The Hour episode 1 review

Ben Whishaw stars in the major new BBC drama, The Hour. Here’s our review of the intriguing first episode…

The BBC’s new period drama, The Hour, comes at an extraordinary time in the history of journalism. With allegations of phone hacking and other dodgy practices bringing down a 168 year-old newspaper and sending shockwaves through the media, it’s quite likely that journalism, at least in print, will never be quite the same again. And while The Hour deals with a very different kind of journalism – TV rather than paper-based – the drama’s timing is nevertheless remarkably apt. 

It’s 1956, and young journalist Freddie Lyon (Ben Whishaw) is frustrated with the perfunctory state of TV reportage. While Freddie desperately wants to report on the weightier issues of the day – racism, social upheaval – his superiors are more interested in celebrity marriages and ladies’ day at Ascot.

Freddie’s good friend and fellow journalist Bel (Romola Garai) is similarly restless, though her ambition and focus has enabled her to cut through the male dominated media landscape of the 50s. Through guile and sheer hard work, Bel’s managed to secure the job of producer on a potentially groundbreaking new BBC current affairs show called The Hour.

Bel’s keen to get Freddie onto the show, too, and manages to convince her superiors at the BBC to give him an interview. The trouble is, Freddie’s louche and outspoken personality don’t make him the ideal candidate for the starched old guard of the BBC.

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Matters are complicated further when the debonair Hector Madden (Dominic West) is hired as The Hour’s presenter. While Freddie’s got plenty to say about current affairs, he’s less vocal about his feelings for Bel, and is visibly irked by the frisson of attraction between her and Hector.

If all this sounds like the stuff of soap opera, a violent murder in the London underground pitches the show headlong into the detective genre. The connection between this killing and the goings on at the BBC aren’t initially clear, but another old friend of Freddie’s, a Lord’s daughter called Ruth, turns up with some worrying conspiracy theories.

“You think you live in a democracy,” Ruth says. “You think you live in a country ruled by freedom of speech. You’re not.”

At Ruth’s behest, Freddie begins to investigate the murder, and discovers that the victim was a political academic called Peter Durell. Freddie later discovers that the killer had sliced open every seam on Durell’s suit. Clearly, he was looking for something – but what?

The BBC has a long and successful track record in period dramas, and the corporation has always excelled at anything that requires lots of costumes and period detail, an area The Hour also succeeds in brilliantly. 50s London, with all its suits, prejudice and side-partings, is extremely well realised.

As a series opener, The Hour doesn’t initially grab the viewer by the throat, and for the first 15 minutes, appears to be content to let its audience wonder who all these people are and what’s going on.

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Gradually, though, the drama’s trio of lead characters begin to engage our interest. Ben Whishaw is great as bitter, passionate hack Freddie, as is Romola Garai as Bel, an ambitious woman seemingly decades ahead of her own time. Both are upstaged, however, by the towering presence of Dominic West, who’s perfectly cast as the vain ladies’ man, Hector.

Writer Abi Morgan’s script is a little uneven, oscillating between keen wit and dialogue that’s distractingly obvious. We can already see with our own eyes that Bel is an ambitious woman trying to succeed in an industry run by men, so lines such as “You work twice as hard as men, and none of them is half as good as you,” are surplus to requirements.

Nevertheless, The Hour delivers just about everything you need in a decent drama. One episode in, we have a love triangle, a dead body, some sort of government conspiracy, and a conclusion that most will spot coming well before it arrives, but one that still serves as a handy dramatic full-stop to an intriguing debut.

At a time when the media could be about to go through some unprecedented, irrevocable changes, The Hour tells the story of the dawn of a new era in television journalism, the kind of in-depth current affairs programming we now take for granted.