Why The Hour deserves a third series

Feature Philip Lickley 18 Apr 2013 - 07:00

We sail out of geek waters temporarily to express our support for cancelled British drama, The Hour...

The Hour was a BBC television drama that ran for two series from July 2011 to December last year. Focussing on current affairs show ‘The Hour’, a fictional television programme running in the mid-1950s, it starred Dominic West, Romola Garai and Ben Whishaw, and it was cancelled in February to many complaints from fans of the drama. 

Series one focussed on establishing the world, the television show and an overarching arc involving communist spies, while series two shifted to the seedy world of vice with topics such as alcoholism, fascism and celebrity scandals taking centre stage, but unless a decision is reversed, we won't be seeing a third. 

Why was the series cancelled? 

The official reason for its cancellation was the viewing figures. It has been reported that a BBC Two series needs something in the region of 1.75m viewers to be recommissioned but The Hour only managed to achieve an average of around 1.24m during its second season. Compare that against something like The X Factor which got an average of 9.63m viewers per episode last year or a more like-for-like comparison, Call The Midwife, which earned 9.3m for one of its latest episodes. 

But that might not be the only reason it’s been cancelled, as the BBC have said they wanted to concentrate on doing quality drama rather than just always using viewing figures as a yardstick, though this obviously does come into any consideration to justify the licence fee. The key cast members of The Hour are probably not getting any cheaper. Ben Whishaw is enjoying cinematic success in roles in the James Bond franchise and Cloud Atlas; Dominic West has appeared in John Carter, Johnny English Reborn and Arthur Christmas, as well as major TV roles; and Romola Garai has enjoyed various television show lead roles in Emma and The Crimson Petal and the White. Though it has the benefit of not being built around costly CGI, something that affects other shows such as Primeval with the axe hanging overhead, the cost of the cast balanced against the viewing figures doesn’t probably stack up. 

How important is drama to television schedules now? 

It’s difficult to deny that there are other forms of programming that prove more popular to the masses on television, with reality and talent shows, cooking programmes and other much cheaper genres proving good for balancing the books and drawing in in the viewers. Channels such as Watch have spent lots of money commissioning exclusive dramas and importing North American shows, which have boosted their viewing figures but equally not pulling in huge, justifiable audiences. 

The BBC has often gone on record to say they don’t want to judge shows on their audience figures but to create niche, varied programming but as heavy investment in shows such as The Voice proves, they are understandably still aiming at times for the mass market. 

There is of course, still a heavy investment in drama. ITV's Broadchurch has been an enormous succes, Call The Midwife's second series was wildly popular and perhaps the money that would have been spent on a third run of The Hour is to be invested in new talent, an undeniably worthwhile cause. With global successes like Sherlock and Doctor Who, as well as promising new commissions such as Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell on their way from the BBC, we're certainly not being short-changed.

Why should The Hour be recommissioned? 

The cancellation of The Hour is to be mourned for reasons outside viewing figures and demographics. It was a drama created, written and produced by women with strong female leads, which is a big positive in an area dominated by male figures. It is popular in North America and, unlike other shows, has a market on DVD and Blu-ray. It’s a period drama, usually always popular in the UK, and features a wide-range of issues that have contemporary parallels, and is more ‘high-brow’ than the usual drama, covering political issues regularly in its episodes. It’s also one of the few series I’ve watched with a strong arc that holds it all together and feels like it justifies its six episodes with a lack of filler. 

Re-commissioning The Hour would also restore my faith in dedicating time to television series. Some of my all-time favourite programmes have been cut short in their run – Primeval and its Canadian spin-off, Murder In Mind, and going back a bit, Crime Traveller – and that’s also not to mention other acclaimed shows such as The Fades and Dirk Gently. Even favourite comedies are not safe, with the often hilarious Not Going Out one benefactor of a reversed decision to cancel a show. 

It's a trend reflected across all areas of entertainment from television to music to films. If a first series/album/film flops, even if it has a strong core following, it doesn’t have a second chance. Whether is down to the lack of risk taken by studios and companies due to a difficult financial climate I don’t know, but it’s an unfortunate situation we find ourselves in. It’s also not helped by a blossoming piracy market, hampered by questionable decisions by television and cinema schedulers. Films like The Muppets and Wreck It Ralph took several extra months to cross the pond to our cinemas and big American productions regularly take an age in reaching these shores, and often a tech-savvy young generation will avoid the wait and the inevitable social network spoilers by grabbing a copy off a torrent. 

It could be argued that part of the reason behind cancellation sits firmly in the laps of those who illegally download shows, something that badly affects programmes aimed at and watched by younger people who are trigger-happy with the download button. Is that why Call The Midwife and Downton Abbey get the bigger viewing figures, as their target market aren’t as familiar with the illegal channels? Not that The Hour was necessarily aimed at the 16-34 demographic. 

Returning to the series itself, there are several other reasons I’d like to see The Hour return. The dramatic conclusion involving Freddie Lyon (Whishaw) needs to be resolved, something that now hangs in the air like the ‘will they survive?’ cliffhanger that hit other period drama Heartbeat that reached its end a few years ago. The relationship between Lyon and Bel Rowley (Garai) is also something that needs to be explored, as does the continuing personal and professional life of Hector Madden (West), alongside other smaller plot strands left hanging. 

The Hour's strong art style, characterisation and scenes such as the incredibly touching moment between Anna Chancellor and Peter Capaldi in the final episode of series two, all add to the reasons it greatly deserves another chance.

What would we like to see from a third series of The Hour

Moving on from the conclusion of series two and offering closure on those open plot strands, if The Hour was given a reprieve, there's plenty I’d like to see from the series. There are a number of storylines for it to tackle as it nears the 1960s, continuing the themes of the first two series, perhaps into issues such as the impact of the birth control pill on society, the space race, or the Cuban Missile Crisis, all events in the early 1960s that Mad Men has successfully mined for dramatic potential, as could The Hour if it were to jump ahead a few years. The team have already said they have ideas in place for a potential third series. 

It would also be great to see more implied parallels with contemporary issues as a looking glass to how they appeared fifty years ago, with perhaps something like the real-life Jimmy Saville revelations being formed into a fictional story of how such things could happen, though perhaps that’s a little too close to home even for a series that has been critical of the BBC as part of its plotting. There’s plenty of drama left to be explored by the programme, though, away from this. 

It would be interesting to see where the future of drama lies. Ratings for The Hour weren’t that strong but it did have a strong following; networks say they are struggling to fund drama but ITV ran a chain of cinema commercials to promote Broadchurch, which won’t have come cheap, but have evidently paid off as promotion for the hit new drama series. 

In times of recession, it is said that viewers enjoy a good period drama, hence the success of Call The Midwife and Downton Abbey, though perhaps ultimately The Hour, equally set in the past but with a considerably less honeyed view on the world, isn’t chocolate-box enough to fall into the same category or to be a comfort blanket in tough times.

All signs point to us having seen the last of the fifties-set BBC drama, which is a great shame for its loyal fans who would want it known that The Hour will be genuinely missed.

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