WSM on the BBC on the BBC, circa 1956

Posted: August 17, 2011 by BlackNETintel-2 in W. Scott Malone
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W. Scott Malone signed up with “Auntie Beeb” in 1978, when they were unquestionably perhaps the best news organization in the world. Working out of Washington, but directed out of the New York ‘Office’ and London, Malone worked for the legendary “Current Affairs programmes” PANORAMA and NEWSNIGHT, whose birth are depicted in the well-reviewed, six-part mini-series described below. They, we, used to do beautifully shot one-hour documentaries on major investigative stories, literally racing competitors like the daily New York Times to a draw or better.

Joining the newly formed PBS Frontline in 1982, Malone went on to marry his first wife and ‘last’  BBC ‘boss’–once deemed ‘the darling of the BBC,’ who was a producer/director from the even fancier “documentary features” section of the Beeb.

Perhaps not-so-ironically, she never learned to touch-type, because her Mother told her she would forever be relegated to “fetching the coffee.”

BBC’s ‘The Hour’: A Cold War enigma, layered in ’50s style

By , Published: August 16, 2011


Maybe the haze believed to be “Mad Men’s” excess cigarette smoke is instead exhaust fumes from a fritzy time machine. Television’s attempts to transport viewers back to the world of institutional sexism, racism, hi-fis and highballs may succeed as retromania and light social studies, but they often fail to fully sate the viewer’s fixation on 1964 or 1962 or 1956.
So many people apparently want even more of the back there, back when, back then. It’s a grief we must work through; one salve is to find mid-century teak consoles above which to place one’s flat-screen TV and then command it to seek out high-def shows set in yesteryear.
“The Hour,” an engaging yet taciturn new miniseries beginning Wednesday night on BBC America, is similar to such fare but also exceedingly, meticulously different. Set in a fictionalized depiction of BBC’s still-nascent television news operation in 1956, it is part spy thriller, part murder mystery, part love affair and part nostalgia trip. Though the six-part series does perk up a little as it plods along, it begins with a somewhat lethargic and confusing pilot episode, in which it is difficult to know what exactly “The Hour” wants to be — besides stylish. 
On the plus side, it has Dominic West (“The Wire’s” Detective Jimmy McNulty) starring as a handsome if somewhat clueless news anchor who is unwittingly caught up in a complicated, multilayered plot. 
The story: Freddie Lyon (played by Ben Whishaw) is a young BBC TV reporter who chafes at the network’s passive approach to newscasts, which are packed with official spin and feel-good footage of debutante parties and royal goings-on, all narrated in lifeless monotone. The Beeb, it seems, has an ingrained aversion to scandal, scoop and other aggressive journalistic jujitsu that we commonly associate with the modern British press.
“The Hour,” written and created by Abi Morgan, fixates on coverups, conspiracies and other averted glances that color the postwar mood as Britain readjusts to a somewhat lessened global sphere of influence. It’s all about spies, yes, but it’s also all about the waning days of the monarchy’s reach. The Suez Canal crisis of ’56 is the story of the moment, and it works as a symbolic backdrop to “The Hour’s” essential sense of national loss. 
Freddie is sent to cover yet another society fete — this time featuring Ruth Elms (Vanessa Kirby), the daughter of Lord and Lady Elms, who is engaged to an actor. In a dramatic coinkydink, when Freddie was a young working-class lad, he lived with the Elmses during the Blitz. A depressed and paranoid Ruth tries to tip Freddie off to a big story involving the recent murder of a history professor in a subway station. Soon enough, Ruth is dead, too.
This is enough to lure Freddie into investigating both deaths, which leads to the discovery that the professor had a side hobby of submitting crossword puzzles to newspapers, which, when printed, seemed to be delivering coded messages to certain readers. Yet Freddie can’t get anyone in the news department interested enough to let him pursue it. 
But enough of that. On still another track, “The Hour” is really about the creation of a BBC newsmagazine show in the vein of Edward R. Murrow’s “See It Now” and the love triangle among the show’s producer, anchor and star reporter. Freddie’s best friend (and unrequited love interest), Bel Rowley, is recruited to produce the new show, and she persuades her bosses to let her add Freddie to the staff. 
Bel is played with reserved and striking assurance by Romola Garai (from the 2009 version of “Emma”), her character working against the usual undertow of chauvinism: The prime minister’s press aide — a menacing presence around the BBC newsroom — tells her she’s wasting her maternal instincts on a career; after a network meeting, the men adjourn to a private barroom that doesn’t allow women. “What is it about you men?” Bel asks. “You always need a tiny corner where we can’t quite reach you.”
“The Hour” would be busy enough with Freddie’s mystery murders and Bel’s foray into women’s rights, but when West’s character, Hector Madden, is brought on to anchor the newsmagazine (also called “The Hour”), things start to crackle. Hector, a product of the upper crust (and married to the daughter of a rich industrialist), got the gig through connections rather than experience or skill, so it’s up to Bel to mold him into a competent anchor. This drives Freddie crazy with envy, as he sees Bel become attracted to Hector. 
“When we first met, you couldn’t even knot your tie,” Bel explains to Freddie. “You’d never tried an oyster, been to the theater, read Wolfe or Wilde. I did that. It’s what you do when you believe in someone.”
“And you believe in him?” Freddie marvels.
This particular plot thread — Freddie loves Bel who cannot help but fall for Hector, and all the while there’s a deadline to meet — tracks too close for comfort to “Broadcast News.” But all is forgiven in Episode 3, when the gang journeys out to Hector’s in-laws’ estate in the country. Here, men dress for the hunt, women dress for cocktails, a mist settles across the hills, the mystery deepens and “The Hour” finds a nostalgic sweet spot after all. Its sentimentality for British society is more authentic than its ’50s vibe.
The Hour
(75 minutes) premieres Wednesday
at 10 p.m. on BBC America.


August 12, 2011

British Reporters, Not Ad Men, in ’50s, Not ’60s

London — ONE surprising notion that might strike you while watching “The Hour” — BBC America’s six-part series about a hard-hitting television news program in 1956 Britain and the men and women who work for it — is that Peggy Olson didn’t have it so bad. At least on “Mad Men,” the midcentury-period AMC drama, one gets the impression that Peggy — the peep-voiced, wide-eyed advertising copywriter struggling to establish herself in a man’s world — has a few equally ambitious girlfriends to gripe with about the boy’s club. On “The Hour,” however, the shoulder that the head producer Bel Rowley (Romola Garai) ends up crying on is that of Freddie (Ben Whishaw), a tenacious reporter who is also in love with her. 
When “The Hour” had its premiere here on BBC2 last month (it has its BBC America premiere Wednesday at 10 p.m.), “Mad Men” comparisons abounded despite some crucial differences. For all the shadowy after-hours nightclubs and tight sheath dresses, the show’s backdrop isn’t as shiny as the Manhattan of “Mad Men,” set less than a decade later. It’s cold, wet London two years after the end of rationing, a city still struggling to regain its footing after the bombings of World War II. 
Yet “The Hour” may remind American viewers of nothing so much as our own age. Several scenes seem to anticipate the News of the World phone hacking scandal, like when Freddie bribes a policeman to let him examine a body at the morgue, and the phones of reporters are tapped by government agents (even though it was journalists doing the listening-in at News of the World). 
The recent revelations about News of the World and the hacking of cellphones owned by, among others, a murder victim hadn’t yet surfaced by the time “The Hour” went into production. But one of its executive producers, Derek Wax, acknowledged that the current scandal had given the show a sense of immediacy. 
“It does seem very pertinent now,” Mr. Wax said last month at a Television Critics Association gathering, noting that the show touches on current issues like the collusion between politicians and journalists, and “who you have lunch with one day and how stories are leaked.” He added, “We are very much in 1956, but at times you feel that nothing’s really changed.” (A second season, if approved, would address the Notting Hill race riot of 1958.) 
Of course times have changed dramatically for women. Abi Morgan, who wrote and created “The Hour,” said that while researching the project she discovered that if you were one of the few women employed by the BBC in postwar London, you were most likely a telephone-answering, tea-carrying secretary. “I think America was a bit ahead of us in that regard,” Ms. Morgan said. “There were a lot more women in the workplace in America than in Britain.” Throughout most of the series Bel is so outnumbered that when men unapologetically disparage women in front of her, nothing — no resentment, no frustration — ever registers on her pale face. 
When asked if this was an acting choice, Ms. Garai, speaking in her agent’s office in central London, said that her Bel wouldn’t have expected to be treated as an equal. “I mean, misogyny would not have been misogyny at that time. It wouldn’t have been exceptional. It would have been life.” 
To prepare for the role Ms. Garai studied up on Grace Wyndham Goldie, a British news pioneer. Ms. Goldie, a radio critic who didn’t begin her television career until her late 40s, was the producer most famously associated with the success of BBC programs like “Tonight” and “Panorama,” which broke ground by covering current affairs as they happened, thus ignoring the “14-day rule,” which dictated that the BBC not report on issues that were to be debated in Parliament within two weeks. 
“She was absolutely at the forefront of that movement, and she was totally alone,” Ms. Garai said. “She was like any woman who had to operate in that climate. She was intimidating, formidable. Definitely a woman with the emphasis on ‘man.’ ” (In “The Hour” Bel is a woman in her 20s who wears figure-hugging dresses, bright-red lipstick and smokes cigarettes as elegantly as Myrna Loy in a “Thin Man” movie.) 
Before it was broadcast, some British news outlets had positioned the series as the country’s glossy answer to “Mad Men.” But when the executive producer Jane Featherstone, president of Kudos Film and Television (“MI5,” “Life on Mars”), first commissioned Ms. Morgan to create a series about a time when the BBC stopped broadcasting government-sanctioned newsreels and focused on investigative news, Ms. Featherstone was thinking of a political thriller involving television reporters and the Suez Canal crisis of 1956
“In British terms that was the end of our empire, the moment that Britain really gave up its position as a global player,” Ms. Featherstone explained, adding that only 12 hours passed before Ms. Morgan returned with an outline for a series that included espionage, lots of drinking and the mysterious suicide of a beautiful socialite who Freddie insists has been murdered. When Bel falls for her lead anchor, a smooth-voiced beefcake named Hector Madden (Dominic West), viewers will instantly know that Ms. Morgan also took a page from “Broadcast News,” James L. Brooks’s 1987 romantic comedy about love, longing and unchecked journalistic ambition. What? No “Mad Men”? 
“What they share is some fashion and some lampshades,” Ms. Featherstone said, trying to hide the “Can we drop the ‘Mad Men’ comparisons?” weariness in her voice. Then she confessed to her own micro-campaign to distinguish the two by “going around slightly smugly correcting everybody: ‘It’s not the same decade! This is 1956, and those are the ’60s!’ ” She added, “In terms of pace and tone you can see they’re miles and miles apart.” 
There are those, of course, who will tune in thinking they might get their Jimmy McNulty fix, that is, the boozing, authority-defying police detective that Mr. West played on the HBO series “The Wire,” which ended in 2008 Stateside and was a huge hit in Britain. Speaking by phone, Mr. West wondered about what this segment of the viewing public would think of him as the posh Hector Madden, wearing hand-tailored suits, sporting a dapper side part in his curly hair and enunciating every British-inflected syllable. 
“ ‘Wire’ fans, they’re hoping for hard-bitten Baltimore, and they get very received-pronunciation English,” said Mr. West, who seems unable to get the word out that he was educated at Eton. “There’s always a sense of deflation in a room when I go in and they hear me speak.” 
Here in Britain there is one viewer excited that Mr. West has dropped his disheveled cop routine and inhabited the character of an anchorman who rivals James Bond when it comes to careful grooming. “My wife was just in heaven,” Mr. West said. “I always say: ‘There’s nothing I can do about it. I’m at the mercy of whatever job I’m doing.’ And she said: ‘Finally. You get a decent haircut.’ ”

[Information contained in BKNT E-mail is considered Attorney-Client and Attorney Work Product privileged, copyrighted and confidential. Views that may be expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of any government, agency, or news organization.]


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