Why The Hour Should Be Less About History

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
Nov. 28 2012 2:04 PM

Why The Hour Should Be Less About History

Dominic West and Romola Garaiin The Hour

Photo byKudos Film & Television Ltd– ©BBC

There’s an interesting meta-story at the center of The Hour, the British drama that returns to BBC America for its second season tonight. The news program that launched in the show’s first season is now going through a tricky phase. “The last six months have been an exercise in maintaining the direction and morale of The Hour,” says Randall Brown, the BBC’s new head of news, played with a galvanizing scowl by The Thick of It’s Peter Capaldi. Brown’s job is to buck up the team—to stop philandering anchor Hector Madden (Dominic West) from squandering his talent and to keep producer Bel Rowley (Romola Garai) from working herself to death (or, worse, to boredom and misery). Abi Morgan, creator of the BBC drama—she’s also written plays and films, including The Iron Lady and Shame—faces a similar task: to reinvigorate the show and to convince viewers (some of whom surely shared my opinion that the first series was full of fascinating characters doing very dull things) to give it another chance. (Alyssa Rosenberg has a great interview with Morgan over at DoubleX.)

June Thomas June Thomas

June Thomas is a Slate culture critic and editor of Outward, Slate’s LGBTQ section. 

Morgan succeeds, for the most part, by dialing down the crazy conspiracies that dragged Season 1 into the weeds. The show-within-the-show again tackles big social and cultural themes—why else set the show in 1957—but this time around Morgan seems to realize that what we are really interested in is the cast of characters: Bel, Hector, and quixotic newsman Freddie Lyon (Ben Whishaw), who has developed a new maturity and self-confidence after a stop in the New World.


Even so, the historical plot points too often take center stage, and it takes a writer with more subtlety than Morgan to make them seem fresh. I’ve seen just two episodes of Season 2, but suspect I could predict with roughly 85-percent accuracy what will happen in the plots involving Soho vice and the racist response to African and Caribbean immigrants arriving in working-class London neighborhoods.

(The Brits seem to be running out of mid-century historical themes, perhaps because they make so many period shows. The recent Upstairs Downstairs remake also dallied among Oswald Mosley’s fascist thugs, and it’s surely just a matter of time before one of the residents of Downton Abbey dons a brown shirt. Meanwhile, BBC America’s underappreciated Whitechapel took on Soho prostitution and porn.)

The characters do play beautifully together, though, and the simmering sexuality that Brits do so well is ridiculously hot—pretty much every character fancies someone they shouldn’t or has had a torrid affair at some point in the recent past. The Hour does a wonderful job of showing that even before HR departments started conducting training courses about sexual harassment, everyone knew that interoffice romances were a bad idea.

And with the addition of Peter Capaldi, there’s now no doubt that the backstage drama is infinitely more interesting than anything else in the show. Anyone who thought Capaldi was defined by Malcolm Tucker’s shouting in The Thick of It will be surprised by his quiet, reflective portrayal of Randall Brown. Whereas Tucker motivated his political shock troops by bullying and foul-mouthed intimidation, Brown uses artfully deployed silences to get the best from the news staff.

As it happens, the BBC is going through its own serious travails at the moment. Budget cuts have sapped employee morale, the Jimmy Savile story was broken on a rival network, a factual error on a news show led to the director-general’s resignation—and these tribulations all echo story lines from The Hour. Television production itself has all the ingredients for fascinating stories, and The Hour needn’t rely on world-political events to provide drama. If only the show’s producers had more faith in their characters—and in the idea that viewers will be entertained and challenged by watching them struggle to do a good job of holding people out there in the “real world” accountable for their actions.



The End of Pregnancy

And the inevitable rise of the artificial womb.

Doctor Tests Positive for Ebola in New York City

How a Company You’ve Never Heard of Took Control of the Entire Porn Industry

The Hot New Strategy for Desperate Democrats

Blame China for everything.

The Questions That Michael Brown’s Autopsies Can’t Answer


Kiev Used to Be an Easygoing Place

Now it’s descending into madness.


Don’t Just Sit There

How to be more productive during your commute.

There Has Never Been a Comic Book Character Like John Constantine

Which Came First, the Word Chicken or the Word Egg?

  News & Politics
The Slate Quiz
Oct. 24 2014 12:10 AM Play the Slate News Quiz With Jeopardy! superchampion Ken Jennings.
Oct. 23 2014 5:53 PM Amazon Investors Suddenly Bearish on Losing Money
Oct. 23 2014 5:08 PM Why Is an Obscure 1968 Documentary in the Opening Credits of Transparent?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 23 2014 11:33 AM Watch Little Princesses Curse for the Feminist Cause
  Slate Plus
Oct. 23 2014 11:28 AM Slate’s Working Podcast: Episode 2 Transcript Read what David Plotz asked Dr. Meri Kolbrener about her workday.
Brow Beat
Oct. 23 2014 6:55 PM A Goodfellas Actor Sued The Simpsons for Stealing His Likeness. Does He Have a Case?
Oct. 23 2014 11:47 PM Don’t Just Sit There How to be more productive during your commute.
  Health & Science
Oct. 23 2014 5:42 PM Seriously, Evolution: WTF? Why I love the most awkward, absurd, hacked-together species.
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.