Usually at this time of year, we’d be gearing up for the season premiere of “Mad Men.” That’s not happening this August, since the show’s next season has been delayed until early 2012.
On Wednesday (Aug. 17), though, BBC America introduces a show that could tide over fans of smart storytelling and period-specific style in “The Hour.” Set in London in 1956, the six-episode series chronicles the launch of a new kind of newscast at the staid BBC and intertwines those stories with a political thriller set against the backdrop of the Suez Canal crisis that gripped the U.K. at the time (here’s a little background on the incident).
Despite the sober backdrop, “The Hour” also manages lighter moments — creator Abi Morgan freely admits to a love for movies like “Broadcast News” and “His Girl Friday” and incorporated elements of them into the story. The series stars Romola Garai (“Atonement”) as Bel Rowley, the producer of the newscast (also called “The Hour”); Ben Whishaw (“Bright Star”) as Freddie Lyon, Bel’s friend/would-be boyfriend who’s bitter over not being made the show’s anchor; and Dominic West (“The Wire”) as Hector Madden, who does get the presenter job, even though he might not be the most qualified for it.
Zap2it spoke with Morgan (who also wrote the upcoming Margaret Thatcher biopic “The Iron Lady”) about the era in which the show is set, her influences and more. Some highlights of our conversation:
Zap2it: Besides the Suez crisis, what made you want to set the show in 1956?
Abi Morgan: I wasn’t born until ’68, but my mum was there. My parents were in that time. … What interested me was I felt there was a big cultural revolution going on in the arts. It was an exciting period where there was great theatre happening, good jazz was arriving. There was a huge influx of music arriving with a new immigrant community. And there were things like the Hungarian revolution taking place, so you had this embarrassment of riches taking place as a news story. So I felt like there were these big global events, but also some interesting domestic shifts going on.
What was the mood like in the U.K. at that time?
I feel like what was happening in this moment in ’56 is, it’s the moment before we’re going to have this burst of industrialization, and there’s going to be a sense of optimism, but it doesn’t last. … There was also a credit squeeze going on. There were huge government cuts going on, they were trying to calm down spending. It was post-war austerity, and people were just starting to put their heads above the parapet. I liked that there was a sort of conflict going on. [It was] a community that felt quite suppressed, and they were starting to see a world beyond the war.
Was there anything about the period that you just didn’t know before you started work on the show?
The reveal for me was there were these inspirational women who were heading up news teams. I couldn’t quite get my head around that. It was also a time where the expectation was once you’re married, you probably won’t work. You’ll look after your children. But I found a cluster of female producers at the time in the BBC — that was an incredible thing. Although predominantly [women] were working in the typing pools or in areas of research, they were also leading great news teams.
What came first when you were shaping the story, the newscast and the character elements or the thriller?
The political thriller came first to me. I was interested in some of the stories I found about how much the government was involved in the [Suez] crisis and the diplomatic, backroom conversations that were going on, so that was very inspiring. And then when I started to look at the BBC at the time and realized there was a start of a world being created there, I thought it would be great to re-create some of the dynamics in movies I loved, like “Broadcast News,” “His Girl Friday,” “All the President’s Men.” All American films — so there is a kind of glamour, an American aspiration to it. But it’s rooted in this post-war community.
Was it tough keeping the balance between the two sides of the show?
Really hard. I think the first episode is interesting for that. In the same way the show [within the show] is finding its identity, I think our show is also finding its identity. It was really difficult, but as we went on, it sort of played out itself, and the personal and political became much more aligned.
I wasn’t sure at first whether “The Hour” had been a real show on the BBC or not. Were there similar shows at the time?
The inspirations for it, although ours is a very different show, were “Panorama” and “Tonight,” which were the first format shows that evolved newsreels. I think the equivalent [in the U.S.] would be “60 Minutes.” They were inspirational as a starting point, but I think our show is much more theatrical. It has a different spin on it.
Do you portray any real people who were at the BBC then?
They’re all amalgams. One of the things I didn’t want to do is a historical biopic. For me it was all about transformation and trying to create a believable world from a series of ingredients I got from the time.
How has the show been received in the U.K.?
It’s been great. The main thing that’s fascinating to me — I’ve never worked on a series before, and it’s such a different animal. People blog and tweet and discuss, they own it and love it and hate it, they don’t understand this, and the next week they love it again. I realized there’s a level of engagement on a series that I just had not experienced, and it’s created a life and following of its own, which is really exciting.
Have you given thought to a second season?
I’m really keen to pick up the show six to nine months later. There’s a resolution to our thriller in [Season 1], but the quest of investigative journalism I’d like to carry through. What I’d really like to look at is the space race and the beginnings of the arms race, the sense that Britain is starting to compete and align with America. That’s the global story, and domestically I’m really interested in a kind of criminal underworld and underclass that was pervading through Soho and that area, and the world of clubs and entertainment running parallel with the influx of immigration, and the growing tensions within Notting Hill and West London.
“The Hour” premieres at 10 p.m. ET Wednesday on BBC America.