Wreathed in cigarette smoke, dressed in suits and ties and silk stockings and set at a mid-20th century moment of cultural change, "The Hour," a six-part miniseries premiering Wednesday on BBC America, will beg a brief comparison to "Mad Men." And now that's done.
Closer comparisons are to be made to AMC's late, lamented "Rubicon" and the great 2003 BBC miniseries "State of Play." Created and written by Abi Morgan ("Tsunami: The Aftermath"), "The Hour" is an expertly constructed, wonderfully acted and (to judge without having seen the ending) wholly satisfying conspiracy thriller played against the background of the BBC in 1956 — the year of the Suez Canal Crisis and what is widely regarded as the beginning of the end of Great Britain as a world power.
"The real question is, do we live in a democracy or under the illusion of one," one exhausted political figure sighs in a moment of candor. But to say that the series tells a tale of the struggle between free minds and the forces of containment is only to describe the heart of every conspiracy story. Morgan certainly takes advantage of the setting — the Cold War, the thicker lines dividing class and sex — but the obstacles are there precisely as obstacles, to give our heroes something to kick against, and it would be a mistake to treat "The Hour" as either history lesson or social critique.
What makes it so engaging is not that the series finds anything new to twist, but that it works so well with and within the strictures of the well-thumbed genres it combines in equal parts: spy thriller, murder mystery, backstage drama, triangular romance. It is fresh and yet immediately familiar, cut new to classic lines, like a Savile Row suit or a little black dress. Morgan does not shy from the obvious; rather, she makes a playground there. There are characters whose fate you know within 10 seconds, though you like them, and fear for them, no less for it. One glance from a staircase is all we need to understand that Freddie Lyon (Ben Whishaw) is hopelessly in love with Bel Rowley (Romola Garai), his best friend and colleague, an affection he hides behind jokes and irony: "There's only ever been you," he tells her, "and you're not even that nice."
She calls him James, as in Bond, and he calls her Moneypenny, though she is in fact about to become his boss. Bel is the producer of a new sort of topical news show, and she is young and beautiful and brilliant, but also a little unsure of herself, professionally and personally. Freddie, whom she encourages toward adulthood as he pushes her toward independence, is an abrasive genius journalist sick of the puffery that is his daily bread — "We are the nightly dose of reassurance that everything's all right in the world," he complains. He is therefore no friend to Hector Madden (Dominic West, "The Wire"), the upper-crust pretty face who is hired to front "The Hour" but can't ask a question that hasn't been written down for him. Yet Hector's tailored suit will not, I think, prove as empty as first it appears.
With production design by Eve Stewart (Oscar-nominated for "The King's Speech" and "Topsy-Turvy") and photography by Chris Seager (who also photographed "State of Play"), the series has an understated cinematic richness. If 1956 was the year of the Suez Crisis, it was also the year of Alfred Hitchcock's "The Man Who Knew Too Much" — one character here is the star of a television drama called "The Man Who Knew" — and "The Hour" is as much about that Hollywood heritage as it is about the real-world events that decorate its narrative. It's not exactly glamorous — this being 1956 Britain, and a British production, it is marked by neutral tones and dull light from which Bel herself, in form-fitting blue and red and green, emerges as the main spot of color. But they have created a wonderful box for these characters to run around in, that for all its artifice always feels true.