March 5, 2021

Television: British Reporters, Not Ad Men, in ’50s, Not ’60s

When “The Hour” had its premiere here on BBC2 last month (it has its BBC America premiere Wednesday at 10 p.m.), “Mad Men” comparisons abounded despite some crucial differences. For all the shadowy after-hours nightclubs and tight sheath dresses, the show’s backdrop isn’t as shiny as the Manhattan of “Mad Men,” set less than a decade later. It’s cold, wet London two years after the end of rationing, a city still struggling to regain its footing after the bombings of World War II.

Yet “The Hour” may remind American viewers of nothing so much as our own age. Several scenes seem to anticipate the News of the World phone hacking scandal, like when Freddie bribes a policeman to let him examine a body at the morgue, and the phones of reporters are tapped by government agents (even though it was journalists doing the listening-in at News of the World).

The recent revelations about News of the World and the hacking of cellphones owned by, among others, a murder victim hadn’t yet surfaced by the time “The Hour” went into production. But one of its executive producers, Derek Wax, acknowledged that the current scandal had given the show a sense of immediacy.

“It does seem very pertinent now,” Mr. Wax said last month at a Television Critics Association gathering, noting that the show touches on current issues like the collusion between politicians and journalists, and “who you have lunch with one day and how stories are leaked.” He added, “We are very much in 1956, but at times you feel that nothing’s really changed.” (A second season, if approved, would address the Notting Hill race riot of 1958.)

Of course times have changed dramatically for women. Abi Morgan, who wrote and created “The Hour,” said that while researching the project she discovered that if you were one of the few women employed by the BBC in postwar London, you were most likely a telephone-answering, tea-carrying secretary. “I think America was a bit ahead of us in that regard,” Ms. Morgan said. “There were a lot more women in the workplace in America than in Britain.” Throughout most of the series Bel is so outnumbered that when men unapologetically disparage women in front of her, nothing — no resentment, no frustration — ever registers on her pale face.

When asked if this was an acting choice, Ms. Garai, speaking in her agent’s office in central London, said that her Bel wouldn’t have expected to be treated as an equal. “I mean, misogyny would not have been misogyny at that time. It wouldn’t have been exceptional. It would have been life.”

To prepare for the role Ms. Garai studied up on Grace Wyndham Goldie, a British news pioneer. Ms. Goldie, a radio critic who didn’t begin her television career until her late 40s, was the producer most famously associated with the success of BBC programs like “Tonight” and “Panorama,” which broke ground by covering current affairs as they happened, thus ignoring the “14-day rule,” which dictated that the BBC not report on issues that were to be debated in Parliament within two weeks.

“She was absolutely at the forefront of that movement, and she was totally alone,” Ms. Garai said. “She was like any woman who had to operate in that climate. She was intimidating, formidable. Definitely a woman with the emphasis on ‘man.’ ” (In “The Hour” Bel is a woman in her 20s who wears figure-hugging dresses, bright-red lipstick and smokes cigarettes as elegantly as Myrna Loy in a “Thin Man” movie.)

Before it was broadcast, some British news outlets had positioned the series as the country’s glossy answer to “Mad Men.” But when the executive producer Jane Featherstone, president of Kudos Film and Television (“MI5,” “Life on Mars”), first commissioned Ms. Morgan to create a series about a time when the BBC stopped broadcasting government-sanctioned newsreels and focused on investigative news, Ms. Featherstone was thinking of a political thriller involving television reporters and the Suez Canal crisis of 1956.

“In British terms that was the end of our empire, the moment that Britain really gave up its position as a global player,” Ms. Featherstone explained, adding that only 12 hours passed before Ms. Morgan returned with an outline for a series that included espionage, lots of drinking and the mysterious suicide of a beautiful socialite who Freddie insists has been murdered. When Bel falls for her lead anchor, a smooth-voiced beefcake named Hector Madden (Dominic West), viewers will instantly know that Ms. Morgan also took a page from “Broadcast News,” James L. Brooks’s 1987 romantic comedy about love, longing and unchecked journalistic ambition. What? No “Mad Men”?

“What they share is some fashion and some lampshades,” Ms. Featherstone said, trying to hide the “Can we drop the ‘Mad Men’ comparisons?” weariness in her voice. Then she confessed to her own micro-campaign to distinguish the two by “going around slightly smugly correcting everybody: ‘It’s not the same decade! This is 1956, and those are the ’60s!’ ” She added, “In terms of pace and tone you can see they’re miles and miles apart.”

There are those, of course, who will tune in thinking they might get their Jimmy McNulty fix, that is, the boozing, authority-defying police detective that Mr. West played on the HBO series “The Wire,” which ended in 2008 Stateside and was a huge hit in Britain. Speaking by phone, Mr. West wondered about what this segment of the viewing public would think of him as the posh Hector Madden, wearing hand-tailored suits, sporting a dapper side part in his curly hair and enunciating every British-inflected syllable. “ ‘Wire’ fans, they’re hoping for hard-bitten Baltimore, and they get very received-pronunciation English,” said Mr. West, who seems unable to get the word out that he was educated at Eton. “There’s always a sense of deflation in a room when I go in and they hear me speak.”

Here in Britain there is one viewer excited that Mr. West has dropped his disheveled cop routine and inhabited the character of an anchorman who rivals James Bond when it comes to careful grooming. “My wife was just in heaven,” Mr. West said. “I always say: ‘There’s nothing I can do about it. I’m at the mercy of whatever job I’m doing.’ And she said: ‘Finally. You get a decent haircut.’ ”

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