How the BBC show succeeds where its American counterpart fails
It's not a fashionable opinion in the critical world, but I've never been able to embrace Mad Men. I tried the first five episodes of season one. But I found myself fidgety and distracted by the show's air of remove from everything, whether it's Don Draper's mad dash from his own identity or the ad accounts and campaigns that act as metaphors for social issues while keeping the characters at a distance from them, and couldn't bring myself to continue. When Daniel Mendelsohn blasted Mad Men in the New York Review of Books earlier this year as "a drama with aspirations to treating social and historical 'issues' [that cycles through] successive personal crises (adulteries, abortions, premarital pregnancies, interracial affairs, alcoholism and drug addiction, etc.), rather than exploring, by means of believable conflicts between personality and situation, the contemporary social and cultural phenomena it regards with such fascination," I felt a flash of outlaw sympathy.
The unfortunate coronation of Mad Men as the '60s show to end all '60s shows obscures an important fact. While Matthew Weiner and AMC may have kickstarted the craze for television about the late '50s and the early '60s, that doesn't mean other artists can't play with the formula and find ways to improve it. And BBC's The Hour, arriving on BBC America at 10 tonight, lays down a marker. Set in a BBC studio in 1956 where the staff of a new news magazine program are struggling to make their mark in the face of government pressure to sit on important stories, The Hour is alternately ferocious and tender, and refreshingly clear-eyed about the interactions between gender and class.
The setting helps tremendously in highlighting these issues. In an early broadcast, anchor Hector Madden (The Wire's Dominic West, in his triumphant return to television) flubs the framing of an investigative piece the up-jumped working-class reporter Freddie Lyon (Ben Whishaw) did about the difficulty West Indian immigrants have finding housing in London: He ends the segment with a depressing reaffirmation that in London "If you're white, you're alright." The cast may be all-white, but they're aware of the problems of people who don't share their country of origin or skin tone. Later, their producer, Bel Rowley (an unexpectedly tremendous Romola Garai), kills an interview Lyon gets with a grieving Cabinet minister about a bill to abolish hanging in favor of a live interview Madden does with the Egyptian ambassador to the U.K. after Egypt seizes control of the Suez Canal, while Lyon begins an investigation into the mysterious death of an academic. The compromises Bel has to make are real, and not just because the stories have real impacts. Because the BBC operated under a Royal Charter, and because in 1956, the network was a year into its competition with the newly-created independent competitor ITV, the approval of high government officials wasn't an immaterial concern, and Bel is doubly under pressure as a woman producer.
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There's a real virtue to the fact that the story begins with Bel in a position of power, rather than simply charting her upward trajectory. She can stumble as well as rise, at one point lecturing the show's secretary not to do little extras for the men on the show because "do you want to be taken seriously? Or forever be some stupid little marionette forever fluttering on the arm of every good-looking man in the BBC? First rule, don't make tea." While she has a male mentor in the BBC director of news, Bel has decision-making authority over Hector and Freddie, an old friend with whom she's long plotted a new kind of television show, only to beat him to the job of producer while he's stuck covering domestic news. "They're humoring you," Freddie lashes out at Bel when he finds out she's got the job. "They don't want a woman. A woman is difficult, hysterical. And you can never really find one who'll ever stay. Another couple of years and you'll probably want a baby." He doesn't actually believe any of it, but that doesn't mean he won't use her insecurities to hurt her.
Hector's flirtation with Bel begins with a gentler bit of calculated sexism as they wait in a reception room. "I never understand women and magazines," he says as an opening gambit. "You only ever buy them for the pictures." Bel plays along: "You're so right," she says. "And those things called the novels. Impossible. So many words." But there's a real poignancy to it: When he asks her for a drink to celebrate their new jobs together, Hector wants to know why she lets government officials condescend to her, only to have her point out that he's asked her to a drink in a men's-only lounge. "Well, I'd love to," she tells him, "but beyond that door, women are not allowed. What is it about you men? You always need a tiny corner where we can't quite reach you." Even as he respects her as a gifted news executive and a liberated woman, Hector still woos her with touches of old-fashionedness, telling her, "Military upbringing. Can't help it. I'm pathologically unable to see a woman walking in the rain without holding an umbrella over her." As Jimmy McNulty on The Wire, West was deliberately a bit of a drunken slob, sexually, so it's easy to forget that he can be a seducer, capable of imbuing a light grip on a woman's fingertips or a fumble at the edge of her skirt with a deep eroticism.
Freddie and Hector's competition over Bel is about the woman herself, but it's also a deeply freighted conversation about class. "What is he? Oxford-educated? At least you're with your own kind," Freddie complains when Bel starts demonstrating some affection for Hector, later urging her to side with her journalistic instincts rather than her social connections. And when Freddie dresses down Hector for sailing through life on his status rather than his skills, he explains, "It's nothing personal, I just don't like privilege," only to have Hector laugh at him, "You're a snob." But at a country house party, Hector puts Freddie in one of his old tuxedos rather than let him be embarrassed at dinner even as he acknowledges, "No one's getting married or buried or anything, but we do it."
And though they grapple with their own backgrounds, both men care for upper-crust women. Hector is married to Marnie, the daughter of a fantastically wealthy business-man, and Freddie harbors a childhood crush on Ruth Elms, a gorgeous, depressed debutante. Marnie hides her ennui and insecurities behind elaborate entertainments and feigned enthusiasms for games of sardines, wiping lipstick off Hector's neck and onto her impeccable white gloves without ever saying a word. Ruth, by contrast, gets a nosebleed during a whirl on the dance floor with her fiancee at her coming-out party and wears a moddish leopard-print coat to come see Freddie at his office, telling him "Mother hates it. I wear it to annoy her. One has to find tiny acts of rebellion where one can." It's not simply gender that's trapped these women into their roles—it's class expectations, and Ruth's case, fulfilling them is literally making her ill. "These silent deals are struck all the time," Hector tells Bel at one point. "One learns to recognize it. A slow deadening in the eyes. An acceptance of defeat."
But everyone in The Hour is fighting, whether publicly and passionately for a new vision of the news business, for freedom from a stifling marriage, for a translation of excitable Arabic pouring in over the receiver from the streets of Cairo, or from escape the mail room and the general secretarial pool. Don Draper may fall from his office building in the credits of Mad Men, but the characters of The Hour are already there at street level, scrapping for all they're worth.