The Hour: series 2, episode 6

An ending both satisfactory and unsatisfactory.

WARNING: Don't read ahead if you haven't watched the series finale of The Hour yet - contains spoilers! You can catch up on the previous instalment here

We all knew it would happen eventually. We knew there would come a moment when Soho gangster and Hour villain-in-chief Rafael Cilenti would stop using shadowy, suggestive threats to manipulate and intimidate those around him, and start using his fists. But I for one certainly didn’t anticipate that the casualty of that transition would be Ben Whishaw’s quirky, beautiful face.

It was with brutal shocks like this that the second series The Hour came to a close last night. Having set up so many parallel plots (see here and here for my enumeration of what they all were) there was a danger in this finale that the viewer was yanked through endings for all of them in succession, leaving the episode choppy and the audience exhausted. But this pitfall was avoided by giving this episode a strong central storyline of its own, meaning that each little story acted out its ending in the margin. Some of them were just the lightest of scribbles, too - we discovered that Isaac's radio play was heavily based on his colleagues at The Hour, and that Sissy and Sey struggled to find witnesses for their wedding because of racial prejudice, or that government press officer McCain finally stopped spinning for corrupt politicians and managed to transform himself into a proto-PR agent.

The Hour on air. Photograph: BBC

And that main action? A breathless rush to the finish line as The Hour team attempted to prove the connection between the corruption and vice in the West End and the arms race profiteering going on at the heart of the government. Freddie succinctly made the case for why they were seeking to make this connection early on, saying “These are men who decide policy, and they’re lying and deceiving their wives. Why should they get to decide what else goes on?” Hector and Commander Stern, old comrades-in-arms, each implicated in the story, both finally faced their own failings. Hector went on to publicly acknowledge his involvement with the club, interview the woman who falsely accused him of beating her on air, and even forgiving his wife for getting pregnant with another’s man’s child (which, given his own repeated adultery, was really the very least he could do). Stern, seemingly without the same support network, committed suicide in his car.

Before Freddie dashed off to try and save their story, he finally crossed the line in his relationship with Bel. She’d just had a bust up in the corridor with Bill, her ITV bloke, who had stormed off declaring her to be “impossible” and saying that their relationship “wasn’t going anywhere”. We should have known, really, when Freddie leaned in to kiss Bel that all would not be permitted to end happily for them – more on that in a second.

Despite everything, the show-stealing performance once again came from Peter Capaldi and Anna Chancellor. They finally received news of their long-lost daughter, only to discover that she and her foster parents had been killed in an air raid during the war. On reading the documents, Chancellor sobbed, frozen in a twisted posture in her chair by the weight of her sadness, while Capaldi yelled at her to get out of the room. When she refused, telling him to “do what he needed to do”, he exploded into his hitherto only hinted-at obsessive compulsive disorder, lining everything up neatly on his desk before throwing it all into chaos and collapsing on top of it, head on his arms in devastation. Eventually, after initially fighting her off, he allows Lix to hold him – and that’s how we leave them.

Anna Chancellor and Peter Capaldi stole the show. Photograph: BBC

Once again, the personal and the political were merged as The Hour arrived at its climax. Freddie sacrificed his own safety in order to get the key witness for their story to the studio in time, but as Cilenti and his goons pummelled his face and torso, you couldn’t help feeling he was doing it for Bel as well – proving to her that he won’t let her down, personally or professionally. The terrified, perfect face of Kiki DeLaine exposing the corruption and vice on air was inter cut with the horrifying spectacle of Ben Whishaw’s bloody, battered face (I know from the outcry on my Twitter feed that I was far from the only person strongly tempted to throw things at the television during this sequence).

They dumped him on the grass outside the studio, and for a few heartstopping moments while we watched Bel crying in her office, rereading the love letter she never sent him, we couldn’t tell if he was alive or dead. Then he began to whisper “Moneypenny, Moneypenny” and she somehow heard the hated nickname and started running to his side, only for the programme to end before she got to there. Not for The Hour, the fond sickbed reconciliation and an implied future for the characters.

No – only a cut to a black screen, followed by the credits and our lingering doubts, that with Ben Whishaw’s burgeoning film career, The Hour will even have a third series.

I’ve really enjoyed blogging this series of The Hour and chatting to you all in the comments and on Twitter. If you’d like to read back through the whole series blog, you can do so here.

Leave his face out of it! Photograph: BBC

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

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In the age of podcasts, the era of communal listening is over

Where once the nation would listen to radio events together, now, it is the booming podcast market that commands our attention

It’s a moment so celebrated that no TV drama about the Second World War is complete without it. At 11.15am on 3 September 1939, Neville Chamberlain made a live radio broadcast from Downing Street announcing that “this country is now at war with Germany”. A silence fell over the nation as people rushed to the wireless to hear him. The whole country was listening, but crucially, it was listening together.

Nearly eight decades later, it is difficult to imagine a communal audio event like that ever happening again. The arrival of the Walkman in 1979, since superseded by the iPod and then the smartphone, turned listening into a personal, solitary pastime. It was no longer necessary for families to get a radio on a hire-purchase arrangement and gather round it in the sitting room. The technology that delivers audio to us is now small and cheap enough for each of us to have one in our pocket (with headphones tangled around it, of course).

At the same time, the method of delivery changed, too. “Radio” ceased to indicate simply “programming transmitted by electromagnetic waves” in the late 1990s, when conventional radio stations began to make their output available on the internet. Online-only radio stations sprang up, streaming their shows directly to computers. Free from any regulation and with the internet as a free distribution platform, these early stations echoed the tone of pirate radio stations in the 1960s.

The idea of “audioblogging” – making short voice recordings available for download online – has been around since the early 1980s, but it wasn’t until 2004 that the word “podcasting” was coined by the technology journalist Ben Hammersley in an article for the Guardian. He was looking for a name for the “new boom in amateur radio” that the internet had enabled.

Thanks to technological advances, by the early 2000s, a podcaster could record a sound clip and upload it to his or her feed, and it would arrive automatically on the computer of anyone who had subscribed. Apple began to include podcasts as a default option on iPods; in 2008 iPhones offered a podcast app as standard. The market boomed.

Apple is notoriously reluctant to provide data on its products, but in 2013 it announced that there had been more than a billion podcast subscriptions through its iTunes store, which carried over 250,000 podcasts in 100 languages. In 2016, Edison Research released a study suggesting that 21 per cent of all Americans over the age of 12 had listened to at least one podcast in the past month – roughly 57 million people. Audiobooks, too, are booming in this new age of listening; the New York Times reported that
although publishing revenue in the US was down overall in the first quarter of 2016, digital audio sales had risen by 35.3 per cent.

The vast share of this listening will be solitary. This is because audio is a secondary medium. For all the talk about the rise of “second screening”, it isn’t really possible to do much more than idly scroll through Twitter on your phone as you watch television, but you can easily get things done while you listen to a podcast. Put on a pair of headphones, and you can go for a run or clean out the oven in the company of your favourite show. In this sense, the medium has been a game-changer for commuters and those doing repetitive or manual work: there’s no longer any need to put up with sniffling on the train or your boss’s obsession with Magic FM.

Though podcasts are an internet phenomenon, they have managed to remain free from the culture of trolling and abuse found elsewhere. It is difficult to make audio go viral, because it’s tricky to isolate a single moment from it in a form that can be easily shared. That also deters casual haters. You can’t just copy and paste something a host said into an insulting tweet.

Our new and solitary way of listening is reflected in the subjects that most podcasts cover. While there is the occasional mega-hit – the American true crime podcast Serial attracted 3.4 million downloads per episode in 2014, the year it launched – most shows exist in a niche. A few hundred listeners who share the host’s passion for pens or for music from antique phonographs can be enough to sustain a series over hundreds of episodes (there are real podcasts on both of these topics).

This is also where the commercial opportunity lies. It costs relatively little to produce even high-quality podcasts, compared to TV or conventional radio, yet they can ­attract very high advertising rates (thanks to the dedication of regular listeners and the trust they have in the host). The US is far ahead of the UK in this regard, and podcast advertising revenue there is expected to grow 25 per cent year on year, reaching half a billion dollars in 2020. Where this was once a hobby for internet enthusiasts, it is now big business, with venture capitalists investing in new networks and production companies. The US network Gimlet attracted $6m in funding in 2015. However, in the UK, the BBC crowds out smaller, independent operations (the trade-off is that it makes undeniably outstanding programmes).

There is even a movement to make listening a communal activity again. The same hipsters responsible for the resurgence of vinyl sales are organising “listening parties” at trendy venues with high-quality sound systems. Live shows have become an important source of revenue for podcasters. Eleanor McDowall, a producer at the Falling Tree radio production company, organises subtitled “screenings” for podcasts in languages other than English. I even have a friend who is part of a “podcast club”, run on the same lines as a monthly book group, with a group of people coming together to discuss one show on a regular schedule.

The next big technological breakthrough for audio will be when cars can support internet-based shows as easily as conventional radio. We might never again gather around the wireless, but our family holidays could be much improved by a podcast.

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

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times