Abi Morgan is a BAFTA award-winning writer who wrote the critically acclaimed Sex Traffic, Brick Land, Murder, White Girl and the upcoming movie The Iron Lady, in which Meryl Streep portrays former Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher.
Her new drama The Hour is a spy thriller, circa 1956, set in the BBC newsroom, as they launch a new investigative program. Played out against the backdrop of the Cold War, the drama spotlights a group of BBC reporters, Freddie Lyon (Ben Whishaw), Bel Rowley (Romola Garai), the show’s producer and Hector Madden (Dominic West), the anchorman of the news team.
Abi Morgan dropped by the TV Critics tour to speak with us about her new venture.
How did this series come about?
[Executive Producer] Jane Featherstone approached me one day and said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to do something set in a ‘50s newsroom?’ And that was really the trigger, and so I started to do a lot of research about that time. I suddenly was very led by how brilliant the historical event was and how many parallels I felt there were with our modern times.
What was the key to that was the Suez government actually pulled us into this phony war. I just thought there was an immediate comparison with what’s been happening in the world today. So that was very exciting.
When you proposed this to the BBC was there anything where they said please don’t say this or did they feel it was all so long ago that you could say whatever you wanted, because it wouldn’t reflect on the current administration?
I think they understood ultimately The Hour was fiction. So what was great was the historical event, and certainly the way the corporation worked at the time was very much the springboard that as a dramatist, my job was to take the interesting story and really build on the imagined world from there.
I think they were very comfortable with the fact that inherently as a drama, I was allowed to do what I wanted to do and tell as best a dramatic story as I could.
I didn’t feel any kind of inhibition from the BBC at all. In fact, if anything, I think they were very encouraging with the fact that this was a way not only to explore a historical event, but also the dynamic of an office and social mores of the time.
What was very interesting, I think, historically, and what was historically accurate, was at that time the BBC was very much under the government’s control, and that Westminster had a huge influence on how the BBC presented its news.
I think the show is trying to capture a dynamic moment where news, in general, was standing up and saying, ‘No, we want to be impartial.’
So it was very exciting for me to write about journalists who were kind of noble and driven and at times a maverick, but inherently were trying to create an impartial story. I think that was really the guideline and premise of the piece.
You have a lot of fun with just how dull news was at the beginning of this. Were you exaggerating at all with that, or was news really that dull before the change started around ’56?
Obviously I looked at a lot of the newsreels at the time and it was very, ‘Hello, good evening, welcome to the BBC. And now we go over to Newmarket and see the Queen at the races.’ So you fly with that.
I would say that there were very good journalists at that time, and they were starting some very interesting programs. In fact, Panorama, which is one of the shows that this was inspired by, had started a little earlier.
It’s such a fascinating transitional period in history, even more so than in America because the war impacted British society so much. How did that impact these characters?
I think it was the decade of revolt, and it’s interesting in the postwar period that America was far more ahead in terms of women in the workplace during the wartime period and certainly after that, whereas we were still playing catch-up.
There was a really interesting dichotomy for certainly women in Britain at that time, which is the men had all left [for war] and they took on the male roles, and they were the breadwinners in the family during that time. And [then] the men came back. And I think this is reflected in some of the gender politics of the drama.
British journalists have been in the news a lot in recent weeks. Do you think that could actually bolster interest in this series?
What’s interesting is I think we are living through an age of entitlement in the area of journalism and the notion that the lines are blurred [between] privacy and intimacy. And I feel like when we’re looking at the 1950s, it parallels with some very good journalists of today. And I love the idea there is still the belief that what you’re trying to deliver is the truth.
So I would hope that the journalists of the 1950s, and certainly in the characters of Hector, Freddie and Bel, there’s still those sort of inspirational journalists who carry on and believe that they’re genuinely digging at the story, not because they want to reveal who’s sleeping with who, but they want to say there is a revolution going on in Hungary or a massacre in Rwanda.
Those stories are still incredibly important. [Journalism] isn’t a completely murky world. There are those maverick, aspirational heroes. I like to think there are, anyway.
Does this story wrap up and have a conclusion?
I promise you it’s got a good ending. My influences were All the President’s Men and Broadcast News and comedies like His Girl Friday. So I think it’s a collision of very heightened late ‘40s, early ‘50s almost cowardice repartee, and then I wanted to have the hook, the Jagged Edge moment.
I hope that as a drama, and certainly I think by Episode 6, it does have its Jagged Edge twist. That’s my hope with the show.
The Hour premieres on BBC America today; Wednesday, August 17, 10:00pm ET. UK viewers last night saw episode 5 with 6 due next week.