It’s a little unfair--though inevitable--that this drama, about the launch of a mid 1950s BBC news programme, will be compared to Matthew Weiner’s show about the advertising industry in early 1960s New York. You know the one. So let’s get it out of the way: The Hour (Tuesday, 9pm on BBC2) is no Mad Men, but that doesn’t mean it’s a disaster. In fact, apart from the exquisitely detailed period setting--as Romola Garai points out--the two shows don’t have a huge amount in common. Mad Men started as a beautifully languorous examination of mid-century consumerism while The Hour is zippy and zoned in on one central plot and character cluster, but just happens to be set in the past. And actually, it’s pretty great. The script twinkles and the casting is flawless.
Of course, The Hour doesn’t ignore the political and social climate. The launch of a topical news show that has a female producer (Bel Rowle, played by Romola Garai) invites sexist reactions from colleagues and observers. And because it’s the 1950s, Bel has to find ways to handle it that don’t include lodging complaints with HR or launching lawsuits. And okay, yes, this whole thing is vaguely reminiscent of Peggy’s battle to gain acceptance as a copywriter, having started out as Don Draper’s secretary. But whereas Mad Men buzzes intelligently around her struggle for entire seasons, The Hour is much more conscious of its role as entertaining drama. It nods courteously at retro inequalities, but also moves on quickly.
The Wire’s Dominic West plays handsome anchor Hector Madden--a married man who doesn’t let that stand in the way of potential conquests (yes, okay, we know. Could he BE more Don Draper?). There’s not enough of Hector in the opening episode (the first of six) to feel him out entirely. But it doesn’t seem like we’ll get to go deep Draper-style and probe his past. Though, if it turns out that he stole the identity of a dead soldier then I may have to write an it’s-a-lot-like-Mad-Men-after-all retraction.
The man we get to know best in episode one is young reporter Freddie (Ben Whishaw), an angry little hound with a potentially explosive scoop. Someone has been killed and the details are being covered up. It’s down to Freddie to discover the truth and expose it. Nothing as outrageously brazen as a murder wrapped up in a conspiracy would make it into Weiner’s show, surely. But if it ever emerges that Mad Men’s Joan is a government assassin then I’ll add an extra, grovelling paragraph to that retraction.