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.

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Can we morally justify rape dramas like the BBC’s Three Girls?

Violence against women and girls is often read as “gripping” or “compelling” in both fiction and non-fictional narratives.

Last week, over three consecutive nights, the BBC aired Three Girls: an unflinching drama based on the 2012 Rochdale Grooming Case, which exposed and prosecuted nine men for the trafficking, prostitution and rape of children. It is, of course, a terribly bleak story – one that is important not to shy away from. And yet when I first heard about the docudrama, it made me instinctively uncomfortable. TV has a wider social purpose beyond sheer enjoyment, but is the repeated rape of children appropriate material for primetime entertainment?

Violence against women and girls is often read as “gripping” or “compelling” in both fiction and non-fictional narratives. Child abuse, too, is something our society condemns but has an uncomfortable obsession with reading about in detail - you only need to walk into your local Waterstones to see a true life section crowded with children’s sad faces staring up from bestselling misery memoirs. I’ve written before, at length, about our cultural fixation on murdered, abused and kidnapped women and young girls, and the ethical questions they raise. Do we want to know the specific brutalities of this case because it is important to reckon with the reality of the situation, or because the shock factor fascinates us? Is it inherently unethical to treat the real traumas of children as spectacle? Aside from general distastefulness, what impact does making a drama about these assaults have on the real-word victims? What function does this particular story – with its narrative of the police officers too afraid of being labelled racist to bring the criminals (who were mostly of Pakistani descent) to task – serve in the current political climate?

Andrew Norfolk, the Times journalist who first exposed the Rochdale case and spent years facing its horrors head-on, had concerns over such a topic being turned into television. “When I first heard that the BBC had commissioned a docudrama, my initial shock that the corporation would choose to tackle such a controversial subject was swiftly replaced by wariness,” he explains. But his concerns were not that such a programme would become voyeuristic. “I feared that innate squeamishness would result in a sanitised exercise that shied away from uncomfortable realities.”

“More fool me. Three Girls pulls no punches. It tells a raw, harrowing story in a way that makes for searingly compelling drama,” he goes on, adding that the writers succeeds in turning “such bleak misery into three hours of gripping television drama”.

Norfolk, of course, has first-hand knowledge of the show’s source material, as well as the experience of trying to open the public’s eyes to unspeakable crimes. Viewers will never have this. As someone removed from the reality of the Rochdale case, those familiar words “gripping” and “compelling” make me squirm, especially when paired with such unimaginably damaging experiences for the real life young victims.

The first episode of Three Girls explores the actual abuse at the centre of the Rochdale case. It follows Holly, who meets the headstrong Amber and her vulnerable younger sister Ruby, and starts hanging out with them at a take-away shop, where an older man known only as “Daddy” plies them with free food and vodka to gain their trust. It’s not long before we witness Holly being raped in a grim, long scene. We then see her assaulted again, before watching her perform a “prozzy dance” for her horrified father. It’s unbearably sad watching.

It’s certainly true, then, that Three Girls is “harrowing”, but why is “harrowing” as a concept read as automatically valuable? The Daily Mail called it “spellbinding”; many other outlets saw the first episode’s brutality as “brave”. Some headlines were far more discomfiting: the Huffington Post rounded up the “most disturbing moments” from the drama in a sensational listicle, while the Telegraph and extreme right-wing sites took the opportunity to push their politics with headlines like “How poor white girls were sacrificed on the altar of multiculturalism” and “BBC’s Muslim Rape Gang Drama Skirts Religion Issue”.

But the makers of Three Girls seem more aware than most of the troubling potential for sensationalism a drama about Rochdale might have. In a blog post for the BBC, Head of Drama Hilary Salmon explains how they justified their decision to explore the violence of this particular case due to the story’s capacity for social change.

“There are many true stories that an audience might be interested in reliving through drama but the ones that really resonate and arguably deserve to be made are those which can change an audience’s perception of the victims because, for all the media noise, their true voices haven’t yet been heard.”

“The voices of the children abused and exploited in Rochdale had not been heard,” Salmon continues. “How did they feel while all this was happening to them and how do they feel now?”

She adds that public perception of the young victims was disappointingly regressive:

“[Whistleblowers] worked tirelessly to change the perception of these young girls in the eyes of the authorities just as we have tried to do for audiences through the drama. A perception that the girls were simply displaying a lifestyle choice and didn’t need or want protection. Never mind that they were 13, 14, 15 years old at the time and had such low self-esteem that free chips and alcohol would turn a grubby room at the back of a kebab shop into the equivalent of a clubhouse.”

The first hour of Three Girls asks the audience to confront the realities of the assaults on these young victims. Then it puts its most shocking moments to good use. The following two episodes explore the aftermath of the case: how a culture of disbelief silenced the victims at its centre, and how forcing the children to repeatedly relive the acts, only to be ignored, traumatised them as they became adults. How victim-blaming attitudes saw abused children officially declared criminals, and the babies they bore taken away by child protection services. How it was a culture of demonising working-class teenage girls, rather than the fear of racism, that saw the victims belittled and dismissed again and again.

We see explicit discussions of all these complex problems. The adult moral hearts of the show, NHS sexual health worker Sara and police officer Maggie, constantly condemn the culture of misogyny and classism that allowed this abuse to flourish. There are whole scenes dedicated to exploring how the race of the perpetrators does not reflect Muslim culture as a whole. And, most importantly, the perspectives most frequently and sensitively explored are those of the victims themselves, retrospectively giving them a voice. The script manages to do this without veering into preachy public service announcement territory.

Three Girls a masterclass in how to explore violence against girls without objectifying the victims - an area in which other modern TV series and films are lagging depressingly behind. (I’d still advice viewer discretion in watching the first episode, but the more brutal scenes in the programme serve a specific purpose.) I only hope other writers can hold the same aims. Three Girls shows how you can move beyond just “gripping” and “compelling” to find stories that shift social narratives by changing audience’s beliefs, before they’ve had a chance to look away.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

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