With Abi Morgan writing the script, a cast that includes Ben Wishaw, Dominic West and Romola Garai and comparisons with Mad Men, The Hour has a lot to live up to. Jon Creamer reports
There's a lot to pack in to The Hour, Kudos' new Abi Morgan-penned series for BBC2.
Set in a TV newsroom in the mid 50s, it's part period drama, part suspense thriller and part love triangle. It takes in the birth of television news and the beginning of the end of deference. It’s also a show about transition - as the Suez Crisis tips Britain from broken post-imperial dinosaur and turns the country towards a bright new technological future.
The media chatter surrounding the show has so far been about the possible birth of a British Mad Men. But, says exec producer Jane Featherstone, that’s a strange comparison. "I love and adore Mad Men but that is about ad men in New York, this is a political thriller. They’re nine years apart and not even in the same country. Tonally it couldn't be more different."
The show begins, after all, in a London still suffering the effects of the second world war – filled with bomb damage and rationing - a world away from the glitz of Madison Avenue. But the show is also about how Britain was changing in the mid 50s. Along with its thriller elements, the theme of transition runs through the series, even within the first episode as the TV journalist characters move from the old fashioned Alexandra Palace and take up residence in the bright new Lime Grove Studios. The drama begins "claustrophobic and shadowy and steeped in the patina of age," says director Coky Giedroyc. "Through the first episode as the journalists fight to get out of Alexandra Palace, I let the light in. At the end of episode one, they're in Lime Grove Studios and it's the vision of the future - shiny floors and ceilings and big windows and new technology."
The show is faithful to its 50s setting, with all the attention to detail that entails but the production team were determined not to be stymied by the conventions of period drama. "Recent period has to feel real but contemporary," says exec producer Jane Featherstone. "It's not a historical piece in the sense it was trying to be an absolute replication of that time. What the design and photography team did was absolutely accurate in every way, but it was very much about creating a world that felt real to us today as well."
Despite the period setting, the script demanded the show had the pace of contemporary drama. "I wanted something richly textured and lush and period but with a motor and energy that are really contemporary," says Giedroyc, who took influences from 50s movies like Touch of Evil "for the heavy rich, smoky sense of the period" but also Michael Mann thrillers like The Insider "for the energy and the motor." It is, after all, a political thriller too. "In a way, sod the period," says Giedroyc. "An audience won't be bothered with something that's incredibly beautifully constructed but a bit boring."
And that need for pace informed the camera work. "Coky in particular was adamant she didn't want a very typical period, staid, solid look," says DoP Chris Seager. "We wanted something a bit more vibrant, not in the sense of being handheld because we didn't want people aware of the camera." Instead the camera "was asked to be inquiring, looking and going with the action rather than watching" which led to "a lot of POV stuff, a lot of over-shoulder stuff and Steadicam shots going down corridors and going up stairs and people going in and out of light and dark. It's an exuberant style."
A major aid to that pace and exuberance was the early find of Hornsey Town Hall, a listed 1930s building packed with period features. "We found it early on and it was the most creatively exciting thing I've done in a long time," says Giedroyc. "It's one of those really important breakthroughs on a production that if you don't get, you're stuck." The production team were able to have the run of the whole building and could even use buildings to the rear to create the Alexandra Palace and Lime Grove sets.
Finding the building informed the writing too. With so much period detail in situ, characters could be followed through corridors and down staircases and that meant Morgan could write some real pace and movement into the script without needing more set builds. It meant "our world had scale," says Featherstone. "Which we probably wouldn't have been able to afford without it." It also meant director Giedroyc could concentrate on the performances. "It freed me up," she says. "I could go on long journeys with characters. I didn't have to go from one poky set to another. I had four flights of stairs, I had six corridors so we could create a camera style that was incredibly fluid. And it's very rare to be able to do that in a period drama."
Recreating Lime Grove
Eve Stewart, production designer: "We wanted to make the difference between Alexandra Palace and Lime Grove really clear because it says something about society at the time. There was a massive surge in technology in those few years. It went from post war utility and make do and mend and then suddenly space travel was starting to be talked about." To research the period Stewart watched contemporary movies and took references from the Geffrye Museum and The Museum of London. "And we met a lot of people who'd worked at Lime Grove in the period. They managed to come up with original footage of the building." As for props, "we make an awful lot ourselves. For the television equipment we found Dicky from Golden Age Television Recreations who has two big cameras and a big boom in his garage. Then if you're charming and friendly to these people it then leads on to their friend who leads on the their friend. There's an enormous wealth of mad English people who collect things."
Details The Hour A 6x60-minute drama series that centres on the early days of British television news in 1956. Part period drama, part love triangle and part thriller TX: July 2011 Production company: Kudos Broadcaster: BBC2 Writer: Abi Morgan Director: Coky Giedroyc Producer: Ruth Kenley-Letts DoP: Chris Seager Production designer: Eve Stewart Exec producers: Jane Featherstone and Derek Wax for Kudos, Lucy Richer for the BBC and Abi Morgan Commissioned by: BBC2 controller, Janice Hadlow and BBC controller of drama commissioning, Ben Stephenson Cast: Romola Garai, Dominic West, Ben Whishaw, Tim Pigott-Smith, Juliet Stevenson, Anton Lesser, Anna Chancellor, Julian Rhind-Tutt and Oona Chaplin Cameras: Arriflex D21 Grade: Molinare Locations: The majority of the series was shot at Hornsey Town Hall which doubled for almost everything including Alexandra Palace and Lime Grove Studios