Cometh the Hour

The Hour Dominic West and Ben Wishaw recreate current affairs tv of the 1950s in The Hour

Inspired by historical events, The Hour is a thriller set in Lime Grove during the 1950s. I visited the set of BBC Two's newsroom drama and tracked down a producer who worked at the BBC during the turbulent decade that television emerged as a serious rival to radio.

Hornsey Town Hall is sandwiched between an Italian café and a Barclays bank in London's Crouch End. There is little to distinguish this as a film set unless you look closely - a sign outside the dilapidated 1930s building says 'Lime Grove Studios' and, in a parking lot behind its imposing facade, there are television vans and a snaking of thick wires.

Start Quote

There were only a handful of women working for the BBC at that time and you can't circumnavigate Grace Wyndham Goldie”

End Quote Abi Morgan Writer

This is the set of The Hour, a BBC Two drama that follows the loves and lives of a producer, reporter and presenter working on a fictional current affairs programme in Lime Grove, similar to the early Panorama, during the 1950s. It's a time of great turbulence and change. Written by Abi Morgan, whose credits include Royal Wedding, Brick Lane and Sex Traffic, the six-part series is both a love triangle and a murder mystery with a historical backdrop - the 1956 Suez Crisis.

Brisk banality of news

The drama opens in the BBC's offices in Alexandra Palace, where deferential newsreels about debutantes were standard fare. Young, ambitious reporter Freddie, played by Ben Whishaw, is frustrated that he delivers the news 'in the same brisk banality as a debutante coming out in Mayfair'. But he is soon recruited to The Hour, a news show that is meant to herald a change in editorial direction. His feisty producer Bel, with whom there is obvious chemistry, is determined to do something serious and investigative - and the unfolding Suez Crisis presents her with the opportunity.

All around the Houses

On the north London set, camera crews and production teams scream cues - they are filming tense scenes meant to be taking place in the Houses, as Lime Grove was affectionately known. Romola Garai, who plays Bel, wanders through corridors in heavy makeup and coiffed hair, an elegant red dress and, incongruously, Ugg boots. Garai says that Bel is 'quite tough' and partly based on Grace Wyndham Goldie, who became a force in television. 'There were only a handful of women working for the BBC at that time and you can't circumnavigate Grace Wyndham Goldie,' explains Morgan. 'But at the same time I didn't want to parody her or base any of the characters on any one person. They are all amalgams - they all have aspects of real people.'

  • Grace Wyndham Goldie and the early Panorama
  • the programme had been a lightweight show.
  • In 1953 items included why nylons laddered and how to kick a football.
  • It ran fortnightly
  • Goldie relaunched it as a weekly programme in 1955
  • By 1958 one in four adults in the UK was watching.
  • Goldie recruited Richard Dimbleby to present
  • The 14 day rule prevented reporting of events debated in Parliament for a fortnight. It was dropped in 1957

The male lead, Dominic West (famous as McNulty in The Wire), is ruggedly handsome in a pin-striped suit. He plays Hector, the presenter of The Hour, a man who has been given his high-profile job through his wife and subsequently embarks on a sizzling love affair with Bel. The period detail is astounding, as West observes: 'When we had our affair it was always on a single bed in an awful coloured bedroom with horrible satin eiderdown and I'm thinking, 'Is this really what it was like?''

A tour of The Hour's fictional offices is a journey into the past. There are ashtrays filled with cigarette butts and empty glasses strewn across tables, a testament to the work-hard, play-hard culture. Headlines on newspapers announce the rumblings of war, while a large map is dotted with flags in exotic locations near Suez. The typewriters are astonishingly huge compared to today's slim iPads and the old telephones look like museum relics.

The Hour will be broadcast on BBC Two in July

Catherine Freeman Catherine Freeman

The real-life Bel: Catherine Freeman was the first female producer of Panorama in 1956. She recalls the era that gave birth to the BBC's flagship current affairs programme and talks about life in Lime Grove.

Catherine Freeman stands framed in the doorway of her cottage in Kentish Town, leaning heavily on a cane. She will be 80 in August and though the cane lends her the appearance of someone infirm, she is incredibly sharp and perceptive, laughing over certain memories and then more reflective about others. In her voice I don't hear her 80 years.

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Only I know the truth of what happened at Lime Grove”

End Quote Catherine Freeman former Panorama producer

We are speaking about Lime Grove and her work on Panorama as a young woman of about 24. To the outside observer, her life mirrors that of the fictional Bel in The Hour, who is also young and ambitious and producing a pioneering current affairs show in 1956. 'What a year for [Panorama] to get into its stride,' says Freeman, 'because it was Suez and indeed the Hungarian uprising.'

Into this international turmoil, Freeman was thrown into the fledgling television department, but she remembers it fondly. 'Lime Grove was wonderful, funny, ramshackle, scruffy, full of life.' It's documented as a rabbit warren of offices and studios, a place where you could easily get lost. There was, I gather, a good deal of drinking and smoking and a pub called The British Prince at one of the road. Nevertheless, she says, 'It was only just after the war and we didn't live high on the hog, it wasn't all ritzy, not remotely.' Fashion was 'a bit drab' and the BBC canteen mainly served pie, soup and soggy vegetables.

Despite being vastly outnumbered by men, Freeman claims that there was no bullying or harassment. When speaking of the famous Grace Wyndham Goldie, reputedly frightening, she is generous: 'She sorted me out - I was terribly idle and silly and young. She kind of took an interest in me.'

Was it frightening to work on live television? 'It was thrilling. I loved it. I was young enough not to worry. Well, I suppose my heart pattered a bit and you had wonderful technicians to keep you out of trouble, on the whole.' One major exception is when Richard Dimbleby, at great personal risk, was sent to report on the Hungarian uprising in 1956. The programme couldn't get a link, and Freeman had to haul a sports commentator out of the BBC Club to do the show at a moment's notice. The link was restored before the credits 'and Richard was seen in all his glory'.

Freeman left the BBC after only five years. She married broadcaster Charles Wheeler, whom she met on Panorama, and gave up her job. Eventually she married another BBC journalist, John Freeman, who went on to present Face to Face although they too divorced. Like Bel, her love life was intertwined with her working life. Although we've been talking for an hour and Freeman has moved onto wine from tea, she remains coy about the love triangle that, rather bizarrely, echoes The Hour. 'Only I know the truth about what happened in Lime Grove,' she remarks enigmatically, as I depart through her front garden with the events of the past dancing in my head.

Thanks to Richard Lindley, Francesca Kirby-Green, Vivian White and Catherine Freeman for their help.

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