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 web editor of the New Statesman.

SAMUEL COURTAULD TRUST
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The monochrome set

In Pieter Bruegel’s hands, even black and white paintings can be full of colour.

Grisailles – monochrome images usually painted in shades of grey and white – have a long tradition. Early examples appeared in the 14th century as miniatures or manuscript illuminations and then later on the outside of the folding panels of altarpieces, where they imitated sepulchre statues and offered a stark contrast to the bright colour of the paintings inside. With their minimal palette, grisailles also offered painters a chance both to show off their skill and to add their bit to the age-old artistic debate about paragone: which was superior – sculpture, with its ability to show a figure in three dimensions, or painting, with its powers of illusion? By pretending to be sculpture, grisailles could better it.

The first artist to paint grisailles as independent works for private enjoyment and contemplation was the Netherlander Pieter Bruegel the Elder (circa 1525-69), whose folk scenes of peasants carousing or of hunters in a snowy landscape have long been staples of art’s quotidian, earthy strand. Only about 40 works by him are now known and of those, just three are grisailles (not a term he would have recognised; he referred to the pictures simply as “painted in black and white”). This trio of survivors has been reunited for the first time, at the Courtauld Gallery, with an accompanying selection of copies and engravings – a mere ten pictures in all – for a fascinating one-room exhibition.

The grisailles show a deeper and more intellectual artist than the sometimes slapstick figure who would dress as a peasant in order to gatecrash weddings in the Brabant countryside and record the drunken and playful goings-on in his pictures. They reflect the position of the Low Countries in Bruegel’s time, caught between the Catholicism of their Spanish overlords and the emerging Protestantism that had been sparked by Martin Luther only eight years before Bruegel’s birth. These tensions soon erupted in the Eighty Years War.

Of the three paintings, two show religious subjects – The Death of the Virgin (1562-65) and Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1565) – and one is a scene that would have been familiar in the streets around him, Three Soldiers (1568). This last, lent by the Frick Collection in New York, shows a drummer, a piper and a standard-bearer in the elaborately slashed uniforms of German Landsknechte mercenaries. Such groupings featured often in German prints and Bruegel’s small picture is a clever visual game: painting could imitate not only sculpture, but prints, too. What’s more, the gorgeously coloured uniforms (mercenaries were exempt from the sumptuary laws that restricted clothing to sedate colours) could be shown to be just as arresting even in black and white.

If this is a painting about painting, the ­religious works have, it seems, added layers of meaning – although it is always difficult with Bruegel to work out what that meaning is and how personal it might be. The Courtauld’s Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery shows Jesus stooping in front of the Pharisees and saving the accused woman from stoning by writing in the dust, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” That he spells out the words in Dutch rather than Hebrew, which was more usual in other images of the scene (and which he uses on the tunic of one of the learned men observing the mute play), suggests that this picture – a plea for clemency – was intended to serve as a call for religious tolerance amid mounting sectarian antagonism. While the gaping faces of the onlookers recall those of Hieronymus Bosch, the flickering calligraphic touches and passages of great delicacy are all his own.

The picture stayed with Bruegel until his death, so it had a personal meaning for him; more than 20 copies were subsequently made. Included in the exhibition are the copies painted by his sons, Jan and Pieter the Younger (a coloured version), as well as the earliest known print after it, from 1579, by Pieter Perret, which shows some of the detail in the crowd around the central figures that has been lost in the discoloured panel.

If the sombre tones of grisaille are suited to the pared-down faith advocated by Luther, the death of the Virgin was a familiar topic in Catholic and Orthodox iconography. Bruegel’s picture, from Upton House in Warwickshire, depicts an episode that doesn’t actually appear in the Bible. A group of Apostles and mourners has gathered around the Virgin’s bed, the scene lit by the heavenly light emanating from the dying woman and the five flames from the candles and the hearth that correspond to the five wounds suffered by her son on the cross. Domestic items litter the room – a slice of orange, slippers, a dozing cat – and there is a sleeping attendant, unaware of the miracle of Assumption that will shortly unfold. Here is a moving nocturne in which the mysteries of religion emerge from and disappear back into the shadows.

While Bruegel’s peasant works display a delight in physical pleasure, these three bravura works, painted for humanist connoisseurs and for himself, portray the sober, spiritual concerns that come to the fore once the last drop has been drunk. 

The exhibition runs until 8 May. For more details, go to: courtauld.ac.uk

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 11 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle