Meet the BBC's Mad Men
Evocative design, sexual politics, media buzz – but the creator and cast of The Hour tell Gerard Gilbert that they aren't just jumping on the 1950s bandwagon
Don't mention the "M" words. I did, but I think I got away with it, although writer Abi Morgan emitted an audible groan when I asked her whether her new 1950s-set drama, The Hour, was – as it's already been dubbed – a "British Mad Men". I'm not one for lazy journalistic labels either, although with so many actresses and extras sashaying around in hourglass dresses on the set in the now defunct Hornsey Town Hall in north London (standing in for the BBC's now defunct Lime Grove studios in west London), it's not unlike being transported into the secretarial pool at Sterling Cooper.
"I'm a huge fan of Mad Men, and I'll take that as flattery, but it's a very different show", says Morgan, who also wrote Sex Traffic, 1980s immigration drama Brick Lane and the upcoming Meryl Streep-as-Mrs Thatcher biopic, The Iron Lady. "It's those darned dresses – you get a girl in that beautiful hour-glass dress, it's so definitive. But I was really inspired by the news programmes, and the discovery of the 1950s came much later when I thought this was a fantastic period to set it in. Other than the period there really isn't any other comparison."
You can see why Morgan wants to stay well clear of being mentioned in the same breath as Matthew Weiner's acknowledged television masterpiece – to do otherwise would be setting expectations dangerously high – but listen to her reasons for writing The Hour and you think that they were probably not that far removed from Weiner's – that's to say, the chance above all to get her hooks into a period of lasting social change.
"What attracted me specifically to 1956 was that I was trying to find an historical event and the Suez Crisis was just a brilliant moment because it had so many parallels with today, which was whether this country was right to go to war in the Middle East," she says. "But it's also a country in transition, there's a huge movement coming up in art and novels. You know, Look Back in Anger at the Royal Court, clothes and teenagers. There were riots in cinemas when Rock Around the Clock came out – there was a sense of change. It's the cusp of the Sixties really."
Not only a period when society was changing, but also the BBC with it. Panorama actually started in 1953, but it went off air soon afterwards, returning in its now recognisable format in 1955 with Richard Dimbleby at the helm. The Hour follows the creation of a fictional news programme similarly striving to break away from the static, staid and deferential newsreels of the era – all royal walkabouts and debutante coming-out parties.
"It was the time of classic 'Hello, good evening and welcome to the BBC'," says Morgan. "Shows like Panorama and Tonight had formats inspired by American news shows – a place where you could analyse and debate.''
And with the news very much in the news, whether it be Murdoch's baleful influence and phone-hacking at the News of the World, or the internet's increasing effect on the old media order – from Wikileaks to super-injunctions – there is something very, well, timely about The Hour. The drama centres on the triumvirate of Romola Garai as Bel Rowley, the show's producer, a young woman in a man's world, Ben Whishaw's chippy working-class reporter, Freddie Lyon, and Dominic West from The Wire, as the show's front man, Hector Madden, a public-school war veteran and married ladies' man who sets his sights on Bel.
Bel is based on BBC's legendary head of News and Current Affairs, Grace Wyndham Goldie, who was not only responsible for such groundbreaking shows as Panorama, Tonight and That Was the Week That Was, but for also nurturing a team of producers and presenters known as 'Goldie Boys' – the likes of Alasdair Milne, Huw Wheldon, Robin Day, David Frost and Richard Dimbleby. 'Goldie Boys', take note, not 'Goldie Girls'.
"Abi is generous towards the period to make the show in any way watchable," says Romola Garai when we meet in the mocked-up news studio, complete with original black-and-white TV cameras that had seen service with Morecambe & Wise and Coronation Street. ''Because if we were honest, you know, figures like Grace Wyndham Goldie were essentially men in that environment; any suggestion that they might have a family or any other priority would not have been acceptable.''
2011 is turning into something of an annus mirabilis for Emma/Atonement star Garai after her headlining turn as Sugar, the Victorian prostitute heroine of BBC2's The Crimson Petal and the White. She gives an earthily intelligent performance as Bel, and what's more, she's not shy of mentioning the M words.
"People might want to watch The Hour because of Mad Men and then they'll see that the worlds are vastly different," she says. "When I watch Mad Men it makes me very aware of how different America was in the Fifties. The war affected Europe so differently, and what's interesting about Suez is that the Americans didn't get involved because they had moved past that desperate, very public colonialism. Britain was still marching round the world thinking they could stick flags in places."
It's another much-loved American TV series that I find myself discussing with Dominic West, who made his name in HBO's hero-worshipped The Wire. The last time we spoke – in this very building, where he was shooting a BBC4 biopic about the synthesis of penicillin, Breaking the Mould – West had told me that he glad to be rid of long-running episodic TV series.
"What I like about acting is that you do something intensely for a finite amount of time and then you move on, and what I found with episodic television was that it just goes on and on and on. But this just seemed of a different level of quality, and also the commitment wasn't so big. In America the contracts are such that you feel that you're being co-opted into a vast corporation and that they own your arse."
West agrees with Morgan that the 1950s are a rediscovered decade. "Ten years ago nobody gave a thought about the 1950s," he says. "Now it seems to be very much of the time. Originally, I thought that that's not a very great thing – the Fifties is what we all try and get away from. But now I see there are so many parallels. We're supposed to be in a period of austerity and society does feel quite conservative now. Then there's a political resonance with the current situation in the Middle East.''
The hope is that The Hour will become a returning series, finding new historical moments to explore, the characters changing and deepening with the times. "I'd love to take another big political event," says Morgan. "1958 was an amazing year – one character here starts a relationship with a newly arrived Nigerian student... Freddie's from Notting Hill... I'd love to go back to around that period and write about immigration and what that was doing to the country." She had better watch out, however, or she'll be in danger of having a British Mad Men on her hands.
'The Hour' begins next Tuesday at 9pm on BBC2