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Timely news drama is spot on

Cometh the hour, cometh . . . The Hour, and with perfect timing, too. In the real world, the BBC's flagship news programme Newsnight is in trouble.

In The Hour, it's 1957 and the BBC's flagship news programme The Hour is in trouble, but for different reasons.

A young upstart called ITV has come on the scene and its own flash, brash news programme, Uncovered, is stealing its thunder.

Okay, so the coincidences are accidental and the connection pretty thin, yet it does given an added tang to Abi Morgan's series, which already looks like it's going to be a distinct improvement on last year's first run.

Not that that was terrible; it was stylish, well acted and well written, and the period trappings -- which had some idiots suggesting it was the British answer to Mad Men -- looked great.

But a lot of the time Morgan didn't seem to know if she was writing a straightforward newsroom drama, an espionage thriller set against the backdrop of the Suez crisis, or a soapy love triangle involving the three main characters. The result was The Hour ended up being a bit of everything and not enough of the one thing.

The pacing in this opening episode was better (it moved at a brisk clip instead of standing around encouraging us to admire how convincing the recreation of the steam-driven TV technology of the day looked), the dialogue was tighter and more economical, and the story surer of itself.

Bored

It's 18 months on from the end of the first series, the space race is in full flight and The Hour's preening presenter Hector (Dominic West) is basking in the glow of celebrity.

While his bored, disillusioned wife, who he married for money and privilege rather than love, sits at home "homemaking," as she puts it, "when there's nobody to homemake for", Hector spends every night in a Soho nightclub, moving like a movie star through a world of popping flashbulbs, clinking whiskey tumblers, and backroom assignations with pliant showgirls and "actresses".

Hector is being gently courted by ITV and loving it, but he's also moving in dangerous circles. His chief drinking partner is a senior detective who may be more shadowy than he seems, while the club is owned by gangland elements.

There's also a sexy showgirl who's hiding some nasty bruises under her stage make-up. We had seen Hector bed her earlier at a woozy, boozy private party, so he could he be the one responsible for her injuries, or is he about to become a fall guy and a pawn in darker developments?

Back in the studio, producer Bel (Romala Garai), whose character has been fleshed out enough to no longer feel like a mere cypher representing the struggles of professional women in the chauvinistic 1950s, is still feeling the loss of talented sideman Freddie (Ben Whishaw), a brilliant journalist but a tactless hothead who was sacked at the end of the first series, and battling to cope with an imposing, demanding new head of news called Randall Brown.

This character proves to be The Hour's masterstroke. He's played by the wonderful Peter Capaldi (The Thick of It's Malcolm Tucker), an actor whose presence could light up a darkened room.

The picture of severity behind his horn-rimmed glasses, Brown glides like a ghost around the corridors, exuding menace and threat. He's not happy with The Hour being challenged by ITV, and he's even less happy with Hector's beaming, booze-illuminated face appearing in the papers every day.

His solution? Freshen things up by hiring a co-host -- none other than Freddie, cutting a dash in a sharply-tailored suit and possessed of a new confidence after sojourns in Paris, New York and beyond.

Hector is outraged. Bel is secretly delighted, but soon crushed when she discovers Freddie has brought more than a new wardrobe back from his travels -- he's also acquired a French wife.

It's impossible to tell yet whether these disparate strands with pull together better than they did last time, but The Hour, much like Freddie, already looks much sharper.



The Hour 4/5


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