BBC America's The Hour - Stylish, Engrossing, Perfectly Cast

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Tomorrow night, Wednesday, August 17, BBC America’s six-episode series, The Hour, debuts at 10p.  It’s one of the best dramas to brighten our television screens this year.

The series is a stylish, noir-ish, at times John le Carré-like, cold war political thriller set behind the scenes of the BBC newsroom just as The Hour – an investigative news program – is about to launch.  (The famous British newscast Panorama – the longest-running public affairs television program in the world that still airs in primetime -  is partly the inspiration.)

The backdrop: 1956 and the Suez Crisis, a pivotal time in British history. “The government pulled us into a phony war…. the ailing Prime Minister was desperately trying to hide the fact that he was incredibly ill,” creator/writer Abi Morgan explained at Television Critics Association summer press tour, “[It was] a moment when Britain took to the streets and protested and said, ‘law, not war.’”

The emotional hook: a love triangle.

The Hour is oh-so-perfectly, perfectly cast.  Just…g’uh!  Perfect.  By episode three, the connections between the characters are beginning to deepen, to expand, and I was fully engaged.  I wanted to know more, I wanted to find out what happened to them – I actually cared, in a way I haven’t cared about characters in a long time.

Dominic West (The Wire) stars as the charismatic, handsome anchor Hector Madden who - beneath his buff, pec’d out veneer - is insecure and restless.  (From a privileged background, Hector slipped into the anchor position on The Hour via family connections.)

At press tour via satellite (from the Duchess Theatre in London’s West End where he’s playing the lead role in Butley) West said he patterned his mannerisms after his father.   “In terms of newscasters of the day, they were very avuncular, they weren’t quite as glamorous as Hector…most of them had comb-overs,” said West, “or Richard Dimbleby was everyone’s favorite uncle.  My dad was very much a man of the 50‘s and I always felt I understood the time because of him and the way he dressed and the way he was in his manner….he was, I suppose, who I was channeling in terms of manner.”

Hector develops a love/hate relationship with Freddie Lyon (Ben Whishaw), a young correspondent who lives in a dingy apartment and cares for his sick father.  Freddie has a David Carr-like honesty and fearless passion for investigative stories and digging up the truth, but he’s often his own worst enemy.  Freddie, in contrast to Hector, is thin, nerdy, badly dressed, and a slightly pretty.  “No luck with girls…and now you know too much,” says the menacing Tom Kish played by Burn Gorman.

Freddie’s best friend and unrequited love interest is Bel Rowley (Romola Garai), the smart, pretty producer of The Hour.  Sexism is rampant but she finds a mentor in Clarence Fendley (Anton Lesser).   She’s battling a growing (mutual) attraction to the charming Hector, and her mother - a former showgirl -  is an embarrassment and a thorn in her side.

The talent goes deep in this series.  There are about a dozen terrific supporting characters, each one thoughtfully selected.  To mention just a few: Anna Chancellor as the heavy-drinking Lix Storm, an eminent war correspondent who understands the implications of the Suez Crisis; Joshua McGuire as Isaac Wengrow, Freddie’s loyal assistant, the grandson of an orthodox Jew from Eastern Europe; Angus McCain (Julian Rhind-Tutt), the closeted gay press advisor to Prime Minister Anthony Eden and liaison between the government and the BBC.

The Oscar-nominated Eve Stewart (for The King’s Speech) is the production designer. The perky, witty Stewart delighted the press at summer tour.  Perhaps she’ll snag another Emmy (she won for Elizabeth I) for her work on The Hour.  She described scouring the British countryside for the devices of the period.  “Old men with hairy ears have an amazing amount of old cameras in their garages,” she said, “I couldn’t believe it.  They were everywhere.  And the more we tapped into that, the more we made friends with them, the more they would come offering teletext on little platters to us.”

The series isn’t without a few flaws.  There were some lazy writing moments in episode one.  Freddie tracks down some clues all too easily and then, inexplicably, overlooks the obvious.  And, in episode three, a poorly choreographed fight sequence didn’t make sense.  But these are fairly minor glitches in an otherwise terrific viewing experience.

I know, I know – sometimes BBC America is hard to find on the line-up.  Here in the San Francisco Bay Area, on Comcast, it’s in the middle of nowhere -  Channel 162.  (grumble)

But please, please locate BBC America on your cable line-up and watch.  Abi Morgan say she’s already “plotted out a whole…journey for season two…potentially taking on the space race….and the Notting Hill riots…But it all comes down to the viewing figures.”

An inside look:

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