The BBC's newsroom drama, The Hour, has had a delayed return. Originally scheduled for broadcast in the summer, the Olympics saw it closeted for the season. Yet, while it's been waiting for the evenings to get darker and colder, and for us to slip into the routine of autumnal nights-in, it can hardly be said that the world of journalism, corruption and scandal have been missing from our television screens.
In series two of The Hour, we return to the BBC of 1957, and much has changed for the team behind 'The Hour'.
Bel Rowley (played by Romola Garai) echoes the dazzling career of Grace Wyndham Goldie who found success at the male-dominated BBC of the '50s, and she is still at the helm of a programme trying to revolutionise the news – an attempt that saw them pulled unceremoniously off-air at the end of the last series. Rowley is joined by a new boss, Randall Brown, adding Peter Capaldi (of The Thick of It fame) to an already acclaimed cast.
A year on, Britain is beginning to change, and so too is the look of the programme. The drama has ditched some of the greyness of a country still creeping out of post-war austerity, and moved into a world beginning to reflect in the shining glamour of Hollywood. The clothes stamp brighter colours across the screen, it enters the hedonistic night-life of Soho, Hector has found celebrity fame, and even Freddie ditches the floppy hair for a slick new look. He even appears sporting some fashionable facial hair. Yet some things remain constant.
The show's creator, Abi Morgan. recently talked about the motivations that strongly underpin her writing. In recreating the world of the '50s, she explained, she looks to history for those stories that are still most relevant today. Accordingly, last series saw her characters reporting on uprisings in the Middle East, as Egypt reclaimed their resources (in this case the canal, not oil), and Britain waged war for the purposes of retaining it.
And the context for the new series? It's a time gripped by fear of nuclear power in the midst of the developing cold war, of the space race and the Sputnik crisis. But the stories occupying 'The Hour's' journalists are also those much closer to home, as they investigate London's criminal underworld, mass immigration, and a scandal of celebrity. Indeed, a scandal of their own broadcasting celebrity – their presenter, Hector.
Sounds familiar. The world of journalism has from the first itself been a point of contemporary relevance in The Hour. Airing in the shadow of the phone-hacking scandal, and revelations about the proximity of Murdoch to politicians, the first series resonated with its glimpses of the comfortable collusion of the press and politicians at the top of society – even if in this case power relations were reversed. Yet it was a tarnish from which the team of The Hour, forward-thinking journalists with superior moral and broadcasting values - had escaped.
“At a time where journalists are beaten and put down”, Morgan comments, “and have become the lowest form of life next to estate agents, I still believe in the nobility of journalism, and I still believe there are good journalists”. The programme's bright talents – Bel, Lix, Freddy - are all to Morgan “a group of heroes that I hope parallel the 21st century.”
A very deliberate component of Abi Morgan's vision, it also drew strong criticism from some the first time round, for being self-celebratory idealism. I liked its optimism, but even I have reservations about how this will sit in the current climate. Mistrust of the media has recently turned a very direct finger at both the The Hour's commissioners, the BBC, and Newsnight – a descendant of programmes like Panorama and Tonight upon which the fiction is modelled.
An identification with the BBC is always immediate in the drama, all the more so as the new series brings ITV onto the scene as a rival news programme. “I'm not here to hurt you, I'm from the BBC” Freddy declared earnestly to an interviewee in the last series. It is a sign of how badly the recent Saville scandal has shaken them that this simple declaration, so naturally invoking a reputation of trust, now sounds so ironic when re-watching the series.
The filming of The Hour's second series finished before for the storyline set up for Hector to be a deliberate response to the BBC's own scandal, but it might just save the series. I suspect previous criticism already encouraged Morgan to make her characters less angelic and confident in their own professional values. In a direct echo of the Levison Inquiry, Ben Whishaw reveals that Freddy and the team, confronted with Hector's arrest for abusing women, must decide “what's suitable material to use in a news story, whether it's right to delve into people's private lives in that way”.
Where The Hour has taken it's exploration of the world of journalism will be interesting to see. I have little doubt, however, that Abi Morgan will deliver her final aim – to provide escapism. With a previously fired Freddy returning to the team with a new woman, Bel finding it hard to resist her new rival producer, and even Lix having a history with the new boss, there'll certainly be plenty of drama in their relationships.
The Hour returns on Wednesday 14 of November, on BBC2 at 9pm.
Images © BBC/Kudos/Laurence Cendrowicz & BBC/Kudos