Wednesday, 3 August 2011

The Hour

Only the flintiest churl would look at The Hour and find nothing to rejoice in

There are scenes in The Hour (BBC2) where the actors are so magnetic that it's a wrench when they end. Ben Whishaw is tremendous as Freddie Lyon, with a fixity and purpose that sits on his brow like a bandana. The part itself can be a little wearing. Journalistic cliches tumble out of him: tenacious? Check! Bit chippy, doesn't like posh people but keeps falling in love with them so maybe his hostility is masking a deeper psycho-sexual yearning? Check! Very good at puzzles? Check!

But you forgive him anyway, and the same goes for Romola Garai, his producer and paramour, Bel. Dominic West said to her in the last episode that she had a natural gravity. You can tell how grave she is by the fact that she didn't say: "Are you calling me fat?" So anyway, naturally they're now shagging, which they both undertake with the sort of workmanlike necessity that befits their status as leads. Garai uses her intelligence in the service of her sex appeal, rather than trying to hide it. She reminds me of Kate Winslet in that respect, as well as in her peachy complexion.

West is great, isn't he? It seems incredible that it took The Wire to make us realise how good he is. And just as I'm about to say he steals the show, I recall that for a good part of it, I thought Julian Rhind-Tutt was its entire point, which in itself is a calumny against Anna Chancellor, who has charisma bursting out of her ill-fitting, high-waisted trousers.

Only the flintiest churl would look at this and find nothing to rejoice in. And even though there is something colourless and neutral about the script, so that no lines leap out at you, and characters rarely distinguish themselves in their self-expression, nevertheless it's obviously credible, polished writing, just to show the actors to such an advantage.

What I wish would happen, though, just once in a while, is for a drama to have the confidence for not that much to happen. The Hour drew all the inevitable comparisons with Mad Men, because it is a) period and b) quality, and it is amusing to see how American drama idealises the aesthetic of its past, while we make it look really grimy and all the clothes look like worsted and everybody's tights look as though they're just about to fall down.

But the key difference is the self-assurance of Mad Men, that it could allow nothing significant to happen for episodes and episodes; whole seasons could yawn out with nothing more than a moderately hostile takeover and some sex. Whereas there is just so much death here; debutantes and shady Arabic experts, they slide into nooses, they tumble down stairs; the starring role played by gravity in all these demises is, I believe, testament to the creator's reluctance. They don't really want to kill people off, because that's not really what drama is about. That's what Bruce Willis is about, it's not what art is about. And yet, for some reason, the dramatic convention of the BBC is that you either have a lot of people dying, and that's serious drama; or you have a lot of people averting death, and that's a hospital drama.

Chris Lilley ploughs gamely on with Angry Boys (BBC3), in which he plays a number of different characters, as he did for Summer Heights High. It appears that something has gone wrong with his self-edit process, or maybe someone else used to edit him and now that he's successful they're not allowed to. The main problem is that none of his characters is at all amusing. The rap artist is just a smelly old bag of piss-taking hand-me-downs (young man talks about his balls, wears silly clothes etc). There's a possessive Japanese mother character whose only comic tic is that she mispronounces her "l"s and "r"s (look, I don't want to sound like the bloody Guardian, but isn't that just, you know, a bit lacist?). A deaf teenager, his insensitive brother, someone with Alzheimer's disease ? there's plenty to offend if that's what you're in the market for, but it's all gong and no dinner: all taboo-breaking buildup, no actual joke.

Having said all that, there is something in Lilley's face that is strangely moving, something sweet and fearful, as if he's always waiting to be disappointed. So even at the most crass plot points ? the grandmother forgetting to book the rap artist because of her Alzheimer's disease, was just lame ? I still found myself liking the guy. I love the joker but not the joke. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds


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