The Hour is inaccurately called the British version of AMC’s Mad Men. The American show is far better and more interesting. That doesn’t mean The Hour isn’t enjoyable – it is, but there are some major debits that are difficult to overlook. As a period drama, it’s very good – a great account of late 1950s Great Britain, during the Anthony Eden government, which is dealing with the Suez Crisis. Freddie Lyon (Ben Whishaw) is an idealist young journalist who leaves print journalism to work on a fledgling new newsmagazine show, The Hour. He’s hired by his best friend, protofeminist producer, Bel Rowley (Romola Garai). Even though Freddie wants to be the anchor, Bel’s forced to hire handsome, but empty, talking head, Hector Madden (Dominic West), who struggles mightily with acclimating to the pressures and demands of hosting a news show. While the folks at The Hour are trying to tell honest, unvarnished reports of the British government’s involvement in the Suez Crisis – particularly the Eden government’s alleged collusion with Israel and France, and reported plans to assassinate Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser.
It’s difficult enough to report the news when it’s continuously changing as it did during those tense times during the Suez Crisis, it’s even more difficult for Freddie and his chums with the looming presence of MI6 who are monitoring The Hour‘s content to ensure that any dissent is squashed. It’s when the series focuses on this aspect of the plot that it shines best – there is an appropriate amount of tension in seeing how the journalists would figure out how they’d both toe the line, yet still produce an honest program.
Unfortunately, screenwriter Abi Morgan (who won a BAFRA for the Margaret Thatcher biopic The Iron Lady) isn’t content on presenting a drama on the backstory of a television show. Instead, she also wants to juice up the story with a thriller. Freddie’s childhood friend kills herself, but her suicide is cloaked under suspicious circumstances that threaten to reveal a large and complex conspiracy that may involve the Eden government, MI6, and even the KGB. It’s all standard Cold War stuff – fear of the Soviets and spies lurk in the shadows. Morgan’s a great writer, but she gets too schlocky and pulpy when she tries to ape John LeCarre. The mystery isn’t all that intriguing, and in fact, it intrudes on the far more interesting story of the making of a television show that is under consent threat of censorship and cancellation.
While Morgan’s script is lacking, the two leads don’t help matters much. While both Whishaw and Garai are attractively cast, and they share a fun chemistry, they aren’t all that interesting – their performances feel a bit light weight, especially when they are forced to bring some of the more twisted, convoluted plot turns to life. But the supporting cast is excellent – most notably Anna Chancellor as the Rosalind Russell-like staff reporter. Chancellor’s Lix Storm is a warm, gorgeous, generous presence, but is reduced to the sidelines far too often – Morgan should’ve pushed Lix to the center of the plot, as she is by far, the most compelling character.
It feels a bit churlish to give such a mixed review of The Hour because Morgan is obviously in love with her story. But there’s a smugness and a heavy handedness in the way she tries to draw parallels between the Suez Crisis and the 2003 Iraq War. There are many moments when the characters give chest-thumping speeches about the virtues of protest and freedom of the press; substitute Eden with Blair or Bush and you don’t have to make any changes to the script. But these liberal anti-war sentiments, while admirable and correct, feel contrived, forced, and it’s pandering – Morgan doesn’t believe her audience will figure things out on its own, so she feels she has to announce in big, bright letters with a line of exclamation marks: “we’re not all that much better today!!!!”
There are two sides to The Hour – a good, well-written historical drama, and a messy and unformed thriller. Unfortunately, Morgan’s script tips more toward the thriller and the viewers are left on following a mystery that isn’t all that interesting.