw
Hector Madden - Dominic West
Marnie Madden - Onna Chaplin
Clarence Fendley - Anton Lesser
Lix Storm - Anna Chancellor
Lady Elms - Juliet Stevenson
Lord Elms - Tim Piggot- Smith
Sissy Cooper - Lisa Greenwood
Ruth Elms - Vanessa Kirby
Thomas Kish - Burn Gorman
Adam La Rey - Andrew Scott
Angus McCain - Julian Rind- Tutt
Peter Darral - Jamie Parker
Issac Wengrow - Joshua McGuire

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