Set behind-the-scenes of the BBC newsroom in 1956, just as an investigative news program is launched, the new BBC America series The Hour spotlights the personal lives, professional interplay and jealous ambition between aspiring but renegade journalist Freddie Lyon (Ben Whishaw), the beautiful ambitious young producer Bel Rowley (Romola Gari) with whom he is in love, and his handsome rival Hector Madden (Dominic West), the lead anchorman of this rising television news team. The Hour plays out as a riveting thriller set against the backdrop of the Cold War.
British actor Dominic West, has become well known to American audiences with is work in such movies as 300, Mona Lisa Smiles, Punisher: War Zone and Chicago, but his most notable role has been on TV as Detective James ‘Jimmy’ McNulty in the critically acclaimed series The Wire.
He spoke with us about The Hour at the recent TV Critics tour.
Can you talk a little about Hector, the character you play in this?
My character in a way embodied that transition between the guys who fought in the war and were part of the establishment, and the ruling class who were in government at that time and how they were being replaced, or being displaced, by a new generation of people who were less deferential to the old ways.
My character sort of bridges those two worlds, and that’s what was interesting about it in that he has the wit to make the transition. I think of all the characters, and he’s a guy who has to make a transition from something deferential and wartime to what became, I suppose, the swinging ‘60s.
Could you comment on how the ‘50s newsroom atmosphere affected you
What appealed to me, and I think what’s interesting about the show is it was an extraordinary time, probably the best time for BBC News in its history, in that the Independent Channel had just started, so it was shaking off its rather staid wartime or immediately postwar traditions and was becoming something thrusting and new and interesting.
One of the things that was suggested to me was Broadcast News, which is a film I really love, and in that way, I felt there was a connection between America of the ‘70s and London in the late ‘50s.
I’m wondering if there was a newscaster that you remember growing up that you modeled Hector on, or would you say he’s more the William Hurt character or Albert Brooks in Broadcast News, or somewhere in between?
Well, I always took him to be the William Hurt character in that he’s the front man who is slightly unscrupulous.
But in terms of newscasters of the day, they were very avuncular, older men. They weren’t quite as glamorous as I think Hector is. So I wasn’t really basing him on any presenters of Panorama or anything. Most of them had some comb-over. Richard Dimbleby (the host of Panorama) was everyone’s favorite uncle.
So in terms of his style and his manner, he was my dad, in fact. My dad was very much a man of the ‘50s, and I always felt I understood the time because of him and the way he dressed and the way he was in his manner. He’s nothing like Hector, but he was, I suppose, who I was channeling in terms of his manner.
The espionage thriller can be a very British genre, but Americans relate to it by way of James Bond. What does the espionage mystery aspect of The Hour mean to you?
I’m not really involved in that part of the story, but it was amazing to be reminded of how exciting and noir-ish that immediate Cold War period was. And I think it makes for great television and great movies, so I think that adds a whole dimension to it, with the phone taping and one looking over their shoulder and not being sure who was spying on who.
Of course, in those days, the clever people that came out of Oxford and Cambridge, if you were left wing you went into the BBC, so they were constantly being monitored and spied upon and the thorn in the side of the government.
And so I think that instantly makes for dramatic tension when you set it inside the BBC, which is being monitored by the government and presumably by the Russians and everyone else who was involved in politics at that time.