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Devote an Hour to BBC America's 'The Hour': You'll Be Back for More
August 16, 2011  | By David Bianculli

TVWW contributor Ed Bark, in his latest Uncle Barky's Bytes column, has beaten me to the punch by raving already about BBC America's new The Hour series (read his rave HERE).

But I'm adding my own praises anyway. Maybe it's because we're both old-school newsroom veterans, but this period drama about the birth of a meaningful British TV newsmagazine in the 1950s clearly speaks to us both. The costumes may hint of AMC's Mad Men -- but to me, the closer comparison is to the brilliant 2005 movie Good Night and Good Luck...


In the United States, the first significant TV newsmagazine, and news operation, was See it Now, overseen by anchor and editor Edward R. Murrow (right) -- then and now, the most legendary of figures at CBS News -- and produced by equally seminal figure Fred Friendly. The series began in 1951, determined to explore and exploit the possibilities of the new medium of television. In 1954, Murrow and Friendly took on self-proclaimed Communist-hunter Sen. Joe McCarthy, in a bold broadcast dramatized in Good Night and Good Luck, with David Strathairn as Murrow and George Clooney (who co-wrote, directed, and whose production company produced the film) as Friendly.

In the United Kingdom, the rough equivalents -- the first TV shows to generate news rather than regurgitate features and newsreels -- were the BBC News series Panorama, launched in 1953, and Tonight, which began in 1957. The Hour, the fictional series that gives its name to this new real series, is also set at the BBC, and splits the time difference by beginning in 1956.


The primary characters in The Hour, which premieres Wednesday at 10 p.m. ET on BBC America, are fictional, too, but are based on amalgams of real British news figures. Bel Rowley, the ambitious TV news producer played by Romola Garai (right), is based on Grace Wyndham Goldie, who ran the news division at the end of the 1950s and was one of the few female TV executives in the world at that time.

And Dominic West plays well-connected news anchor Hector Madden, standing in for any number of square-jawed British anchors at the time.


For American viewers, though, West (seen at right) will take some getting used to in this role. Though he was born in England, and the accent he sports in The Hour is his own, he's much more familiar as Jimmy McNulty, the Baltimore cop in HBO's The Wire. But he's really strong here, and as effortlessly likable as the character he plays.

The central figure in The Hour, though, is Freddie Lyon (photo below, with BBC camera), a young BBC News journalist played by Ben Whishaw. As the series begins, Freddie is as likely to be fired as to be promoted -- but he desperately wants in on the ground floor of a new TV show that promises to take the news more seriously. When an old friend suggests that a robbery-murder may lead to a larger story and conspiracy, he investigates, at the same time he's lobbying to join the new program staff.

Lucky for him, he's friends with Bel Rowley, who ends up being appointed producer, and who fights for his inclusion. She calls him James, as in Bond; he calls her Moneypenny. And this is before any of the 007 movies came out, so this repartee is based on a shared appreciation of the Ian Fleming novels alone.

In other words, how can you not root for these two? They're not only TV news people. They're readers!


The Hour, at least the episodes made available for preview from BBC America, play like a period version of the original miniseries version of another excellent British TV import, State of Play. There's a murder mystery at the core, a massive conspiracy in the shadows, and an analysis of the way news is gathered and reported as a central theme.

All that, and McNulty with a British accent, too...




Angela said:

So in a nutshell, The Hour is a show based on journalism, set to the 50's, with actor "McNulty", and compared to one of my favorite conspiracy thriller series, State Of Play? Wow! You can be sure I'll be watching this tomorrow night!

My thoughts keep percolating about Rupert Murdoch and what I've been told by my European friends about how so much of the news we've seen over the years has been censored in America (but not in the UK), for his greed and gain. This TV show sounds like it was made for me, and that I could not, nor would not, miss it for anything. And I wouldn't have known that The Hour was going to be on if not for this site.

Thank you once again, TVWW people.

[Our pleasure, Angela! Check back in and let us know if it matches your expectations. -- DB]

Comment posted on August 16, 2011 9:12 PM

Angela said:

I told a friend about The Hour and he said he wasn't interested because it was written by David Simon and he never had any interest in The Wire. It took me a minute to puzzle this out until I realized he must have been referring to the actor Dominic West who plays a character in both shows, (I couldn't resist writing about another perfect example of how our news is often misinterpreted.)

The Hour did match my expectations, though the style of filming was a lot different than anticipated. In one of the first scenes we see the man being murdered in the tube. Would the style be called classic film noir, or perhaps it was a parody of noir? Either way it didn't feel real to me. Yet when Freddie and Bel argue in the elevator after his bungled interview I was completely drawn into the story and forgot that I was watching TV.

The main characters are quite interesting and likable. Freddie is a maverick, and I want to like Hector too. I even caught myself smiling whenever Hector smiled. His hitting on Bel while married and lack of concern for doing so, was also fitting for that time period.

Because Bel is one of the few women working in a man's world, I look forward to seeing what she makes of it. Her only downfall could be caring too much for the underdog in Freddie. And she reminds me of Peggy Olson on Mad Men as Peggy struggled to become an ad man exec., but that's where the similarities of the two shows ends for me.

The murder/spy story within the news show story, along with the nationalization of the Suez Canal Company story (that Ed Bark referred to), is going to make for some thoughtful TV watching, a welcome change from much of the rubbish on TV. I'll definitely be watching another Hour.

[Thanks for getting back to us with your reaction, Angela. If you were a student of mine, you'd be going home with an A. -- DB]

Comment posted on August 20, 2011 11:01 AM

Angela said:

An A? :-D.

[I'm bad with emoticons. Is that you smiling? Or panting? -- DB]

Comment posted on August 21, 2011 8:06 PM
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