Romola Garai Interview: The Hour Is No Mad Men

Strong, female leads are hard to come by. Romola Garai is one of those lucky actresses, however, who seems to have no problem securing such roles—certainly not at the moment, anyway. Earlier this year she played head-strong prostitute Sugar in BBC's period drama The Crimson Petal and The White, previous to that she was the lead in a TV adaptation of Emma.

Romola's next role, in BBC Two's The Hour, has the potential to propel her even further into the big time. The 1950s newsroom drama (which starts on Tuesday, July 19, at 9pm) is tipped as the British equivalent to Mad Men, and already has critics raving. So, before Romola gets too busy to talk to us, we decided to drop her a call and ask her what's to come… Lead female roles as strong as Bel don’t come around very often. How did it feel when you were offered the role?
Romola Garai: Yeah, I know, I was very excited. I guess there’s been a clutch of really great leading characters in crime dramas recently--The Killing and shows like that--but to do something that’s a straight drama with such a fantastic female lead and in a workplace as well (it’s not just a love story; it’s an office environment and she’s quite focused on her career) that was quite interesting to me.

And so soon after playing Sugar in The Crimson Petal! This really does seem like your year…
I’m very, very fortunate to work on projects with such amazing writers and producers who really champion them. I always think it’s quite unfair, because you, as an actor, come in at the very last minute when people have raised the money, put the project together and got incredibly people on board. That’s the real hard work, especially if the projects--as you say--have strong female characters that could potentially alienate some of the audience. And then you come in at the end and you take all the credit for it, but actually both of those shows were put together by a team of people who really champion them.

BAFTA-winner Abi Morgan created this series. What was she like to work with?
Oh, amazing. She’s a brilliant writer. Sex Traffic is one of the best TV shows I’ve ever seen; it’s incredibly well written. She has this real lightness of touch, which, when you’re doing something that’s a drama but the idea is to have a wide audience appeal, that’s what you need. She’s very funny and her writing’s very sexy and witty, but she doesn’t lower the tone; it’s very bright, very clever stuff. It’s a real treat to play her dialogue.

A lot of the roles you've done--certainly more recently at least--have been in period dramas. Do you prefer them to other genres?
I just don’t really mind that much, I guess. Because my criteria is just that I want to play parts that are interesting, in pieces that are worth while, that really is the only thing that I use as a yard stick. I don’t really care what period it’s set in as long as I think it’s an interesting character.

Do you think The Hour will give people a real insight into the Fifties in Britain?
I hope so! I certainly felt quite strongly that the subject matter of the show relates to a lot of the issues that are happening in the news at the moment. I mean, the fact that we’re having the greatest discussion about the role of the media and the tactics they use that, probably, we’ve ever had in this country--certainly for a very long time--is quite timely considering that The Hour is this optimistic look on the news, investigative journalism and what it can become. I think it’s quite an interesting debate.

Do you think the relevancy of the show will help its ratings?
I don’t know. I mean, The Hour’s about television news and I suppose the whole News of the World thing is definitely about print media; they’re very different in that point of view. I don’t really know whether people will make a connection but I certainly hope that people relish what is a sexy and optimistic look at the news; the great role that it can have, and the good feeling that it gives you when you invest in characters that are trying to do the right thing.

People are comparing The Hour to Mad Men. How fair do you think that is?
Well they’re set in the same period, but it’s only as fair as saying that Britain was the same in the Fifties as America was, which it wasn’t. I think it’s an interesting thing; to compare the shows, if nothing else but to see the differences between them: Britain was a post-war society in a much more desperate state than America was because, obviously, we’d experienced bombing and two years worth of rationing that had just ended. The show is about colonialism and that’s a very different kind of background to Mad Men; Mad Men is about consumerism and advertising, whereas The Hour is much more about the end of the Empire. I think they have different subject matters.

Mad Men has lasted four seasons so far--with another on the way--do you think The Hour could be this successful?
Oh yes, that would be nice! I mean I’m not going to quite set my heights that high, but yeah two seasons would be nice!

A lot of British actors, including your co-star Dominic West, have crossed the pond to work in America. Would you consider moving to the US for your career?
I don’t know, I think it would depend. If you’re on a very long-running TV show, like Dom was, then you have a security that comes with that. And if it’s an amazing part, like McNulty in The Wire, then I think that would be hard to turn down as an actor. That’s the one thing you never get--a guarantee that you’ll have work the next day--but if you’re on a show like that you do kind of forget that a bit. That would be appealing. But I actually love living in London, I’d find it hard to move I think.

Bel becomes involved in a love triangle between West’s character Hector and Ben Whishaw’s Freddie. How important is this romantic element to the series as a whole?
I think it’s very important. The romantic love triangle angle and, I suppose, the political battle in the show, that goes on between the new world and the old world, are quite intertwined; they really inform each other. Really, Bel’s dilemma is choosing between a man who has the traditional values of the old Guard and a man who represents the newness of what will become the Sixties, with his energy and forward thinking.

How much does Bel change over the course of the series?
She does develop a lot. She’s forced to confront how vulnerable she is in the workplace, and that’s something that I was very interested in; how, at the beginning of the series, she starts on the assumption that she’s in the workplace purely on her own merit, that she has a right to be there and she’ll be treated with respect according to that status. Very gradually throughout the series those illusions get stripped away.

Would you say she was a modern woman of the Fifties?
I think she’s quite representative of her era, actually. Nowadays most women just assume they have a right to be in the workplace and any kind of discrimination they suffer is sort of more creeping. Whereas at the time I think women were more aware of the fact that they were trail blazers, and the sacrifices they had to make to be in those sorts of positions.

Was there ever a point when you found yourself genuinely shocked by a scene in the script?
I was certainly shocked by finding out the details of Britain’s role in the Suez Crisis, which I kind of knew about, but when it’s explored in the story I think you really get a sense of what a violent time it was. How, when an empire is in its sort of death throe, some people are really fighting for power and that’s when you really see the worst of them. I think it is shocking, and I think it’s good; that it should be.

Will you be tuning in to The Hour?

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