Interview: BBC America's 'The Hour' creator Abi Morgan
Yesterday, I offered up my review of BBC America's "The Hour," a new six-part drama series about the launch of a new BBC investigative news show in 1956, and how the staff - specifically tough producer Bel Rowely (Romola Garai), her brilliant but impetuous sidekick Freddie Lyon (Ben Whishaw) and dashing anchorman Hector Madden (Dominic West) - get caught up in the Suez Canal crisis, a series of espionage murders and various romantic entanglements. As I said in the review, it's "Broadcast News" meets "Mad Men" meets Ian Fleming, and I rather liked it (albeit with some reservations about the spy material).
While I was at press tour, I got a chance to interview the series' creator, Abi Morgan, about her inspiration, her research into the period, the inevitable "Mad Men" comparisons, and more. We don't really get into any spoilers (especially since I'd only seen three of the six episodes at the time), but I imagine the interview may be more edifying to people who've already seen the episodes that have aired in the U.K.
(And that, in turn, allows me to remind you that the spoiler policy on this blog means plot discussion of anything that has yet to air in the U.S. is off-limits. Got it?)
My conversation with Morgan after the jump, and I'll have a post up tonight for people's reaction to the first episode (which airs from 10-11:15)...
In the panel, you said ("The Hour" came about because) someone came to you and said "1950’s newsroom." From there, how did you land on 56? Was it just Suez or something else?
To be honest, there were lots of news stories. (Executive producer) Jane Featherstone had been talking about the Suez crisis, and I think it was sort of a fusion of the idea of how do you explore a big historical story? There was sort of a parallel journey with those 2 ideas. So I think the Suez crisis, when I looked at the research for that time, it was just so tangibly relevant, you know? And I was really excited about the idea of a Middle Eastern leader becoming incredibly overexcited and trying to engage with too much more larger Western power. So that seemed exciting for me.
Okay, but in theory you could have gone earlier or later.
Yeah, I could have gone earlier, but I also thought '56 felt very pivotal, because I felt it was the moment that we were on edge of some kind of social revolution. You know, the teenager was coming into fruition. You had rock and roll hitting the streets. There was a huge exciting movement going on in literature. You know, John Osborne had just premiered “Look Back in Anger,” so there was all that going on. But it was also the death of the empire. It felt like a real kind of a moment of catalyst.
I’m really curious about Bel. In "Mad Men" and a lot of fiction about that period in the '50s and '60s, there's just rampart sexism and the dismissal of any sort of professional woman at that level. Is it just a case of cultural difference between America and England or just this particular field had more room for a woman to advance?
Well, Bel was inspired by a handful of women who were working at the BBC, most notably Grace Wyndham Goldie, who was a female producer of "Panorama Tonight," which is like "60 Minutes." And so I knew those women existed, although they were a minority. But I think also what was kind of exciting for me also about Bel was I wanted to write about women in a post-war culture. I think that was the sort of springboard, but I think to a certain degree this was sort of fiction. So for example, she does in a very self-conscious way play with Freddie with the notion of Moneypenny and James (Bond), to the Ian Fleming novels, and she has a very key line in episode one where she says, "I think it’s kind of rich that you’re calling me Moneypenney, and you’re working for me." So there is a very much contemporary edge to that and a kind of conformed edge to that. But I like the playfulness in that. But I really very much felt I had to find a role model with that in order to create her.
In terms of the research you did, what did you see about what the culture was like for women at that time?
I was very interesting for me because my mother is in the arts and she broke in London in the 50’s. And I’d been working with a novelist who also grew up at that time and who applied for a job at the BBC and was informed that women weren’t being considered for managerial posts at that time. So I knew that that level of sexism existed, but I think I was interested in the kind of latent sexism. There’s that moment where Hector just quite casually and innocently-seeming says, "That’s a pretty blouse." But we all know there’s that undercurrent. And I didn’t want it to be so prevalent that it felt unreal, you know? But I also liked the idea of playing the game where there's a constant threat and pressure on Bel. And I think you see that unfold as the series goes on. In terms to the reference to that, it was a dichotomy for me because I saw someone like Grace Wyndham Goldie who clearly was at the forefront for her field, but then I listened to a reunion of the series of journalists who came together on a radio show and what really interested me was like you can still see the level of some sexism still going on in that conversation and that was in 2011.
I think ultimately although it’s sort of a 21st century woman, I feel independent. I feel like this was a show that had a lot of women on it. Yet I’m still only one of a handful of female writers around. And invariably that sexism is still prevalent, still quite relevant to today.
What other research did you do beyond that? Once the assignment came up, how did you decide to sort of immerse yourself in that world?
The great thing about doing a drama about journalists is that they are marvelous keepers of their time. So I read millions of memoirs of journalists of that time. We met up with this sort of society of curators of the television of that time, so we went back to look all the old kind of diaries and newsroom cuttings of that time. I looked at a lot of news footage. The thing I didn’t do with this, which I’ve done with every bit of research that I’ve ever done, is I didn’t go and directly meet a whole cluster of journalists from that time. And in part that was because I didn’t want to locate it to any one journalist. And actually there was so much research. There was so much news material for that time. I was actually swamped in it. And also what was also running parallel for me is that I really wanted to create a fictional newsroom. So although there are those inspirational points, I love the idea of the play of it and the game of it, you know? But there is kind of self conscious thriller going on in it. Kind of like a B-movie. But actually as it goes on through the series, it becomes much darker and much more political.
You're talking about the end of empire; is that what the espionage angle is illustrative of? Or could you have told the story without Kish and the crosswords and the spy?
I think I could have easily have done that. And I think at some quarters a lot of people would have really enjoyed just a social realism, but when I was writing it, I didn’t want it to be just a sort of moment in history. I wanted it to be about a moment of history under pressure. And I think what the thriller did for me is it created a motor. And what I hoped with this thriller is that you actually see it’s very, very, directly tied in with a news story. And so it’s the idea that actually the political and personal come together through that thriller.
And you have some idea in your head about what the second might be?
Would that have that kind of (thriller) component or would you do something else entirely?
I don’t think I can return with the same sort of thriller. I think my body count would have to come down with series 2. But I think what I’m very interested in for series 2 is the notion of 2 bombs ticking. I like the idea of the nuclear age ticking and I like the idea of a sort of cultural/social bomb where it’s a time in Brittan where the empire’s going. We’ve allowed mass immigration and it’s about a new immigrant underclass coming up. So I think, you know, those ideas are still kind incredibly personal and relevant today. So I like the ideas of those 2 periods maybe coming back in about ’57 or ’58.
Dominic mentioned "Broadcast News" in the press conference and that paradigm seemed pretty clear to me. Was that something that was in your head as you did it or something you realized after the fact?
Oh totally. In a way when people say (it's like) "Mad Men," I’m like, "No really, you should look at 'Broadcast News.'" If I’ve lifted anything, I’ve lifted the dynamic. I mean, I don’t think that it has the same brilliancy. I mean, I adore "Broadcast News," but I definitely love the idea of a kind of Holly Hunter feisty character. And I mean, obviously William Hurt is a model for Hector Madden. But I think it also hearks back to more like '40s kind of romantic couplings like Bacall and Bogart and Tracey and Hepburn.
Yeah, it’s a little bit "Philadelphia Story," Freddie’s Jimmy Stewart, Hector's Cary Grant.
Totally. Totally. I mean those kind of triangles go throughout. I love rom-coms. So there was an element of wanting a kind of will-she/won’t she and the obstacle is the other man. So I think that’s a very different piece for me, "The Hour." It's an entertainment. And it’s much more of an entertainment piece than I’ve ever written before, you know? Because I think a lot of my work is kind of quietly political. Although this is political, it’s always meant to be a great ride for an audience and I hope it’s that.
And how does that feel like? Do you have to figure out a different muscle? Are you writing and thinking, "Wow, people are actually going to smile at this part"?
Yeah, I think that’s why I have this thriller in it. It's a real interesting question when you say, "Can you have that in a series 2?" I think I’m going to have find another engine... I’m interested in bringing Hector into a big kind of scandal. I’ve got an idea for a sex scandal, because I think there are great models for that. Maybe slightly later like ’61 or ’62, Profumo was a huge political scandal for us, but I like the melting pot of those different kind of scandals.
Can you jump that far ahead, though?
No, I don’t think I want to jump that far. At the moment, I’m sort of thinking late ’57 into ’58 because I like the idea of maybe building it right up to the Notting Hill riot.
Dominic, we know well here from "The Wire," that's a revered show. I don’t really have a sense necessarily of how he’s thought of in the U.K.
I think it’s very interesting for us. We knew Dominic because he’s a kind of very established theatre actor in the U.K. and like Idris Elba, they came over to America and became huge hits. And actually I think in a funny sort of way when they came back we were like, "No, but you’re the American..." For us it was very exciting to find 2 premiere British actors who’d been in this fantastic show and reinvented themselves. It’s exciting.
That’s sort of what great American television does. It reinvents British actors. Hugh Laurie, you know? Great British actor, great comic actor and then you see him in "House" and you see a whole other persona in life. So that’s really exciting.
Talk to me a little bit about the concept of Freddie and what you were thinking of as you wrote it and how it changed as it was cast?
What was very exciting was writing a show that was very closely (scheduled). I literally came in every day when they were shooting and I was still writing episodes. So when Ben was cast in that part, the kinetic energy of him not only was informed by the part but actually grew because of seeing that performance every day. So certainly the latter episodes I felt like became much more bespoke for him. Freddie, there’s a bit of a rock and roller there. There’s a little bit of an edge to him. I like the idea of a slightly working class hero in the middle of the establishment. And there’s a great sort of Ginsberg in a leather jacket looking sideways. So there’s a little bit of a James Dean about him. And I think Ben is such an intelligent actor that he talks a lot. I’ve never written a character that talks so much, you know? And I think there’s very few actors who can pull that off and I think because Ben’s so intelligent he can turn on a sixpence, so I hope he pulls it off.
Now, I see the clear differences between this and "Mad Men," but I do have to ask, how familiar are you with that show?
I love that show. I really don’t know how to set my face when people ask that question because a part of me feels like it’s a curse, because "Mad Men" is exquisite. And it’s performers are amazing and it looks amazing. But what’s key (about "The Hour") is I think I think it’s a thriller. And even though if we ever go to series 2, and it may not have the same kind of body count, I think the investigative side of the drama is really strong and really important and I think it has a really different pace and energy. But where I do think there probably are obvious parallels is there are those exquisite hourglass dresses, there are those suits and it is ultimately set in a work environment. So I can see why people make comparisons but I wouldn’t dare climb that mountain. You know when you’ve got the holy temple of "Mad Men" up there, I’m really not going to build another one. And I hope it lives in a very different way.
But were there any points in the writing or the production or whatever where you had to stop yourself and say, "Maybe we’re straying a little too close to that territory"?
I know it sounds naïve but it literally when I was on-set and I went, "Oh, holy shit." I’m not polishing apples. This is a very different world but it’s also exquisite. But I think also it’s earlier than "Mad Men," even if only by a few years. And also it’s British. And we are dealing with a post-war austerity I don’t think America had at that time. It’s a very different austerity and so I just felt it’s a very different show. I mean, I think you get that. You say that you’ve watched 3 episodes. I really hope you get that it’s a very different show.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com