Right around the last third of this episode of The Hour, I settled in and just started enjoying myself. I know that you have this vision of me with a tiny notebook, sniffing haughtily and occasionally making small marks with a pen dipped in whale’s blood when I see something I don’t like, but, really, I don’t watch TV expecting it to be awful. I watch most of it hoping it will be good. But usually somewhere in the midst of it, I groan and realize that I know exactly where I’m going, and I can’t help but feel taken for a ride by shows that should know better than to try and slip the oldest tricks in the book by their audience. On the other hand, I realized fairly quickly into episode two of The Hour that I was watching a fairly classic episode setup wherein the episode opens with a disaster, then closes with a chance to improve upon that disaster. But something about that was just completely satisfying, and it left me smiling, particularly as I realized I was in very good hands.
The folks who produce The Hour (not the show itself, but the show within that show) have bumped up against more than a few problems. For one thing, Hector doesn’t turn out to be very good at thinking on his feet, botching an interview that follows a story about prejudice by asking the interviewee which neighborhood he’s from and letting him blather on as the cameras roll. For another, the show is incredibly shaky, with a new staff that’s trying to get its legs underneath it and an entirely new format that no one’s quite sure how to produce. The first reviews come out, and they’re savage. And if that’s not enough, now the government has their eye on the program, both because the program’s going to discuss the Egyptian seizure of the Suez Canal (complete with an Egyptian official on set for an interview) and, presumably, because Freddie’s been digging into the death of Ruth Elms. (This is me assuming here, but there’s no way these two stories aren’t connected, right?)
But if the spy stuff and the journalism stuff got a touch sharper this week, I’m more impressed than ever by the characters and how their stories tease out. I liked the way we learned more about both Freddie’s ambitions and his past this week, particularly in that scene where he ambushed Lord Elms, the man who gave him a place to live during the war, with an interview Lord Elms didn’t realize was an interview, one that started in the restroom, then continued outside, where a camera crew was waiting. Freddie’s a smug, pompous git, but he also gets results, and it’s easy to sympathize with him because he’s never going to be the guy much of the hour focused on: Hector Madden.
Hector’s a curious guy, someone who rose up to his current profession after being in the sports desk in Manchester. He’s a man who fought in the war and earned two medals, but he’s also someone who freezes up when he sees the people waiting expectantly behind the cameras, a man who can’t really think on his feet to save his own life (or career). He doesn’t read the reviews of the program (doesn’t read the paper beyond the front page and the sports section, really), and that’s just as well. Surely he’d hear that he’s stiff and uncomfortable in front of the camera. And yet there’s an intense connection between him and Bel, a connection that threatens to immediately turn into a rain-soaked makeout session. (This being the ‘50s and Hector being married, the two abstain. But they’re definitely going to knock boots before the season is over.)
The scene where we learn all about Hector’s past is a masterful example of how a show can do character exposition in a fashion where the audience is being spoon-fed information while still keeping the scene light and entertaining. Freddie buttonholes Hector with a series of observations, observations that turn out to be accurate. Freddie’s got Hector dead to rights about his past, and while Freddie obviously believes that showing Hector just how thoroughly he’s got him pegged will eliminate Hector’s confidence advantage, Hector ultimately just doesn’t care. He’s the kind of guy who swoops along through life, skimming above everybody else’s problems on warm winds of pure charm. The only time he freezes up is in front of that camera, and so long as he can figure out a way around that, he’ll be golden. That’s what Freddie will never get. Hector’s not impressed by raw smarts or cool expositional party tricks. He’s more impressed by the way someone carries themselves, the way they look when entering a room, and the scene where a combination of Hector’s charm and Freddie’s bullheadedness gets that Egyptian official to come on the program is a similar delight.
And it was around this point that I realized I was in good hands. Abi Morgan and her team craft this story very carefully to build to that ending, where we realize that all of the threads the episode has been building—save the longer-running Ruth Elms arc—are going to culminate in a scene where Hector interviews the official live on-air and has to pretty much make it up as he goes along. At the same time, the government is waiting, just ready to pull the plug, greatly unnerving Bel (who holds her own in the meeting, then lets her nerves out in the bathroom after). I love that Dominic West plays this scene so you see the moment where the gears shift and everything Bel and Freddie have been telling Hector throughout the hour clicks and he starts asking questions, pushing the interviewee, doing his job. It’s a great climax, made even better by the way it cuts between Hector’s interview and Freddie realizing what the crossword code he discovered (reading “HE KNOWS”) really means.
But this is also an hour that lets us get to know some of the supporting players a little more. Bel’s mother drops by, and we see just how much having a divorcee for a mom has created the Bel we see today. We get a glimpse of Freddie’s little room, where he’s trying to build a chain between Ruth’s death and other events. We get to know more about Clarence and Isaac and Sissy (who changed her name after she heard about another Sally Cooper who worked at the BBC), all of whom get little moments where they get a chance to shine. This is, in other words, eminently capable TV storytelling, and that means it’s easier to let go, set aside the pen dipped in whale’s blood, and just enjoy the program. After this hour, I’m pretty sure The Hour will turn out to be one of my favorites.
I will freely admit that I do not know very much about the Egyptian seizure of the Suez Canal. As such, it strikes me as a perfect historical story to base a fictional storyline around. I’m sure there are inaccuracies here and there, however.
We do get to meet Hector’s wife (in a scene that’s beautifully shot to show how Hector and Bel keep looking at each other, trying to ignore their dining companions), and she certainly seems like someone he married to keep up his status.
I like the way the hallway on the way to the Hour offices is lined with the large, painted numbers. It gives everything a nice feel of counting down to something big.