Dominic West as Hector Madden, The Hour's presenter. Photograph: BBC
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The Hour: series 2, episode 1

The BBC drama about a BBC news programme is back, and it's never felt more relevant.

WARNING: This blog is for people watching "The Hour" on Wednesday nights on BBC2. Don't read ahead if you haven't watched it yet - contains spoilers!

Not far into this, the first episode of The Hour’s second series, slimy political aide Angus McCain declares that “A lie has no legs. A scandal - now, that has wings.” All slicked-back ginger hair and hinted-at homosexuality, actor Julian Rhind-Tutt imbues the lines with the malice and seediness that those who followed drama’s first series so avidly - mainly me, it’s true - have come to expect from him. His beloved Prime Minister Eden might be gone, but McCain wants to show from the outset that he still wields power in the shadowy world of Westminster. And in uttering these words, he’s also setting up a series’ worth of plot points, and reassured us that writer Abi Morgan has chosen not to mess with a successful formula.

The Hour has never bothered with loud showy cliffhangers or even let its characters raise their voices that often. No - The Hour specialises in creeping realisations and barely-seen glances that flick to and fro, while the discussion of important social issues gets scribbled in the margins of a densley-written script. Just like in the last series, when a high-up BBC executive was eventually found to have turned traitor and started recruiting for the Soviets, McCain has promised us from the outset a scandal so big and juicy that almost everyone will pretend it never happened at all.

Morgan could never have known when putting together The Hour’s second series that it would air in a week when the real-life BBC has been engulfed in scandal that hinged on investigative journalism gone awry and management failures. The Jimmy Savile affair and the Lord McAlpine debacle are hardly equivalent to having Soviet spies wandering around the corporation's canteen drinking tea, but it still feels more topical than a drama should to be watching Romola Garai’s producer character wrestling with issues of sourcing and news management, and fretting that ITV’s competitor programme, Uncovered, has stolen her idea for a hard-hitting investigative news show and is delivering it better than she is.

If the last series was all about espionage, this one appears to be all about vice - specifically, Soho gangland vice. Dominic West’s Hector Madden has got rather too big for his boots since his eventual success as The Hour’s presenter, and has started frequenting West End clubs where extremely deferential tabloid paparazzos take his picture and callgirls encased in cream satin corsets do their level best to entice him away to hotel suites (he doesn't resist very hard).

Meanwhile, the crime rate is through the roof and the government is spending vast sums on nuclear weapons rather than policemen. In an example of the kind of scene The Hour has always excelled at, one of Madden’s girls sits on the edge of the bath inspecting her battered face and bruised body - the result of a morning-after visit from a mysterious man. Next evening, she’s sweeping her fringe over her split eyebrow, powdering her cut lip and singing in a cabaret while powerful men smirk at her over their champagne saucers.

Hector gets cosy with a Soho "actress" when he ought to be out doing journalism or at home with his wife. Photograph: BBC

Peter Capaldi has joined the cast this series as the new head of news (replacing the one who is now in prison for being a Soviet agent) and proves in his first few scenes that even without the swearing and with the addition of a severe side parting, he knows how to steal a scene. The slight frisson between him and Anna Chancellor (playing the maverick foreign desk editor, Lix Storm) has promise that hopefully will be explored in future episodes. We might mourn the ending of the The Thick Of It, but all is not lost - Malcolm Tucker never got to say lines like “I grieve for the croissant” while mournfully holding a plate of burnt toast.

For me, at least, there was an alarming lack of Ben Whishaw in this episode’s first half, but once he made his grand entrance - stubbing a cigarette out on a BBC noticeboard and being late for his first news conference since being fired, all the while sporting a rather ragged beard - he more than made up for it. Freddie dashed about the place, pounding out the scoops, accusing ministers of not caring about murder victims, providing a refuge for a colleague’s persecuted Nigerian boyfriend, and even revealing that while the show has been off air, he's acquired an unexpected new French wife, who appeared wearing just a jumper and wielding a kitchen knife. He still calls Romola Garai's character "Moneypenny", though - a running joke that's even better now that we know that Ben Whishaw is also Q in the new James Bond film.

Ben Whishaw as Freddie Lyon, the hard-hitting journalist who returned to The Hour as co-host in the first episode. Photograph: BBC

Last series, much of the criticism of The Hour complained that it didn't seem to know what kind of programme it was - newsroom drama or political thriller. I never understood why it had to be either/or, since Morgan's scripts seemed to weave the two together quite deftly. This second series opener has demonstrated that once again it's going to try and blend the two genres, but with a domestic political plot rather than a foreign one. A promising start.

Still, more Ben and less beard would be nice next week.

I'll be blogging "The Hour" each week - check back next Thursday morning for the next installment, or bookmark this page

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

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Beautiful and the damned: a spellbinding oral history of Hollywood

West of Eden: An American Place by Jean Stein follows a specific tribe of people: the beautiful.

One day in LA, the showbiz tycoon David Geffen drove by the house that had belonged to Jack Warner, the co-founder of Warner Brothers. The gates were open, so he went in. “It was so grand and so Hollywood . . . It was an homage to an idea about the way people lived in Hollywood. I got caught up in the whole gestalt and I bought it.” Geffen then marvels that he paid $47m for the homage, while Jack had sold his whole studio for just $38m in 1956. You have to have a sense of irony.

From around 1920 there was a tribe in southern California, sometimes known as “the beautiful people”. In many cases, they were technical beauties (they appeared in dreamlets known as movies or had their photographs in magazines made of heavy, perfumed pages). Yet the true beauty talked about was a spiritual aspiration – a quest for romantic nobility, fragile elegance, or serene madness – that might offset the inner derangement, selfishness and comic vulgarity that so threatened their longing for godless class, or inscrutability. They lived within the frantic church known as Hollywood, a fierce cult or early form of terrorism (it hired intimidators, all of them called Oscar) that cherished the hopeless grail of beauty and sacrificed many lives in its pursuit.

Jean Stein is one of them; she admits as much in West of Eden, which seems to me the best book ever done on the terrifying social dysfunction of the beautiful people. Ms Stein is now 81. She is the daughter of Dr Jules Stein (1896-1981), the son of Lithuanian Jews, who became a celebrity ophthalmologist yet so loved music and show business that he founded the MCA agency – Music Corporation of America.

The marriage of medicine and ten-percenting is important to this book, and Jean Stein – who is clear-eyed, and knows where the bodies are buried – has the innate touch and scalpel smile of an expert autopsist. She does not quite write, but she composes absorbing, novelistic oral histories. In 1982 she did one on Edie Sedgwick, the Sixties model, junkie, sexpot and icon, a ghost long before her death. Now Stein delivers a calm Götterdämmerung that can be read as the fearsome annals of a haunted Hollywood, as well as an adroit response to John Steinbeck’s East of Eden (1952), earlier proof of California’s soft spot for fallen angels.

West of Eden is selective and yet, by the end of its 334 pages, you feel that the light and the shadow have fallen on nearly every­one. There are just five subjects. First: Edward L Doheny, the oil tycoon who established the architecture of Los Angeles, and helped inspire There Will Be Blood. Then there are the Warners, but chiefly Jack, the youngest of four who outlived and betrayed his brothers, and who abandoned a nice Jewish wife for an adventuress and ended up being painted by Salvador Dalí and dreaded as “a character”. There is also Jane Garland, a schizophrenic child of great wealth who drifted around with various unofficial nurses and uncertain friends. Next is the teeming casebook called Jennifer Jones; and then the Steins themselves, which means Jules and Jean, and her two daughters by William vanden Heuvel, one of whom now publishes the weekly magazine the Nation.

In shaping these five windows, Stein has interviewed numerous tribe members, many of whom have memories, wounds and nightmares for which they are in therapy (or script development – the two forms are very alike). Her tone and manner are matter-of-fact, but she knows how wary those close to Eden are about trusting stories. Life is a competing set of fantasies, and given that lies have always been allowed in LA, falsehood itself, as a moral handicap, has come to mean little. Though all “true”, this book reads like a dream.

A short review cannot cover all five windows in detail, so let me fix on the one I know best: the glass or screen in which Jennifer Jones existed like a butterfly. Born in 1919 (Gore Vidal once told me she was three years older; gossip devours fact), she was the daughter of an Oklahoma showman who thought she would act – on screen, of course, but also always and everywhere. She married a young actor, Robert Walker, and they had two sons. Then in 1941 she was seen by the mogul David Selznick: he was moved by her and she was drawn upwards by her chance of stardom. Each abandoned a spouse and two sons. They became archetypes of misjudgement, though her mediocre acting never matched the skill or glow of other Selznick employees (such as Ingrid Bergman). They had a daughter, Mary Jennifer, who lived in rivalry with her mother and loathed her, and finally killed herself.

Jennifer, as Lauren Bacall reports, could be a little nutty. She and Selznick gave lavish Sunday parties: “Jennifer was busy doing her make-up and combing her hair and changing her outfit. She was kind of playing her part. She was always trying to be noticed, to have people really care about her and be there for her.”

This is not pretty stuff; maybe that is why these people were so desperate to be beautiful. Indulgence and neglect formed a damaging mixture that left bodies lining the roadside west of Eden. Lawyers and doctors catered to the stricken beauties. Shrinks played an especially devious role, though “shrink” was the wrong word; those hired to soothe mania in fact inflated their clients’ egos and dramatised their self-pity, the movie in which we all take part.

Hard to credit, often hard to stomach, this is a spellbinding record of that ancien régime. Whatever happened to the tribe? The members may be thinner on the ground now in southern California, but their ignoble nobility is everywhere.

David Thomson’s books include “Showman: the Life of David O Selznick” (André Deutsch) and “How to Watch a Movie” (Profile Books)

West of Eden: An American Place by Jean Stein is published by Jonathan Cape (334pp, £20)

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war