In recent weeks, an old rivalry has resurfaced in the U.K., as commercial broadcaster ITV has dealt a blow to the taxpayer-supported BBC by airing a documentary in October that outlined the staggering child sex abuse claims leveled at colorful DJ and BBC host Jimmy Savile, who died in October 2011 at 84.
For reasons that are not yet clear, BBC’s “Newsnight” show declined to air a program on the same subject late last year and now finds itself not only accused of harboring a pedophile for decades but also of a possible cover-up.
Launched in 1955, ITV broke the monopoly the BBC held on British television at a particularly sensitive time in U.K. history. Still recovering from World War II, Great Britain was also plunged into the Cold War, causing it to re-examine its relationship with America, which was emerging on the world stage as a superpower.
The sun was setting on the British Empire, and the dawn would bring a whole new geopolitical landscape into view.
On Wednesday, Nov. 28, BBC America launches Season 2 of the drama “The Hour,” following the behind-the-scenes and personal travails of the team behind a BBC news program. It’s now late 1957, a year after a controversial interview caused a reporter to be fired.
Dominic West (“The Wire”) stars as anchor Hector Madden, who’s letting his celebrity go to his head. Also starring are Ben Whishaw as Freddie Lyon, the fired reporter who is back in the fold and now shares host duties with Madden; and Romola Garai as producer Bel Rowley, who tries to keep Hector on the straight and narrow (and prevent him from succumbing to the lure of higher salaries and ratings at ITV).
“We’d come out of a war,” series writer/producer Abi Morgan tells Zap2it. “America was dealing with its own huge neurosis and paranoia, and in many ways, Britain looked across to America, admired it, saw it as its ally. A lot of the news shows at that time were looking at America quite closely, then we broke away from the very straight-to-camera format.
“It was a golden era. ‘The Hour’ is a hybrid to me. There’s a heightened tone to the language, that kind of Hepburn/Tracy crackle in the dialogue. I was very impacted by the glamour and the sex and the flirtatious romanticism of that period as well.
“Journalists in the U.K., I think they believe in the nobility of chasing a story. So, as a tribute to that, not only in the ’50s, but also in the 21st century … I admire the great journalists who do it with real integrity and interest.
“I suppose it’s also a bit of a love song to great journalism.”
In preparing for the role, West turned for inspiration to a modern BBC journalist, who was only 7 years old at the time of “The Hour.”
“My interviewing technique is inevitably influenced by modern interviewing techniques,” he says, “certainly in the U.K., which is dominated by Jeremy Paxman, who is an attack dog, really.
“He’s very clever, and he tears politicians to pieces. He won an award once for asking the same question 20 times to a politician, ‘Yes or no?’ I realized I was doing that on ‘The Hour,’ where, in fact, they would have been far more deferential.
” ‘The Hour’ is partly about that starting to change. But essentially, (the BBC) was an organ of the government. It was propaganda, like it had been during the war. Now it very much holds the government to account, but then, it wasn’t.”
Morgan also uses Hector as a way to examine the birth of the idea of the celebrity newsman.
“In Series 2,” she says, “it’s really about Hector coming to terms with his celebrity. I quite like exposing the vanity in Hector. I think he’s a really good man. Hector, in many ways, is a man of honor, and he’s very naive.
“It’s about a man who’s grown up through the ’30s and ’40s. He’s being slapped in the face in the ’50s, because he realizes that while he’s been investigating and inquiring into everybody else’s life, he’s now risen to where there’s the paparazzi inquiring into his.
“He has a moment of reckoning about his marriage and his fidelity to his wife and the implications of that. He’s also a man who is utterly corruptible. I’m always interested in people who are open to corruption. I hope the difference is, if they have some sort of moral compass deep inside them that stops them at some point, causing them to say, ‘I’ve made a mistake.’
“That’s not just a comment about celebrity then; it’s a comment about celebrity now. It’s about the discombobulation of that. You’re watching a man who’s literally losing his head.”