Set in 'Mad Men' Era, BBC's Newsroom Drama 'The Hour' Lacks Only Phone Hacking

All That's Missing Are the Murdochs From Series About Early Days of TV News, Corruption and Coverups

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On the BBC last night, U.K. viewers followed the story of a journalist bribing a policeman. They also watched top media executives dine with the prime minister's spokesman, and witnessed nepotism, celebrity, corruption, conspiracies and cover-ups, all while the country's economy was in the grip of a credit squeeze.

Romola Garai, Dominic West and Ben Whishaw on 'The Hours.'
Romola Garai, Dominic West and Ben Whishaw on 'The Hours.'

No, it wasn't news coverage of the News of the World phone-hacking scandal, rehashing Rupert and James Murdoch's appearance yesterday in front of Parliament to answer questions about the corruption at News Corp

It was the debut of "The Hour," a new six-part drama about the revolution of TV news in the late 1950s -- mixed with a heavy dose of crime thriller -- that will also begin showing in the U.S. on BBC America on Aug. 17.

The parallel with the News Corp. saga isn't the only thing that made "The Hour" look familiar. The men wore sharp suits and had their hair in side partings; there was casual sexism and not-so-casual drinking in nearly every scene; historical events provided a tense backdrop; and smoking was so ubiquitous that one particular cigarette played a central role in the plot.

Yes, it was impossible not to think of "Mad Men" while watching "The Hour." The show even has its very own Don Draper figure in the shape of Dominic West (Jimmy McNulty from "The Wire"). Mr. West plays Hector Madden, the anchor of "The Hour," the news program at the center of the drama, and a handsome womanizer married to a stunningly-dressed wife.

The ambitious woman who breaks through the barriers of sexism is not Peggy Olson but Bel Rowley, the producer of the show. Rowley is played by Romola Garai, who may unfortunately be best known to American viewers for playing the lead role in "Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights" -- the spectacularly bad 2004 sequel that should never have been made. Since then, though, she has proved herself a talented and successful film and TV actress.

Instead of the self-obsessed, conservative, privileged and untrustworthy Pete Campbell, "The Hour" has the youthful Freddie Lyon (Ben Whishaw), who is the exact opposite. Lyon is a brilliant rebel and an outsider in search of the truth -- although he's not above bribing a policeman to help find it.

It may be because the phone hacking scandal is so front-of -mind, but "The Hour" often seems very close to the bone, particularly when jaded socialite Ruth Elms said, "You think you live in a democracy. You think this country stands for freedom of speech. It does not." Elms also quotes Mark Twain, saying, "A conspiracy is nothing but a secret agreement of a number of men for the pursuance of policies which they dare not admit in public."

Similarly, Bel Rowley tolerates the sleazy prime minister's spokesman because, she explains, "You'd be a fool to make an enemy of anyone close to government," and one of her colleagues suggests that you must "do whatever it takes" to get a story.

"The Hour" has the frenetic pace of the News Corp. scandal, coupled with the style and the compelling characters of "Mad Men" -- although "Mad Men" comparisons may be a little flattering to the new show.

"The Hour" did, however, get more viewers than its U.S. rival, partly because it was shown on a more popular channel. Official figures are not yet available, but Alison Graham, TV editor of the BBC-owned Radio Times magazine, tweeted, "'The Hour' got 2.9 million last night, a very good figure for BBC 2." The first episode of "Mad Men's" fourth year attracted only 355,300 viewers on BBC 4 in September 2010, according to Broadcast Magazine.

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