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August 17th, 2011


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04:51 pm - The Hour vs Mad Men
The Hour, a 6-part BBC drama set in the BBC in 1956, has had a mixed reception. I have enjoyed it. It has inevitably been compared to AMC's Mad Men, but then that immediately makes you think of all the ways The Hour is different. The aesthetic is different of course - more austere, but I think just as compelling. There is a more conventional dramatic plot than Mad Men - a spy-murder-conspiracy story. And finally, the atmosphere is less of a sealed pressure-cooker.

In Mad Men the social roles of the characters, and the mores of the society, are deeply internalised. For example, in Mad Men the women inhabit their gender roles, and only slowly come to notice and question them. In The Hour the women exist outside of their female roles, and wear them as clothes, which they do not always like. The establishment pressure is more overt - the Eden government puts explicit pressure on the BBC not to broadcast comments from Gaitskell, or to report the Prime Minister's 'health problems'. In Mad Men much of the censorship is pre-conscious, coming out in nightmares and alcoholism.

Which of these is more accurate as a depiction of humanity-within-society? Does the difference represent a real difference between the US and UK establishments in the late fifties - one unified by anti-communism, one splintered by it? Or different psychological theories of creativity?

In The Hour they more or less invent the satirical sketch, a media form which was to drive British political dialogue in the early 1960s, to circumvent the censorship of the Conservative establishment. The creation is in the light, and uses humour as aggression. Whereas the creativity in Mad Men seems to come as if up through hidden fissures, surprising the creative person as much as anyone else.

The Hour, if you like, represents a society consciously restructuring itself, and Mad Men represents unconscious processes sweeping people on, both thrilling and implacable.

However, I think some of this difference is due to the difference between American and British high-end drama which I have mentioned before. In America it's economically feasible to make a lot of money from a show which appeals to 5% of the population, in the UK it's hard to. Mad Men can be narrower in its appeal than any BBC show can afford to be. What I mean is - AMC's writers don't have to spell things out for the viewer. BBC writers do not have that luxury, and so the dialogue has to be more explicit and obvious. And that might be why I am feeling that The Hour is about conscious, articulated, social change, and Mad Men is about change painfully coming to consciousness.

For example, last night in The Hour the BBC producer was talking to her mother, a lovely old party-girl. Each woman presents herself differently, one very controlling and one very irresponsible, and yet the subtle similarities between them come out in the conversation. Great. And then as the scene comes to a close the mother opens her mouth (I shouted out 'don't say it!') and says 'You know, perhaps we are more alike than you think' (me: 'nooooo'). It doesn't need to be said. In the best US drama it is not said, they trust us to get it. In BBC drama they feel the need to add these clonking signs to the audience to tell us what to think.

But, despite that, I think it's a good drama. A lot of good characters, and Anna Chancellor is frickin' gorgeous. Boy oh boy.

(25 comments | Leave a comment)

Comments:


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From:altariel
Date:August 17th, 2011 04:03 pm (UTC)
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I haven't seen the most recent episode yet, so my eyes have sped quickly through your post, but - YES, Anna Chancellor!
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From:communicator
Date:August 17th, 2011 04:09 pm (UTC)
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I never quite think as critically as I might about spoilers. I will cut for them, though in all honesty I don't think there is anything in there that would 'spoil' in a literal sense your enjoyment of the episode.
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From:altariel
Date:August 17th, 2011 05:13 pm (UTC)
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Oh, I'm fairly relaxed about spoilers - and, anyway, I'm very adept at skim-reading and filtering detail. I was apologising for an entirely frivolous response to your post!
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From:communicator
Date:August 17th, 2011 05:15 pm (UTC)
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I thought you were being super-tactful :-)
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From:altariel
Date:August 17th, 2011 05:29 pm (UTC)
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Oh, no, never any danger of that!
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From:kalypso_v
Date:August 17th, 2011 04:27 pm (UTC)
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Mm, yes. I was a bit disappointed when she got off with [the person she got off with] because she'd been eyeing up a rather lovely West Indian girl just before that.

(Burn Gorman's the best I can do here, iconwise. It was nice to see him again, too.)
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From:communicator
Date:August 17th, 2011 05:16 pm (UTC)
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I know. And wasn't that night club the best thing ever? I was watching with my daughter and we both wanted to go there immediately.
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From:kalypso_v
Date:August 21st, 2011 02:00 pm (UTC)
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Further evidence of Anna Chancellor's gorgeousness in today's Observer, though I can't find it on the website.
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From:communicator
Date:August 21st, 2011 03:27 pm (UTC)
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here it is I was just reading it
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From:matildabj
Date:August 17th, 2011 06:24 pm (UTC)
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I'm loving The Hour more with each episode. I do however think any comparison with Mad Men is inappropriate, as they do completely different things, although I share your frustration with the sledgehammer dialogue. I am enjoying the peek into an era not a massively long time before I was born, and love all the smoking and drinking as I do with Mad Men.

Romola Garai is getting a bit ubiquitous though. We saw her as Cordelia in King Lear, and since then she seems to be everywhere.
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From:communicator
Date:August 17th, 2011 09:12 pm (UTC)
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She was in that Poliakoff last night too, though I didn't watch it. I agree that it has got better with each episode. I am afraid they may have lost audience because it took a while to really get into its stride. I think Dominic West is good too - a bit like John Hurt in Broadcast News.
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From:kalypso_v
Date:August 18th, 2011 12:26 am (UTC)
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William Hurt.
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From:communicator
Date:August 18th, 2011 05:39 am (UTC)
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LOL - Oh goodness, yes, William Hurt I meant.
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From:matildabj
Date:August 19th, 2011 10:22 am (UTC)
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She was also the lead in 'Crimson Petal and the White'.

To my shame I've never seen Broadcast News. I should correct that omission.
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From:communicator
Date:August 19th, 2011 10:23 am (UTC)
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Yes, and she was very very good in that.
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From:altariel
Date:August 22nd, 2011 08:32 am (UTC)
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that Poliakoff

Glorious 39. Watched it last night - *massively* disappointing.
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From:communicator
Date:August 22nd, 2011 09:04 am (UTC)
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I've just made a decision to stop watching Poliakoff. I think he is overly impressed by the upper classes, as if they are inherently fascinating.
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From:katlinel
Date:August 18th, 2011 07:48 am (UTC)
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Is it also worth bearing in mind in US/UK creative differences that in this particular example, The Hour has six one-hour episodes for telling its creative message and Mad Men has a lot more time than that to convey its message?

I generally haven't found UK drama to have more clonking signs. In another US show I've been watching (not saying which one as I'm being spoilery) a character was presented as racist and sexist in a notably oleaginous manner, and then this character later murders another another character, one of the show's heroes, to whom the first character had been racist and sexist. While the racist and sexist character was on screen but before the murder, I was rolling my eyes and muttering sarcastically to S. that oh noes, I really didn't know what to make of this character and if only there were some clues as to whether the character was good or bad so I'd know what to think.

I interpreted the scene in The Hour that you mentioned as not being clonky stuff spelt out unnecessarily, but as saying something about that character as someone who needs to spell it out in order to try to build that connection with her daughter when we've already seen that their relationship is no idealised mother-daughter relationship based on unconditional love and mutual adoration (none of this "my mother is my best friend" stuff going on here). And it seemed far less clonky than the writing in the show I've mentioned above, which was far more explicit in telling the audience what to think in its portrayal of that character than in that scene in The Hour.

I've seen criticism of The Hour that has boiled down to the reviewer being unable to pigeonhole it in a neat genre category, which made me roll my eyes. I like the fact that The Hour is mixing it up a bit, and I've enjoyed the slow pacing of it. There's also pain in The Hour's overt consciousness of change and its challenge to the establishment. The female characters might be able to put on and shed roles like clothes, but there is pain in so doing - neither conformity nor rebellion are a source of ease in The Hour.

Anna Chancellor is truly gorgeous, though.
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From:communicator
Date:August 18th, 2011 08:47 am (UTC)
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I am absolutely not saying that US TV in general is less clonking than European TV. The Killing was an AMC remake of the Danish show I have been following, and I think the biggest fault was the shift to saying explicitly what had been implicit in the European original. So, I think what you describe is definitely widespread in US television.

But I am saying there is a small group of high-end shows in the US, written in an almost unique style which would not be economically viable in the UK. I don't think it's a cultural difference, I think it's just a function of population size plus common language.

But on reflection I think there are multiple things going on in The Hour, and probably the overt 'spell it out' writing reflects two things - one the exigencies of the BBC, and the other a deliberate artistic decision to showcase artistic rebellion in the 1950s.

It's a shame in a way that I concentrated on the shortcomings because I do like the show a lot.
From:abigail_n
Date:August 18th, 2011 10:15 pm (UTC)
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I've been rather underwhelmed by The Hour. My reaction to the first episode was that I'd like the show very well if it were a story about Bel being a woman producer of a news program in 1956, but that Freddie was insufferable and the conspiracy storyline was ludicrous. Five episodes in, Freddie and the conspiracy are no less insufferable and ludicrous, and Bel has been almost completely sidelined into the most tiresome romantic subplot.
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From:communicator
Date:August 19th, 2011 09:49 am (UTC)
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I am so vacillating, that when I read katlinel's comments I think 'Oh, I am being too harsh' and when I read yours I think 'Oh, I am being too generous.'

What I like best is the gradual education of the posh newsreader, growing from an establishment twerp, trying to learn, trying to develop a sense of integrity. I feel this represents the development of the BBC itself, as it tries to become something more than the propaganda wing of the British Government, creating a new centre of value which is different from the old establishment.

In contrast, while Romola Garai is potentially the heart of the show, I don't see her undergoing a transformation through struggle, and it may be her 'growth' is to move from one man to another.
From:abigail_n
Date:August 19th, 2011 07:05 pm (UTC)
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What I like best is the gradual education of the posh newsreader

That is the part of the show that's working best, but it's also the least developed strand (and the one that's getting less and less attention as Freddie's investigation and Hector and Bel's affair pick up speed). Plus, though the entire show borrows heavily from Broadcast News, this is the strand that is just outright copied.
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From:kalypso_v
Date:August 21st, 2011 02:08 pm (UTC)
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I think the developing relationship between Hector and Freddie has been quite interesting, and Hector's really taken the lead on that, from the point when they were at the country house and he was trying to get the story out of Le Ray on Freddie's behalf. It's reached the point where they do have a professional relationship, in the sense of working with each other rather than scoring points off each other in pursuit of the girl. So I wish the focus had been on those professional relationships rather than the conspiracy, even if it was nice to see Burn Gorman for a few weeks.
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From:tehomet
Date:August 25th, 2011 10:28 am (UTC)
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Loved this fascinating analysis.
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From:communicator
Date:August 25th, 2011 10:32 am (UTC)
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Thanks - did you see the final ep this week? Not sure if you get BBC where you are. The TV-studio tension was great I thought, but the spy story was a bit obvious.

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