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TV review: The Hour series two's promising start
Romola Garai and Ben Whishaw. Image BBC
The Hour, BBC2's newsroom drama from writer-producer Abi Morgan, returns for a second series of six episodes, with the action having moved on a year to November 1957.
The production values appear to have been boosted, meaning The Hour's lost its BBC Four-style minimalist feel. The sets, fashions and camerawork all feel improved, rivalling slick US counterparts to an extent..
The series appears to be using overused plot ideas: like the dutiful wife who knows her husband's playing away, and the beautiful Soho showgirl being abused by her criminal bosses.
I wasn't a big fan of The Hour's first series because it felt like half a promising show needlessly complicated by a silly espionage subplot (much like BBC2's cancelled US import, Pan Am).
Maybe Abi Morgan wanted to differentiate it from Mad Men that way, but it didn't work; critics were still compelled to compare it to the US Emmy-winner, even if it more accurately resembled the 1976 movie Network.
Considering this episode had to reacquaint viewers to all the characters, explain the changes in their lives, while introducing newcomers and outlining fresh storylines, it did a very capable job.
"I wasn't a big fan of The Hour's first series."
We are now in 1957 and The Hour has become a ratings smash, inspiring imitators; its anchorman Hector Madden (played by The Wire's Dominic West) is enjoying his resulting celebrity status, while tempted by offers to defect to ITV.
Bel Rowley (Romola Garai) is trying to run the show all by herself; the BBC has a new Head of News in the unyielding Randall Brown (The Thick Of It's Peter Capaldi) who plans changes like giving egotistical Hector a co-host.
Meanwhile, prodigious Freddie Lyon (Ben Whishaw) has returned from America with a trendy beard, reinvigorated perspective, and a sexy girlfriend.
The Hour improves
Away from the character's lives, the big concerns for series two feel more varied than last year's fixation on the Suez Canal Crisis (which was a dry topic).
This time we have the more enticing prospect of the government siphoning budget away from policing and into nuclear defences in the wake of Sputnik 2's launch.
Bel wants to focus the public's attention on the growing criminal underworld - exemplified by suave gangster Raphael Cilenti (Vincent Riotta), owner of the El Paradis club Hector frequents in London's Soho.
What's pleasing about series two already is seeing a focus on its strengths; the politics of BBC newsgathering in the 1950s (where people believe the introduction of post codes is Orwellian), and the central triptych's love-hate relationship.
I particularly enjoy seeing Whishaw and Garai perform together, and it should be even more fun now Freddie has found love while he was gone.
Did The Hour live up to all the hype?
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- 79 %Yes - it's very good
- No - it's overrated
There's nothing in The Hour that hasn't been done countless times, but the actors are extremely watchable. Whishaw is becoming a genuine Hollywood star, with roles in Skyfall (as Q) and Cloud Atlas; his association with the former is especially amusing here as Freddie always jokingly refers to Bel as "Moneypenny".
This opening episode popped off the screen to a greater degree than previous efforts; it looked more assured and the scope of the world felt widened (due to a bigger budget, or better use of finances).
Throw in the likes of Peter Capaldi joining established supporting actors like Anna Chancellor, and The Hour reeks of class.
There were storytelling issues last year, and a script that was, at times, peppered with anachronisms, but the appealing return of this premiere suggests they've taken note of what worked.
It's a slow-burn so it probably won't appeal to many viewers, but if you're craving sophisticated drama, The Hour is a safe bet.
- Verdict: Abi Morgan's writing to her strengths and the result is enthralling.
What other reviews say
The Guardian - "It's still not entirely clear if The Hour really knows exactly what it wants to be."
On The Box - "It's a British Mad Men rip-off that now has Peter Capaldi in it. And that makes it great."
What people on Twitter said
@JohnhampsonUK - "Slow start but #thehour is picking up now."
@TVAlisonGraham (Alison Graham of the Radio Times) - "I think it's passionless and insufferably in love with itself, but others adore it."
The views in this article are those of the author alone and not of MSN or Microsoft
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