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!
Not far into this, the first episode of The Hour’s second series, slimy political aide Angus McCain declares that “A lie has no legs. A scandal – now, that has wings.” All slicked-back ginger hair and hinted-at homosexuality, actor Julian Rhind-Tutt imbues the lines with the malice and seediness that those who followed drama’s first series so avidly – mainly me, it’s true – have come to expect from him. His beloved Prime Minister Eden might be gone, but McCain wants to show from the outset that he still wields power in the shadowy world of Westminster. And in uttering these words, he’s also setting up a series’ worth of plot points, and reassured us that writer Abi Morgan has chosen not to mess with a successful formula.
The Hour has never bothered with loud showy cliffhangers or even let its characters raise their voices that often. No – The Hour specialises in creeping realisations and barely-seen glances that flick to and fro, while the discussion of important social issues gets scribbled in the margins of a densley-written script. Just like in the last series, when a high-up BBC executive was eventually found to have turned traitor and started recruiting for the Soviets, McCain has promised us from the outset a scandal so big and juicy that almost everyone will pretend it never happened at all.
Morgan could never have known when putting together The Hour’s second series that it would air in a week when the real-life BBC has been engulfed in scandal that hinged on investigative journalism gone awry and management failures. The Jimmy Savile affair and the Lord McAlpine debacle are hardly equivalent to having Soviet spies wandering around the corporation’s canteen drinking tea, but it still feels more topical than a drama should to be watching Romola Garai’s producer character wrestling with issues of sourcing and news management, and fretting that ITV’s competitor programme, Uncovered, has stolen her idea for a hard-hitting investigative news show and is delivering it better than she is.
If the last series was all about espionage, this one appears to be all about vice – specifically, Soho gangland vice. Dominic West’s Hector Madden has got rather too big for his boots since his eventual success as The Hour’s presenter, and has started frequenting West End clubs where extremely deferential tabloid paparazzos take his picture and callgirls encased in cream satin corsets do their level best to entice him away to hotel suites (he doesn’t resist very hard).
Meanwhile, the crime rate is through the roof and the government is spending vast sums on nuclear weapons rather than policemen. In an example of the kind of scene The Hour has always excelled at, one of Madden’s girls sits on the edge of the bath inspecting her battered face and bruised body – the result of a morning-after visit from a mysterious man. Next evening, she’s sweeping her fringe over her split eyebrow, powdering her cut lip and singing in a cabaret while powerful men smirk at her over their champagne saucers.
Hector gets cosy with a Soho “actress” when he ought to be out doing journalism or at home with his wife. Photograph: BBC
Peter Capaldi has joined the cast this series as the new head of news (replacing the one who is now in prison for being a Soviet agent) and proves in his first few scenes that even without the swearing and with the addition of a severe side parting, he knows how to steal a scene. The slight frisson between him and Anna Chancellor (playing the maverick foreign desk editor, Lix Storm) has promise that hopefully will be explored in future episodes. We might mourn the ending of the The Thick Of It, but all is not lost – Malcolm Tucker never got to say lines like “I grieve for the croissant” while mournfully holding a plate of burnt toast.
For me, at least, there was an alarming lack of Ben Whishaw in this episode’s first half, but once he made his grand entrance – stubbing a cigarette out on a BBC noticeboard and being late for his first news conference since being fired, all the while sporting a rather ragged beard – he more than made up for it. Freddie dashed about the place, pounding out the scoops, accusing ministers of not caring about murder victims, providing a refuge for a colleague’s persecuted Nigerian boyfriend, and even revealing that while the show has been off air, he’s acquired an unexpected new French wife, who appeared wearing just a jumper and wielding a kitchen knife. He still calls Romola Garai’s character “Moneypenny”, though – a running joke that’s even better now that we know that Ben Whishaw is also Q in the new James Bond film.
Ben Whishaw as Freddie Lyon, the hard-hitting journalist who returned to The Hour as co-host in the first episode. Photograph: BBC
Last series, much of the criticism of The Hour complained that it didn’t seem to know what kind of programme it was – newsroom drama or political thriller. I never understood why it had to be either/or, since Morgan’s scripts seemed to weave the two together quite deftly. This second series opener has demonstrated that once again it’s going to try and blend the two genres, but with a domestic political plot rather than a foreign one. A promising start.
Still, more Ben and less beard would be nice next week.
I’ll be blogging “The Hour” each week – check back next Thursday morning for the next installment, or bookmark this page