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.

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis