The Hour: Quality Drama From the BBC With Romola Garai, Ben Wishaw and Dominic West

When I first came to Britain, I'd never heard of "the Suez Crisis." I was always puzzled by the way my British friends spoke of it, as if I ought to know about something so momentous. My ignorance of the events marked me as an American and made me the butt of jibes and stock jokes about my "inferior" education and "provincial" up-bringing which were neither fair nor true.
It was many years before I understood what Suez meant to the British; how Abdel Nasser's armed seizure of the British-owned Suez canal - the lifeline of Empire - had signalled the end of Imperial British ambition. This Empire, only a little before and through duplicity, arms, law, great institution and economic might, claimed dominion over one-sixth of the Earth's lands and peoples. Then, suddenly, its time was past.
Watching now as American economic power begins visibly to decline, the Brits must feel a little smug and perhaps a little sympathetic, too. Had Americans understood Suez - grasped how abuse of power, alliance with corrupt regimes, exploitation of the far-away for the gain of the greedy and powerful had brought the Empire down just as the real price of its WWII "victory" hit home... had we learned from history, like we're meant to, perhaps we wouldn't have made the mistakes we've made in the past ten or twenty years.
The United States stands on the edge of an economic abyss, weakened by the cost of wars that have enriched very few of its citizens, and by the failure of government to protect the majority from the fecund avarice of those at the top of its financial institutions. What better time could there be for the BBC to entertain us with a story set in the shadow of Suez?
The Hour: Liberation of The News
Which brings us to The Hour. This is a BBC Drama series set in 1956 around a team of BBC television journalists trying to liberate the TV news from censorship and political control by a government whose seige mentality persists as the Cold War rages - a full decade after the World War has been won.
Leading the effort are Bel Rowley (Romola Garai) and Freddie Lyon (Ben Wishaw), a pair of talented young journalists, former university friends from opposite ends of the social scale who've landed jobs at the BBC. Together they have a vision: to bring the stale, formulaic television news to life, make it mean something. To achieve this, they hope to leave convention behind - those newsreels of events, no longer quite current and edited to the point of propaganda, and the magazine articles that depict a rosy, cosy Britain that never really was.
Bel is the cool one, with a gift for understanding how to make things happen in the deeply conservative heart of Broadcasting House where her gender is no asset. Her ability attracts the support of her enigmatic boss, Head of News Clarence Fendley (Anton Lesser.) This practical, eminent BBC insider lends her his backing for a pilot - if she can make it work.
Bel assembles her team: Lix (Anna Chancellor), a sharp foreign correspondent; Hector Madden (Dominic West), the new programme's handsome newsreader - a former Guards officer and married philanderer, forced on Bel by Clarence despite the man's apparent lack of skill; and loose-cannon Freddie, whose brilliance as an investigator rarely prevents him from making enemies of almost everyone he works with. Freddie's in love with Bel - an awkward situation that grows more unhappy when she begins a steamy affair with Hector.
And the REAL star is...
The Hour snaps with sexual tension, class rivalry and political intrigue as the team strive to get the programme right and massive world events, lurking just outside the frame, overtake the whole society. While the cast are uniformly excellent, the real star of The Hour might just be 1950's Britain, intimately drawn by writer Abi Morgan (Brick Lane, Sex Traffic) and exquisitely realised by a team from production-house Kudos Film and Television whose hits include Spooks and Life on Mars.
One needs an interest in the news and who dictates it to appreciate The Hour fully - and it helps, too to know a little about the BBC. The questions this programme raises about the nature of our freedom, and about the relationship between the Press and power, are perennial and important.
Yet I'm not sure what audiences outside the UK will make of it, and I suspect that the Suez Crisis may mean as little to others as it once did to me. This is a real pity - so, because I've learned my lesson, I'm going to savour The Hour while I've got the chance.
Watch The Hour on BBC Two, Tuesdays 21.00.
For more information about Suez: http://www.bodley.ox.ac.uk/dept/scwmss/projects/suez/suez.html

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