my ship has two pilots (winegums) wrote in ohnotheydidnt,
my ship has two pilots

The Hour Returns

One Thursday morning not long ago, I caught a bus to 1957. Alighting at Crouch End Broadway, I walked into the old Hornsey Town Hall and found myself in the office of a television news producer on whose desk was a Remington Rand typewriter, and next to it a stack of typewritten articles from the wires, clamped together with a hefty metal bulldog clip, the top of which was a report about the marriage of Prince Rainier to Grace Kelly. On the bookshelves, a 1957 explanatory tome about nuclear power rested next to a contemporary Who's Who. On a smaller, secretary's desk in the anteroom, a 1950s seaside postcard was secured under a glass paperweight.

The woman whose office this was strode along the corridor, dressed in an orange skirt suit with a teal blouse, her hair rollered, her face powdered and lipsticked. And then I walked through a doorway and the illusion was broken, for in the space of a yard I found myself transported from the 50s Beeb to a Soho nightclub, one where Martini bottles lined the bar and the velvet-swagged tables were sized for two cocktail glasses and a large ashtray.

This is the set of The Hour, which arrived on our TV screens last year billed as the British Mad Men, but turned out to be something quite different. Both shows deal with sexual politics in a world on the brink of seismic change. But in some ways The Hour, set among the makers of a radical new TV news show, has less in common with Don Draper and co than it does with Rona Jaffe's The Best Of Everything, a 1958 novel about the first generation of career women in New York, which Draper is at one point seen reading in bed. As in Jaffe's book, the changing role of women is at the very centre of The Hour, which revolves around the character of Bel Rowley, a young producer based on the real-life BBC producer Grace Wyndham Goldie. Because it takes as its viewpoint the making of a BBC programme about contemporary events, The Hour is very much about Britain: about the British establishment attempting to adapt to or control a world on the edge of dramatic change. The first series was set against the backdrop of the Suez crisis; the second, which reaches screens later this month, a year later in 1957.
Writer Abi Morgan is on set the day I visit, despite "the most horrific hangover ever". Morgan, whose other recent credits include The Iron Lady and Shame, is loud but tiny; the hangover comes with a long, funny story that involves being accidentally bought champagne by Danny DeVito. Finding the right backdrop for the new series, she tells me, is a process of "chasing down history to find the story. Thematically, there are two threads – the nuclear threat and the start of the cold war, and the internal threat caused by immigration and a new clash of culture. The late 1950s is the moment when Britain breaks free from the old establishment, and signs up to a new world order that is all about money. There's so much going on. It's a ticking clock. To me, that's what The Hour symbolises."

Fast forward a week, and Romola Garai – the wearer of the aforementioned orange skirt suit – strides into a Shoreditch photographic studio in an Isabel Marant cotton top ("Horribly, horribly expensive, but it is literally my favourite top ever") and high-waisted jeans, carrying a pack of cigarettes and a take-out coffee. It is the morning after the wrap party, and Garai and her co-stars, Dominic West and Ben Whishaw, are back in 2012. Today, they are to be shot in both 1950s and contemporary fashion. It is the modern clothes that Garai is more concerned about: she has what costume designers quaintly call "an old-fashioned figure", and that she refers to more colourfully as "plenty of junk in the trunk".

"What happened with The Hour," she tells me, "was basically that I picked up the script and the first line I read was, 'Bel is sitting at her desk.' And I was like, well, this is fucking amazing. This part is mine. Because how often are you ever introduced to a young female character and she's sitting behind an actual desk? The main thing I'm interested in is that I don't want the women I play to be defined by their romantic involvement with the male lead. I want them to have a job. So the fact that Bel having a job is the first thing we know about her was a huge deal for me."

Garai says she recognises a lot of Bel's character in herself. "We are similar in being ambitious, young women who love our jobs and are truly passionate about them. And who are interested in the world around them, and in politics. But we are different in that Bel is a real diplomat with people, which I'm not at all. I say what I think, and then get into trouble." She tries to look sheepish about this, but it's not particularly convincing. "Actually, I think it's OK to fight for what you care about. The best piece of advice I was given about work was by someone who told me that it's OK to have conflict. I think sometimes women need to be reminded of that."

"Hello, Romsey Poms!" With this greeting to Garai, Dominic West, who plays Hector in The Hour, bursts into the makeup room. He positions himself in front of the mirror, which is the largest in the studio, to check his reflection in the outfit he has been dressed in. (As the shoot progresses, West is often to be found in front of this mirror; Whishaw, on the other hand, tends to slope off to a bathroom to inspect his reflection without an audience.) Garai, who missed the wrap party, asks West how it was. "Marvellous! Just marvellous. There were dancing girls, Romsey Poms, and you know how I love dancing girls." Garai rolls her eyes at me in the makeup mirror, hugs West, and announces fondly that, "Dominic is an idiot, obviously, but actually we all get on incredibly well. Not just us three [with Whishaw], but everyone. There is a lot of corpsing on the set of The Hour. One day, we got so hysterical they had to clear the set and send us all back to our rooms. Anna [Chancellor] had tears streaming down her face, they had to redo her makeup. We got into so much trouble."

Later, Whishaw describes it as "amazing, just a lovely, lovely set. It seems odd to talk about the three of us because the others, like Anna [Chancellor] and Oona [Chaplin], are such a vivid part of it. There is just a huge, huge amount of love and honesty and laughter."
But while The Hour was lavished with praise for its 1950s style, Garai is notably less effusive when we discuss Bel's wardrobe. "The clothes are the one element of the programme that I feel rather ambivalent about. My choice would have been for her to be dressed in a more realistic way, which would be much tweedier. But needless to say the producers were keen for her to look as glamorous as possible. I feel strongly that how Bel dresses is not how someone in that environment would really have dressed. She wouldn't have wanted to look glamorous, to make herself vulnerable to criticism in that way. If it was down to me, it would've been tweed suits and brogues."

Many of the same tastes apply in real life, she says, despite today's ultrafashionable Marant. "I wear a lot of navy and grey, and I do love woolly tights. My sister says I dress like a French teacher. The level of grooming that was involved for women in the 1950s is completely alien to me. I don't wax. I barely shave. If I do my own makeup, I look like I've been to a burns unit."

The second series of The Hour sees Whishaw's character, Freddie, return older, wiser and better poised as a meaningful rival to Hector for the status of the show's alpha male. As interviewees, the two actors could scarcely be more different. Whishaw sits facing me, neatly cross-legged, hair falling over his eyes, elfin face resting on the points of long-fingered pianist's hands. When he answers a question, he closes his eyes and leans forward, to speak directly into my tape recorder. He talks very slowly, and after Garai's galloping gossip it takes me a few minutes to adjust, so I find myself asking the next question only to realise he is still pondering the last. When West's turn comes, he sprawls on the sofa with one arm thrown across the back, claiming maximum space like a tiger prowling the boundaries of his cage, angling what I suspect he knows is his best side towards me. It is a measure of his charm that he is, despite all this, impossible to dislike.
Whishaw, like Garai, was drawn to the character as written by Morgan. "Freddie is one of those characters you'd like to be more like, in real life. We're similar in that we're both a bit obsessive, but he's braver, bolder. He has absolute courage in his convictions. He's not a saint, but at the centre of him is something very admirable. I think it would be lovely to have that conviction, that very clear belief structure. I guess I wish I had that." Whishaw has a whimsical, meandering way of talking, and a tendency to start stories that don't go anywhere. (On clothes: "I once had a pair of jeans I really liked. I loved them, they were perfect! And then they fell apart and, um, well I didn't buy another pair.") His ideal day off, he says, would be wandering around the markets and flower markets in east London, where he lives. "I like to sort of drift about."

West swears a great deal, loudly and with immaculate enunciation, in the manner of Hugh Grant in Four Weddings. Eton educated, he shook off the posh actor label when he scored his role in The Wire; having done that, he is free to play posh again. "Hector is old-school. He was at D-day. But his ambition means that he has to try to leave that behind, to straddle the old establishment and the new." A bit like you then? He starts to laugh. "Well, I think we both enjoy a party. Wine, women and song, you know." He smiles at me, longing for the woman from the Guardian to get wound up, so I ignore him and ask about something else, at which point he cuts in to announce, "I do quite like winding people up. I enjoy winding Romola up, especially. Probably because I just adore her. The thing about Romola is" – he calls her "Romsey Poms" only when she's there to be teased, I notice – "that she doesn't seem to have the slightest idea how sexy and beautiful she is. Oh, fuck, fuck, don't quote me on that. She'll fucking kill me." He actually looks quite scared.
The Hour's art director is Eve Stewart, whose CV ranges from Mike Leigh films to The King's Speech. "I've never known anyone like her," Garai says. "In one meeting scene, I had a piece of paper in my hand, which you couldn't see on camera, and I looked down and it was a precis of a story that had been mentioned in passing in the script as a story The Hour might have covered that week – the first African American air hostess, I think it was. And it was a proper printed two-page report, on the original 1950s paper typed on an authentic period typewriter. Factually accurate. I mean, is she mad? But there's something about a show in which every department completely commits to making the show real, which somehow transmits itself to the audience."

Similarly, the on-set office of Suzanne Cave, the costume designer, is plastered with moodboards building a visual backstory for the characters, textured with both contemporary references and those that either layer in other references or add a modern element, helping the clothes read easily to a 21st-century eye. So for Bel's character there are tearsheets from a shoot of Rachel Weisz in AnOther Magazine, which Cave loved for the saturated block-colour outfits (a true-to-1957 trend that looks right and glamorous for today); for Chancellor's character, Lix Storm, there are photos of Katharine Hepburn and Susan Sontag; for Freddie, there is Jack Kerouac and James Dean, all turned-up collars and shy swagger.

The Hour's costumes are a labour of love. The showgirls' stagewear was created by layering strings of pearls, yards of lace and pieces of jet fringing on to old-fashioned corsetted underwear from John Lewis. But the biggest visual challenge, Stewart says, is "boring offices. They are quite difficult to get right, because no one takes photographs of their boring offices, so it's hard to get the information. And it's the detail that matters."

So she was thrilled, when first seeing the Hornsey Town Hall building, to find that the door handles were from the correct period ("You wouldn't believe how long it can take to source the right door handles"). "My job is to create a bubble of belief where the story can become real. I do think that if I can help the actors believe, that transmits itself to the audience, almost in a subliminal way. But on the other hand, I know that this all sounds mad."

• The new series of The Hour begins on BBC2 in November.

Tags: ben whishaw, british celebrities, television - british
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