If “The Hour” had originated in the U.S., Aaron Sorkin would have written it, considering its blend of political intrigue and media savvy, filtered through the early days of television. And even then, it probably wouldn’t have ever seen the light of day. Happily, BBC America brings us this BAFTA-decorated series, an engrossing if slow-grinding mystery/soap that doesn’t pack enough thrills to earn its “thriller” designation but which proves addictive nevertheless. Although U.S. networks are braving period drama, they’ll be hard-pressed to match this British import’s invigorating plunge into Cold War paranoia.
The series opens in 1956, just as Bel Rowley (“Emma’s” Romola Garai) has been tapped to produce a new current-affairs TV program (or programme, if you prefer) on the BBC. She plans to bring along her pal Freddie (Ben Whishaw), a brilliant reporter utterly lacking in social graces — or the gumption to confess his more-than-platonic feelings for her.
For her part, Bel is unfortunately drawn to men she can’t have, a pretty fair description of their dashing new anchor, Hector Madden (“The Wire’s” Dominic West), whom Freddie instantly loathes as an empty suit.
Beyond the little matter of getting the show up and running, there’s a murder, a suicide and an old acquaintance of Freddie’s (Vanessa Kirby) who confesses to him, “They will kill me if they know I’m talking to you,” prompting the headstrong young journalist to begin investigating matters on his own. Tensions over the Suez Canal flare up, and someone might be embedding clues in crossword puzzles.
As crafted by writer Abi Morgan, all of the cloak-and-dagger stuff is cleverly steeped in the fiction and history of the times. Freddie insists on referring to Bel as Moneypenny — his dog-eared copy of James Bond novels never far from his side — and glances at a poster for “The Man Who Knew Too Much” as it increasingly appears he might be in a similar ordinary-guy-meets-spy-ring predicament.
The series is smartly written, terrific-looking and well cast; its one drawback is that the meatiest parts of the plot unfold at such a deliberate pace. While that allows ample time to tease out relationships, halfway through the six-episode order, the audience still remains largely in the dark about what’s really happening.
For those willing to buy in on those terms, though, this is the kind of meticulously handsome period piece one would expect to find via the BBC — mostly because it would surely struggle Stateside. Judged by the most bottom-line measurement of all, “The Hour” is an hour well spent.