The Hour: series 2, episode 3

So many storylines, you won't know where to look.

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!

Catch up on last week's instalment here

Thematic unity, that's what this episode lacked. Last week the script so perfectly tied together the personal and the professional, with our characters struggling to cope with the actions and ideas of fascists both at home and at work, that this week's attempt to move on several different storylines all in the space of the hour (geddit?) felt somewhat choppy and unsatisfying.

But then, feeling unsatisfied is really what The Hour is all about - the longing glances, the unspoken rules, the desire for freedoms that don't yet exist. And in this instalment, we discovered that in the case of Randall and Lix, portrayed once again so superbly by Peter Capaldi and Anna Chancellor, their unsatisfied longing stems from the brief period during the Spanish Civil War when they were in love and had a child.

They have A PAST. Who knew? Photograph: BBC

I always knew Lix was going to turn out to be more than just the older female character who has a ready stash of witty put downs and is never without a bottle of whiskey in her desk. Now, it has been revealed, she has A Past she'd rather forget, but Randall (in what we can only assume is a middle-aged onset of sentimentality and guilt) is going to force her to confront said past by relentlessly hunting down their daughter. I'm not going to lie, a part of me hopes that the missing daughter (implausibly) turns out to be Bel (after all, surely Randall and Lix's child has to be some kind of groundbreaking journalistic wunderkind?) As a coda to the whole plot, Anna Chancellor’s distraught, swallowed sobs in the lift after her confrontation with Randall were beautifully portrayed. Give the woman a Bafta, stat.

Elsewhere in this fragmented episode, Hector made the return journey from the low point he arrived at last week. Sure, his wife now can't bear to be touched by him and he has an embarrassingly drunken altercation with his only powerful government source at a Christmas party, but by the end of the episode he does his first decent on-air interview since the second series began – interrogating his former army colleague-turned-police-chief Commander Stern.

Stern-faced Comander Stern appearing on The Hour. Photograph: BBC

Which leads me to the strangest decision in this episode – the unmasking of Stern, who was the real culprit of the beating that put Hector in a police cell for a night. I was all set for a few episodes of the viewer gleefully knowing whodunit, while Bel and Freddie charged around closing the net around him. Except that Freddie put it together in about fifteen minutes, and five minutes after that had flattered Stern into appearing on The Hour so that Hector could stick the knife into his brother in arms. I sincerely hope that the writers have got a couple more decent plot twists up their sleeves – otherwise, it was absurd to give away so much so soon. I will, however, say that having Stern’s unmasking hinge upon the provenance of the ugliest ornament I’ve ever seen (which he won at random in a BBC raffle) was supremely elegant. I did feel sorry for Stern’s mistress, Kiki, though. Bel got chips and roses from her ITV beau – an ugly ornament and not getting beaten up seems like a poor offering by comparison.

It wouldn’t be The Hour if they hadn’t managed to cover the taboo-breaking social issue of the day – this week, it was the Wolfenden Report and the debate - or lack of it - about decriminalising homosexuality. As Lix put it, voice dripping in sarcasm, "An actual homosexual on The Hour. That would be... novel." In the same discussion, Bel firmly nailed her liberal colours to the mast, saying “Adultery, fornication, lesbianism are all considered sins. But male homosexuality is considered both a sin and a crime... It falls to us to ask why" while Hector the alcoholic curmudgeon weighed in with "no home secretary wants to go down as the man who legalised buggery". Quite. And so they did try and debate it on The Hour, although the attempted discussion about blackmail and private sexual liaisons was rather overshadowed by the aforementioned interrogation of Commander Stern by Hector. I have hopes, though, that this issue will return to be dealt with again in a later episode – perhaps with slimy government apparatchik McCain at the centre of his own scandal, for a change.

Bel and her ITV opposite number got friendly after the Christmas party. Photograph: BBC

To my fury, Freddie’s wife Camille appeared only in her knickers and a large jumper yet again, even after she’d done some excellent detective work of her own in Soho. Sort it out, costume department - we get that she's supposed to be French, gamine and bohemian now. To my utter delight, though, Bel is finally getting some action of her own, snogging her ITV admirer in the stairwell after the BBC Christmas party. Although if he succeeds in stealing away her presenter, their budding relationship might not bloom... One day, I'd like to see Bel have a relationship with someone who isn't intimately involved in her work. One day.

A classic mid-series episode, then. I can only hope that our patience with the criss-crossing storylines and somewhat exposition-heavy dialogue in this episode will be rewarded in weeks to come.

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

Bel Rowley, producer of "The Hour". Photograph: BBC

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

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Limehouse raises the question of when party loyalty becomes political irresponsibility

Labour's “Gang of Four” are brought to life brilliantly at the Donmar Warehouse.

A star of the Labour Party right wing, exiled from the shadow cabinet for deviating from the dominant orthodoxy, rants about how a decent but weak Labour leader, with an election-losing anti-European, anti-nuclear manifesto, risks letting the prime minister get away with whatever she wants.

Laughter shows that the audience gets what the dramatist Steve Waters is up to. Limehouse takes place on 25 January 1981, when a gentle veteran, Michael Foot, seems to be leading Labour to such sure oblivion at the next election that Dr David Owen has summoned his fellow moderates Shirley Williams, Bill Rodgers and (just back from a stint running Europe) Roy Jenkins to Sunday lunch in his kitchen in east London. This meeting led the “Gang of Four”, as they became known, to make a statement of estrangement from Labour that heralded the creation of the Social Democratic Party.

Waters was inspired by a New Statesman interview in which Rodgers wondered if the left-right divide under Jeremy Corbyn might justify a similar evacuation of the pragmatists now. The debates that the play stages – fidelity to party and national tribes against a fear of political and historical irrelevance – feel hotly topical.

Williams, considering an offer to abandon Labour and teach at Harvard, faced then the dilemma of an Ed Balls or Tristram Hunt now. And Labour members today who fantasise about a new progressive grouping might reflect that, while the SDP briefly seemed a plausible alternative to Thatcherism (winning 7.8 million votes at the 1983 election), the middle-class revolution was squeezed externally by two-party domination and internally by disputes over leadership and direction.

But, for all the parallel relevance, the success of Limehouse ultimately depends on the convincing re-creation of an era and its people. Enjoyable period details include the luxury macaroni cheese to a recipe by Delia Smith that Debbie Owen, Delia’s literary agent, chops and fries on stage to fuel her husband’s discussions with his three wary comrades. Waters also skilfully uses the mechanics of a pre-digital world – having to go out for newspapers, going upstairs to answer a phone – to get one character out of the way to allow others to talk about them.

As a good playwright should, Waters votes for each character in turn. Owen, though teased for vanity and temper, is allowed a long speech that honours his status as one of the most memorable orators in modern British politics. Tom Goodman-Hill samples Owen’s confident baritone without going the whole Rory Bremner.

Playing Jenkins, a man celebrated for both a speech defect and rococo cadences, Roger Allam has no choice but to deliver the voice perfectly, which he does. Waters carefully gives the character an early riff about the “crepuscular greyness” of Brussels, allowing Allam to establish the w-sounds and extravagant adjectives. Actor and playwright also challenge the assumption that for Jenkins both to love fine wine and to advocate social justice was inevitably a contradiction.

Debra Gillett refreshingly avoids the scattiness that caricaturists attribute to Williams, stressing instead her large brain and deep soul, in a portrayal that increases the sense of shame that the Tories should lead Labour 2-0 in the score of female prime ministers. As Rodgers (in Beatles terms, the Ringo of the confab four), Paul Chahidi touchingly suggests a politician who knows that he will always be a bag-man but still agonises over whose luggage to carry.

Unfolding over 100 minutes, Polly Findlay’s production has a lovely rhythm, staging the delayed entrances of Jenkins and Williams for maximum impact. Biodramas about the living or recently dead can be hobbled by a need to negotiate objections of tact or fact. Politicians, however, often purchase even the rudest cartoons of themselves for the loo wall, and the real Owen, Williams and Rodgers laughed warmly during, and strongly applauded after, the first night.

At an impromptu press conference afterwards, a genial and generous Owen astutely observed that what at the time was “a very happy day in our house” has been dramatised as tragicomedy. But, regardless of whether Marx was right about history repeating itself the second time as farce, the possibility that farce is being repeated in Labour Party history has encouraged a compelling play that is sublimely enjoyable but also deeply serious – on the question of when loyalty to party can become disloyalty to political responsibility.

“Limehouse” runs until 15 April

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution