BBC2 axe The Hour; (mild) outrage ensues

Abi Morgan's newsroom drama will not be returning for a third series.

There’s a lot of outrage on the New Statesman website today, but none of it comes close to how I feel at the news that the BBC has decided not to commission a third series of The Hour. The Radio Times reports:

It had been the original intention of the production company behind the programme, Kudos, to produce at least three series. Jane Featherstone, chief executive of Kudos Film and Television, said she was "sad and disappointed" by the decision.

The BBC said: "We loved the show but have to make hard choices to bring new shows through."

Digital Spy implies the decision had to do with the fact that the second series’ ratings didn’t live up to the promise of the first:

The first series of The Hour launched with 2.89 million viewers in July 2011, but the show's second run fared less well in the ratings, opening with just 1.68 million.

Regular readers will know that I’m something of a fan of The Hour I wrote a regular weekly blog on the second series – and thought it was one of the best new dramas the BBC had commissioned in ages. It’s not often you get new writing of such subtlety being acted by a cast who are mostly moonlighting from the silver screen (in the shape of Ben Whishaw, Romola Garai and Dominic West). And as I harped on about incessantly in the blog, Anna Chancellor and Peter Capaldi pretty much stole the show in the second series, too.

It’s no objective measure, to be sure, but the spike in traffic to my blog and Twitter when the series aired in America and Australia recently suggests The Hour’s appeal went far beyond a few lefty journalists who like Fifties outfits. Contrast it, if you will, with Stephen Poliakoff’s Dancing on the Edge, which the BBC inexplicably allowed to run over five episodes, despite the fact that it has no plot whatsoever. All the beautiful singing and close-ups of Chiwetel Ejiofor in the world can’t redeem a lengthy multi-part period drama where absolutely nothing happens and people inexplicably go for long picnics on trains. As the NS’s Rachel Cooke points out in her TV column in the magazine this week, Poliakoff created types, not characters – scratch the shiny surface away and there’s nothing there at all.

Abi Morgan’s Hour, by comparison, arguably had too many plots at the same time. If the BBC does indeed stick by its decision to cancel it (I can’t help but hope someone somewhere will realise the error of their ways shortly) we’ll never know whether Ben Whishaw’s face recovers from the beating it received in the line of duty, or whether he and Romola Garai ever manage to get it on. But most importantly, we’ll have lost a genuinely writerly drama from our screens – one that didn’t rely on bangs and flashes or ludicrous locations or stereotyped characters to draw you in. Personally, I would have watched The Hour just as avidly as a stage play, such is the strength of Morgan’s characters. The BBC's quote says they want to create space to "bring new shows through" - I, for one, will be surprised if they replace it with anything with quite so much class.

PS If this is indeed the end, I thought we should enjoy some of the best images from the second series. Try not to sob on your keyboards, now.

Oh, lovely Ben Whishaw. All photographs: BBC

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

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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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