If you took the DNA of the movies Broadcast News and The Thirty-Nine Steps, added a pinch of Mad Men mystique, and mixed it all together in an art deco cocktail shaker, you might get a refreshment very like The Hour, making its U.S. premiere on BBC America on August 17. Diverting, smart, and atmospheric, if somewhat emulative, this six-episode drama is a spy thriller set in the BBC newsroom in 1956. Clues lurk in crossword puzzles; film-noir shadows loom in shabby London offices; ambitious, good-looking journalists scramble to cover the Suez Crisis: it’s comfort-food entertainment whose fourth-estate theme offers just a hint of intellectual piquancy.

Adding to the coziness factor are familiar faces such as Ben Whishaw (Bright Star) and Dominic West (The Wire), who depict rivals—and magnetic opposites—in a workplace love triangle. Whishaw is Freddie Lyon, a brainy, gifted young reporter who hails from the less privileged side of Britain’s class divide, but has fabulous hair. When the hyper-competent producer Bel Rowley (Romola Garai) hires Freddie, a close friend, for an investigative news show she’s launching, he’s crushed to find himself playing second fiddle to Hector Madden (West), the program’s dim but handsome upper-crust anchor. Both men are attracted to Bel, a go-getter who has to deal with the same kind of casual sexism that the scrappy copywriter Peggy fights in AMC’s Mad Men. (The hats and ubiquitous smoking in The Hour, which is created and written by Abi Morgan, also give the show a touch of Mad Men exoticism, at least in the two Hour episodes that were released to critics.)

When Freddie learns of a little-noticed murder with geopolitical implications, signs begin to point to a sinister conspiracy that may involve the government, the British aristocracy, and even the top-tier of the BBC. “Do we live in a democracy, or under the illusion of one?” a peer named Lord Elms (Tim Pigott-Smith) asks rhetorically when Freddie corners him for an interview; the interview topic is ostensibly Britain’s death penalty, but Elms’s open-ended question adds to The Hour’s enjoyably paranoid ambiance. It’s a mood bolstered by the stylish production design (by Eve Stewart), which features telling details like a Cold War public-security poster in a BBC elevator (you can make out the words “Atomic Attack”) and a clipping headlined “If the Invader Comes,” pinned beside Freddie’s desk.

Not all the pressures on Freddie and Bel are of the cloak-and-dagger variety: The two pals, who long to break trenchant national and international stories, find themselves fighting a journalistic culture that shrinks from irking the political establishment. When Bel and her team recruit an Egyptian diplomat to talk about the Suez Crisis on air, a henchman of British Prime Minister Anthony Eden attempts to strong-arm them into dropping the plan; he is astonished when Bel refuses.

Perhaps the more insidious problem facing the idealistic reporters in The Hour is widespread doubt, among their bosses, that the public is interested in serious news stories. “Martial law may have been imposed in Poland—but we’ve got footage of Prince Rainier on honeymoon with a showgirl,” Freddie laments at one point. He is quickly dispatched to cover a debutante’s engagement party.

Neither of these two themes—media/government complicity and the hard news/soft news dichotomy—will seem unfamiliar to American audiences. Coincidentally, as BBC America was gearing up for the series, Rupert Murdoch’s phone-hacking scandal was gaining momentum, dredging up tales of Scotland Yard poobahs and British politicians cozying up to tabloid hacks.

In America, the ongoing battle between serious journalism and sensationalistic fluff has been a bigger concern: Distinguished newspapers have been losing money, shedding staff, and in some cases folding altogether, while gossipy Web sites like TMZ fly high and Casey Anthony coverage airs nonstop on cable news. The Hour highlights the divide between journalistic substance and shallowness by playing up the contrast between Freddie and Hector. Freddie is a media visionary with a keen knowledge of geopolitics, but the matinee-idol Hector—who’s at sea when it comes to the fine points of the Suez crisis—gets to be the face of Bel’s program.

If this conflict sounds reminiscent of the 1987 movie Broadcast News, which starred William Hurt as the flashy anchor, Albert Brooks as the talented but unmagnetic newshound, and Holly Hunter as the energetic producer who’s love interest to both—well, yes, this aspect of The Hour is virtually a carbon copy. But, then, Broadcast News didn’t offer a Hitchcock-style espionage caper, glamorous 1950s garb, and shots of the House of Lords. And besides, not every story can be a scoop.

Celia Wren is Commonweal’s media and stage critic.

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Published in the 2011-08-12 issue: View Contents
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