One of the best TV dramas of last year returns to BBC America tonight for its second season. The Hour, a portrait of the staff of a 1950s BBC news magazine, is the show Aaron Sorkin wishes The Newsroom could be: a long-form exploration of what it takes to cultivate sources, uncover sensitive information, and break news of national import in the face of considerable pressure from powerful interests.
Last season, producer Bel Rowley (Romola Garai), reporter Freddie Lyon (Ben Whishaw), and anchor Hector Madden (Dominic West) battled government officials to report on British involvement in the Suez Crisis. This time, about a year after that first season, they’re investigating the rise of a racist, working class movement that bears more than a passing resemblance to the English Defence League, a task that’s complicated by the fact that Hector, now a fixture of the London nightclub scene, has been accused of assaulting a young woman, Freddie’s come back from sabbatical in America married, and Bel is considering the advances of a rival program—and its producer.
But even more so than it was last season, when Bel was constantly forced to prove her professional worth, The Hour is a story about gender. The rise of nightclub culture and of commercial television, and even the arrival of Camille, Freddie’s wife, mean that the show is taking on the very beginnings of the sexual revolution, the introduction of women’s television programming, and the changing dynamics of women in the workplace. I spoke with Abi Morgan, The Hour’s creator and writer of most of its episodes, about all of it (but not, notably, about the latest BBC scandal—this interview was conducted before that news broke).
Slate: It’s not easy to depict a false accusation of assault that shows respect for both the woman who is making the bogus claim, in this case nightclub singer Kiki, and the man being unjustly accused. How did you develop that storyline and Kiki’s character?
Abi Morgan: The new season is constantly dealing with the time bomb of the space and arms race, but it’s also dealing with this collision of the rise of celebrity and the aspiration of Hollywood glamour, and really the gangland underworld and the nightlife that people like Hector inhabit. I did a lot of research around this period, and the thing that fascinated me, the clubs were as they are now: the place to be seen.
It felt like a natural progression to explore the notion of honey traps. As a celebrity, Hector finds himself compromised…These clubs were becoming incredibly popular, and there was this glamorous nightlife, and many of these clubs were run by a number of migrants. There was a very large Maltese family at the time that owned a number of clubs, but also worked a number of young trafficked women from the continent. The idea was to use Kiki as someone who not only compromises Hector, but also has become compromised herself.
Slate: Is she supposed to symbolize the uneven benefits men and women gained in the early days of the sexual revolution?
Morgan: Totally. I think it’s also about those reoccurring themes of class. But I think this is less about the old order of class, which is based on money, and the new order that’s based on aspiration. I think Kiki is very much a victim of that. She aspires to have a piece of the pie, but she’s also tied to the club and the role she plays.
Slate: One of the things I’ve always enjoyed about The Hour is its depiction of how women’s liberation reaches different women at different speeds. This year, we’ll see Hector’s wife Marnie get fed up with her marriage, but her reach for independence is in the form of hosting a cooking show that requires her to keep up the facade of being a perfect hostess and wife. I find myself wondering if she’ll be able to manage that veneer, or if she’ll make a more aggressive play for independence at some point.
Morgan: I think if you look at the women, the on-screen talent at that time, on the whole they were either singing along to a puppet, or they were presenting the kind of soft magazine programs that were just starting to come up through the ’50s. I liked the idea of Marnie almost becoming quite literally this professional housewife. She’s this Fanny Cradock-esque character. It also felt like a kind of brilliant, brittle metaphor for this kind of life Marnie finds herself encased in. You’ll see that marriage really is tested through the course of the series.
Slate: And Marnie is also reconciling her real life to the expectations television is giving her.
Morgan: The mainstay of commercials of that time was the great British housewife. Marnie is very much the consumer of her time. On the wider level, the show is about the birth of capitalism in the ’50s and into the ’60s. The warmongers were finding a way of making money out of nuclear paranoia, [and there was a] global desire to be part of the arms and space race. This parallels what’s going on with Marnie. She’s someone who aspires to a bigger life. When you write a drama set in this era, you have a whole period where if your characters have any gumption or charisma, they have to break away from this suppressive ’50s world.
Slate: This season we’ll see the rise of celebrity culture and the contrast between that and hard news—I’m thinking in particular of an exchange between Freddie and Bel about whether to feature Dior on the show. Do you think this period is when the split happened, between hard news and “women’s issues”?
Morgan: In the late ’40s, very early ’50s, the BBC dominated. There were no other channels. And when we got commercial television in the form of ITV, there became a form of competition. And while they didn’t monitor it in the way of viewing figures, they were starting to recognize how lucrative commercials were on television and how much money there was to make in commercial television.
Slate: Last season, Bel spent a great deal of time trying to prove that her gender wouldn’t keep her from running a tough, smart news program. Now that she seems to have won that battle, will we be learning more about what sacrifices she’s made in her personal life to get there?
Morgan: Totally. Bel is somebody who is absolutely committed to her work, but the thing that terrifies her most is emotional commitment. She’s been fighting incredibly hard in a man’s world. She constantly turns down invites to engagement parties now. Like us all, when we get to a certain age, we become aware that time moves on and conventions do matter. The pressures of those things do matter. What you see is Bel reaching a certain level of respect in her professional life but as a result of easing off of that, she’s allowing herself to consider having a personal life.
Season one was dominated by her affair with Hector. What’s more in conflict for Bel in season two is whether she’s going to go for the available, older, former married man, or whether she’s going to confront and fight for the love of her life, Freddie. The only way that would work is if we built up and allowed Freddie to grow this season. He has this line about America, which probably reflects my own respect for America: “Being in a country where nobody can be somebody, that’s infectious.”
Slate: And he’s come home with Camille, who is both threatened by British Fascists because she’s a French immigrant, and threatening to Bel as a more fashion-forward, sexually liberated rival for Freddie’s time and attention.
Morgan: Camille marks the birth of the beat generation. She’s kind of fueled by Ginsberg and Bertrand and Gertrude Stein. She’s well read, and she’s a French intellectual, and she has the kind of French sophistication that really of rubs off on Bel. In many ways, she’s the biggest challenge Bel is going to have to face. Bel has been a big fish in a large pond for a long time. Freddie’s gone on with his life, he’s gotten married, he seems to have found a level of domestic happiness at a time when she’s struggling. I was kind of intrigued by that. It’s a recurring theme, women who are trying to juggle it all.
This interview has been edited and condensed.