The Hour: the Fifties in colour

Abi Morgan’s much-hyped new drama feels like Britain’s liberals stealing conservatives’ favourite monochrome decade.

David Bowden

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A foreign policy in disarray over a disastrous and purposeless Middle East intervention? British ministers openly interfering in the affairs of media outlets and insisting on more responsible journalism? A stultified and calcified political sphere focused around co-operation and dedicated to stymieing potential unrest as the government seeks to manage its economic decline? Oh my sweet Abi Morgan, you appear to have your finger right on my pulse.

The Hour is BBC2’s big attempt, following on from recent cop-show The Shadow Line, to offer homegrown drama of the scope and quality of the stuff produced abroad, specifically by HBO. You can tell they’re doing this because they announce it as such. The Shadow Line was Britain’s answer to The Wire, with the latter’s searing social critique on the war on drugs being replaced with a searing social critique of the ramifications of pension fraud. Hmmm. The Wire it was not, but apparently taken on its own merits as a darkly stylised and occasionally surreal crime drama, it was actually quite good. Similarly The Hour is Britain’s answer to Mad Men, replacing the latter’s crisp eye for period detail and examination of how the social and sexual revolutions of the Sixties informed contemporary anxieties over consumerism with…

Well, they’re both set before 1965. All the men wear sharp suits, the women busty brassieres and stockings, and everyone smokes. Yet, as many have observed, it’s not really Britain’s answer to Mad Men. It is, however, a highbrow series set in a Fifties newsroom with an all-star cast of bright British actors (including The Wire’s Dominic West, the old Etonian actor playing closer to type here) and penned by the aforementioned leading young dramatist Morgan who, judging by the outline sketched in the opening paragraph, must be doing something right.

So well worth paying attention to on its own terms then. With the increasingly repetitive and self-indulgent Stephen Poliakoff seemingly been quietly shunted off BBC screens to pursue his increasingly narrow interests in wartime aristocratic fascism on film and the stage, Morgan seems set to become the Beeb’s Serious Dramatist of the austerity era. She certainly has an eye for tapping into the concerns of the liberal set who watch highbrow BBC drama, graduating from 2004’s Sex Traffic (for Channel 4) through to the corruption of Thai officials blocking NGO relief in the aftermath of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, the benefits of multiculturalism in White Girl, the progressive nationalism of The Royal Wedding and her forthcoming film starring Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady.

It is perhaps no surprise, then, that she has turned her attention to the Fifties: a period which has become something of a popular political battleground in British life of late. For some, the Fifties were the monochrome decade of grey postwar austerity, beloved only by arch Conservatives as a halcyon period of benign social unity before the permissive society kicked in, the blacks got uppity and the unions got militant. The Left, and left-leaning liberals, save(d) all of their tedious nostalgia for the Seventies – indeed, in some cases, before the Seventies were even over.

Somewhat weirdly, however, everyone currently seems nostalgic for the Fifties. Social historians Peter Hennessey and Dominic Sandbrook have written popular bestsellers of the decade in recent years; the baby-boomers born in the period have been the subject of much angst from across the political spectrum from the likes of Conservative minister David Willetts’ The Pinch to Francis Beckett’s What Did The Baby Boomers Ever Do For Us? Greens and anti-consumerists love the austere spirit of ‘make do and mend’ before the rise of Tesco and high-street fashion; hell, even the Fifties diet has had its moment. BBC4’s own recent mini-series on the angry young men even seemed to be nodding towards the decline of social mobility before its headline show, a new adaptation of John Braine’s Room At The Top, was scuppered by a very contemporary copyright row.

It could, in part, be down to audience demographics, of course: the baby boomers are still booming and getting towards their anecdotage. More significantly, at least on British screens, is the thought that the Fifties are the last great period in recent memory which marks a kind of change in British society, with the collapse of the old imperial order, comparable to the one we’re living in now. The problem is that nobody today seems to have much anticipation, inspiration or excitement for what’s coming next.

As such, The Hour is probably closer in temperament to the reasonably recent George Clooney film Good Night and Good Luck which, as was noted on spiked at the time, replayed Hollywood liberals’ most comforting creation myth of bringing down McCarthy while making some very dubious parallels between the past and the Bush era. It’s early days yet, but one can’t help but feel that The Hour’s story of radical campaigning journalists aiming to shake up the conservative order by exposing corruption at its heart whilst making damn good television is being cheered by those who were brought to excelsis by the ‘Berlin Wall moment’ of Hackgate. While the obsession with period detail in these programmes can often veer towards the inutterably tedious, the criticisms of Lynne Reid Banks – the kind of young journalist being allegedly depicted here – do seem to hint that this is a drama which is much more about how the media currently views itself rather than telling an engaging yarn about Fifties newsrooms or drawing any particularly insightful parallel with today.

Morgan is by no means a crude writer, and The Hour seems a competently made thriller with some rather neat costumes and an excellent cast. It certainly seemed to be hitting its stride in the second episode. But if this is intended as the Britain’s rival to Mad Men then we may want to remember one crucial detail about Fifties: Britain’s answer to Elvis was Cliff Richard.

David Bowden is spiked’s TV columnist.

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