The Hour: series 2, episode 5

“Cut you to your core, you’ll find news running through your spine.”

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

There’s something so delicious about the way The Hour keeps its viewers privy to a substantial slab of its plot all the way along. Of course, the revelations are skilfully spaced out through the episodes, but writer Abi Morgan mostly allows us a glimpse of what’s to come, meaning that you are on the edge of your seat for more details while also revelling in that oh-so-satisfying “I knew it all along” feeling. It’s a very difficult balance to achieve - you neither want that hackneyed horror film trope of keeping your audience so frustratedly in the dark they can literally only see to the edge of the light thrown by the protagonist’s torch, but nor do you want them to switch over, bored because the ending is so obvious from the beginning. This, the penultimate episode of the series, demonstrated just how perfectly The Hour has got this balance right.

Mr Cilenti. Photograph: BBC

For instance, we’ve known for a while that Soho nightclub impresario Mr Cilenti was a bad lot, and that eventually he was going to do something to force the staff of The Hour to pursue him openly. And so he did - but this being The Hour and all that, we got a double whammy of seedy escapades. Not only did he most likely order the murder of one of his dancers because she had been speaking to journalists, he also hosted and participated in a meeting enabling pro-nuclear politicians to profiteer outrageously from the nuclear arms race. All the while, Bel and Freddie struggle and squabble over their guilt about their source’s death and their naked excitement at the potentially huge political scoop - the personal and the political forever chasing each other around the script, indelibly intertwined.

Episodes that don’t actually build up to the airing of the eponymous news programme itself have tended to feel a little slower and less intense, but this one neatly sidestepped that problem by climaxing with the raid on Cilenti’s club, El Paradis. Commander Stern (remember him?) seems to have belatedly decided to face up to his own wrongdoing and start behaving like an honourable man again, sending his coppers into raid the club, arresting Cilenti for the murder of his dancer and many of the other girls for soliciting. The whole sequence - policeman and patrons running everywhere, tables overturning, lamps smashing to the floor, Stern himself shattering a mirror with a truncheon only to find incriminating photos spilling out from behind it - was set to a brilliant and frenetic jazz soundtrack. For me, it was the best bit of the series so far (narrowly beating the opening shot of this very episode, where a horizontal, tousled Ben Whishaw woke up in his brilliantly-lit bedroom).

We’ve also known for a while that Hour presenter Hector was ripe for poaching by the programme’s ITV competitor, Uncovered. In this episode, he finally receives a concrete offer from them, and appears inclined to accept - but not, as we might previously have assumed, because of the money or the status, but because of his wife. Marnie is making quite a hit with her cookery show - the line “rumour has it she gets more fanmail than Noddy” was one of my favourites from this episode - and the station has high hopes of them becoming a popular presenting duo. Having already disappointed her by his adultery and drinking, Hector now seems to have decided he must defer to her professionally to make amends (particularly as he seems to think it’s his fault they haven’t been able to conceive a child). Later, we get confirmation from Marnie that his neglect of their relationship inspired her career zeal: “Success is the best revenge. Don’t waste yourself on anything else” she tells her husband’s erstwhile lover, Kiki. After the way he's behaved, it's hard not to feel like she's entirely justified in that feeling.

Journalists, on the trail of wide-ranging corruption, blend in by drinking martinis. Photograph: BBC

It took Bel a while in this episode to rediscover her inner campaigning journalist - to begin with, she was consumed with guilt about their source’s death and felt they should stop pursuing Cilenti because of it. But, as he always has, Freddie was able to bring her out of her cautious producer shell and remind her of her vocation. He does it in a characteristically blunt way: “She’s dead. I’m sorry. It’s not right. It’s very far from right. But we’re journalists. It’s what we do.” By the end, she’s even ditched her ITV bloke to join Freddie to dig around for evidence at the club. Although that may also have had something to do with the fact that Freddie almost-but-not-quite declared his undying love for her as they stood arguing about the merits of the investigation in the fog outside the BBC studios. My one source of frustration with an otherwise exemplary episode emerged here - Freddie’s wife Camille has conveniently disappeared and he now declares things to be “over” with her. After her brief, and often trouserless, tenure on the show, it would seem that she was always just a clumsy plot device to needle Bel - nothing more.

The best line of all, though, was reserved for Peter Capaldi’s Randall, who declared: “No man is sane who doesn’t know how to be insane on the proper occasions. Madness is a prerequisite for a good journalist.” Previously so quietly self-contained, we got a glimpse of the steely, slightly unhinged newshound that Lix fell in love with during the Spanish Civil War, here. He did some excellent journalism, chasing government apparatchik McCain down and expertly playing him for the location of the corrupt politicians’ meeting - managing somehow to disdain the very idea of blackmail while sort of doing some at the same time. Then, after a disappointing trip to the French embassy to try and discover more about their long-lost daughter, he crumbles, holding his head in his hands as he drinks with Lix. She sits next to him, reaches for his hand and puts it on her knee before leaning her head into his in unbelievable intimacy. “That’s a start,” he says, hoarsely.

Unfortunately, devastatingly, it’s also approaching an end, there being only one more episode of this series. The scheduling gods at the BBC have had mercy on us though - we only have to wait until this evening, rather than another week, for the denouement.

I'll be blogging final episode of "The Hour" tomorrow - check back then for the last instalment, or bookmark this page

Hannah Tointon as Soho dancer Kiki DeLaine. Photograph: BBC

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

GRAHAM TURNER/GUARDIAN NEWS & MEDIA
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How board games became a billion-dollar business

A new generation of tabletop games escaped the family table – and fuelled a global industry.

In Birmingham not long ago, I watched a political catastrophe take place. A cabal of academics was clamouring for a liberal manifesto and an anti-capitalist government agenda. The working classes were demanding authoritarian rule with fewer socialist policies. And the ruling party, beset by infighting and resignations, was trying to persuade everyone that it had their interests at heart. It all felt disturbingly familiar – except that these politicians were brightly coloured cartoon drawings, their policies were drawn from a fat deck of cards and the people pulling the strings of government were a young family and a bunch of cheerful twentysomething men in T-shirts.

This was Statecraft, one of hundreds of board and card games on display at the UK Games Expo (UKGE) in Birmingham last summer. Now in its tenth year, UKGE is Britain’s biggest event in the increasingly crowded and profitable world of tabletop gaming and, with its milling crowds, loud music, packed stalls and extraordinary costumes (I spotted Judge Dredd, Deadpool, innumerable Doctors Who and more sorcerers than you could shake a staff at), it felt like a mixture of a trade show, a fan convention and a free-for-all party.

For anyone whose last experience of board games was rainy-day Monopoly and Cluedo, or who has doubts about the place of cardboard in an entertainment landscape dominated by screens, there was no better place to come for a Damascene conversion.

Statecraft’s creator, Peter Blenkharn, a gangly and eloquent 23-year-old with an impressive froth of beard, was in his element. “Our game also has one-party state scenarios,” he explained, brandishing a colourful deck of terrifying political events. “Sectarian violence. Hereditary establishments. An egalitarian society. Each one tweaks the mechanics and the mathematics of the game. There might be a housing crisis, a global pandemic, extremist rallies, a downturn in the economy, and with each you get a choice of how to react.”

Blenkharn is one of many new designers making careers out of the current boom in tabletop gaming. He founded his company, Inside the Box Board Games, with Matthew Usher, a friend from school and Oxford University, and raised £18,000 on the crowd-funding platform Kickstarter to make their chemistry-themed puzzle game, Molecular. It was manufactured in China and shipped to Blenkharn’s mother’s house, where his family helped to send copies to the game’s backers. Last year, a second Kickstarter campaign for Statecraft made more than twice as much money, prompting Blenkharn to go into the business full-time.

“Publishing your own games is definitely profitable,” Blenkharn told me. “The profit margins are enormous on medium runs, and there’s a huge amount of room for more indie publishers . . . People collect 20, 30 or 40 board games at £20 or £30 a time. You can play with a range of different people. And while video games have a fairly niche age range, as you can see . . .” – he gestured around at the milling crowds – “. . . these games appeal to everyone. The market is exploding.”

The figures appear to support this optimistic prognosis. Last August, the trade analysis magazine ICv2 estimated that the “hobby games” business in 2015 – that is, board and card games produced and sold for a dedicated “gamer” market, rather than toys – was worth $1.2bn in the US and Canada alone. On Kickstarter, where independent designers can gauge interest and take pledges to fund production, tabletop games made six times more money than video games in the first half of 2016.

One of the most startling of these Kickstarter success stories was Exploding Kittens, a simple, Uno-like game illustrated by the creator of a web comic called The Oatmeal. This unassuming deck of cards, crammed with daft cartoons and surreal humour, earned nearly $9m in the month of its crowd-funding campaign, making it the seventh most successful project in Kickstarter’s eight-year history; so far, the only products on the platform to raise more money have been four iterations of the Pebble smart watch, a travel jacket with a built-in neck pillow, a drinks cooler that ices and blends your drinks – and a reprint of another board game, the fantastical (and fantastically expensive) Kingdom Death Monster, which costs $200 for a basic copy and is taking pledges of up to $2,500. It has already raised more than $12m. The figures for other games are scarcely less impressive: a game based on the Dark Souls series of video games, for example, raised £4m in crowd-funding pledges last April.

Touring the aisles of the UKGE, I started to wonder if there was any subject about which someone hadn’t developed a board game. A family was deep in a new edition of Agricola, a German game that involves scratching a living from unforgiving 17th-century farmland. “I’m going to have trouble feeding my child this harvest,” I heard one of the players say. Nearby, two people were settling into Twilight Struggle, a tussle for ideological control set in the Cold War, in which the cards bear forbidding legends such as “Nuclear Subs”, “Kitchen Debates” and “We Will Bury You”.

I spotted three games about managing fast-food chains, one about preparing sushi, one about eating sushi, one about growing chillies and one about foraging mushrooms; I watched sessions of Snowdonia, about building railways in the Welsh mountains, and Mysterium, a Ukrainian game in which a ghost provides dream clues to a team of “psychic investigators” using abstract artwork. A game called Journalist (“‘Where is that promised article?’ roars your boss”) seemed a little close to home.

Spurred by the opportunities of crowd-funding and the market’s enthusiasm for new ideas, a legion of small and part-time designers are turning their hands to tabletop games. I met the Rev Michael Salmon, an Anglican vicar whose football-themed card game Kix, a tense battle between two players with hands of cards representing their teams, has echoes of the Eighties classic Top Trumps. Nearby was Gavin Birnbaum, a London-based driving instructor who designs a game every year and carves them individually from wood in his workshop; 2015’s limited edition from his company, Cubiko, was Fog of War, in which perfect little tanks crept around a board of wooden hexagons, zapping each other.

Perhaps the most impressive prior CV belonged to Commander Andrew Benford, who developed his hidden-movement game called They Come Unseen beneath the waves in the Seventies while serving on Royal Navy subs. Sold at UKGE in a snazzy cardboard version by the war games company Osprey, it had come a long way from the “heavily engineered board covered with thick Perspex and secured to an aluminium board” that the nuclear engineers prepared for the original. Benford, now retired, was already thinking about an expansion.

This surge in innovation has also made these interesting times for established creators. Reiner Knizia, one of the best-known names in board games, told me, “There are enormous changes in our times, in our world, and this is reflected in the games. It’s wonderful for a creative mind.” Knizia is a German mathematician who quit a career in finance to become a full-time designer in 1997. His interest in games began in his childhood, when he repurposed money from Monopoly sets to devise new trading games, and he now has more than 600 original games to his credit.

Knizia’s games are frequently remarkable for a single innovative twist. In Tigris and Euphrates, a competitive tile-laying game set in the Mesopotamian fertile crescent, players compete to win points in several different colours, but their final score is calculated not on their biggest pile but their smallest. His licensed game for the Lord of the Rings series developed a method for co-operative adventure – players collaborate to win the game, rather than playing against each other – that has become a separate genre in the 17 years since its release.

But Knizia is no doctrinaire purist. The design experiments he conducts from his studio in Richmond, London (“I have 80 drawers, and in each drawer I have a game, but no sane person can work on 80 products at the same time”), embrace new methods and unusual technologies – smartphones, ultraviolet lamps – in their pursuit of what he calls “a simple game that is not simplistic”. When I mentioned the assumption common in the Nineties that board games would be dead by the millennium, he raised an eyebrow. “That clearly wasn’t going to happen,” he said. “Just as if you said travelling would die out because you could see everything live on television. There are basic needs of human beings: to socialise with other people, to explore things, to be curious, to have fun. These categories will stay. It doesn’t mean that we have to have printed cardboard and figures to move around: we might lay out a screen and download the board on to the screen. The act of playing, and of what we do in the game, will stay,
because it is in our nature.”

This question of the appropriate shape for board games – and how they are to utilise or shun the glowing screens that follow us everywhere – is one that many game designers are asking. Later in the summer, I had the chance to play the second edition of a game called Mansions of Madness, a reworking of an infamously complex board game based on the work of the horror writer H P Lovecraft. In its original incarnation, players navigated a series of terrifying colonial mansions, encountering monsters and events that needed to be drawn from piles of pieces and decks of cards by a human opponent. Like many games that involve huge numbers of interacting decisions, the first edition was a horror of its own to manage: the set-up took an eternity and one false move or misapplied card could ruin an entire game. For the second edition, its publishers, Fantasy Flight Games, streamlined the process – by handing over responsibility for running the game to an app for smartphones and tablets.

“To some, I’m the great Satan for doing that,” Christian T Petersen, the CEO of Fantasy Flight, told me when we discussed the integration of apps and games. “There was a portion of the gaming community that resisted it for various reasons: some on the basis that they didn’t want a screen in their lives, some on the basis of interesting thought-experiments that if they were to bring their game out 50 years from now, would the software be relevant or even possible to play? Maybe it won’t. I don’t even know if some of these inks that we have will last 50 years.”

Also a designer, Petersen was vigorous in his defence of the possibilities of mixed-media board gaming. “We’re trying to use technology to make the interface of games more fun,” he said. “Too much integration and you’ll say, ‘Why am I playing a board game? I might as well be playing a computer game.’ Too little and you’ll say, ‘Why is it even here?’ But I believe there’s a place in the middle where you’re using software to enhance the relevance of what this can be as a board game. We’re still experimenting.”

Other experiments have gone in different directions. The program Tabletop Simulator, released in 2015, is a video game platform that represents tabletop games in a multiplayer 3D space. Players can create their own modules (there are hundreds available, many of them no doubt infringing the copyright of popular board games) and play them online together. A recent update even added support for VR headsets.

While designers debate the future of the medium, tabletop gaming has been creeping out of enthusiasts’ territory and into wider cultural life. In Bristol, one evening last summer, I stopped by the marvellously named Chance & Counters, which had recently opened on the shopping street of Christmas Steps. It is a board game café – like Draughts in east London, Thirsty Meeples in Oxford and Ludorati in Nottingham – where customers pay a cover charge (£4 per head, or £50 for a year’s “premium membership”) to play while eating or drinking. The tables have special rings to hold your pint away from the board; the staff read the rule books and teach you the games.

“When I was growing up,” explained Steve Cownie, one of the three owners of Chance & Counters, “board games were associated with family time: playing Monopoly at Christmas and shouting at each other. Now, it’s been repositioned as a way for young professionals, students, just about anyone, to spend time with each other. It’s a guided social interaction, where there’s a collective task or a collective competition.”

There is barely a smartphone in the place. “People aren’t sitting around checking Face­book,” agrees Cownie. “They’re looking each other in the eye, competing or co-operating. It’s amazing to see, really.”

A board games café is an odd social experience but a compelling one. Before taking our seats at Chance & Counters, my companion and I were ushered by a waiter towards a wall of games that ran down the side of the building, past tables of other people bent in rapt concentration or howling in riotous disagreement over rules. “Would you like something light?” he asked. “Something heavy? Something silly? Something strategic?” The rows of gleaming boxes stretched out before us. Somewhere in there, I knew, was exactly the game we wanted to play. 

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era