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‘The Hour’ First Gave Ben Whishaw the Spy Story Spotlight

Just before he started his run as Q, the versatile actor co-starred in this show about magazine staffers whose late-'50s world gets turned upside down.

The Hour BBC

“The Hour”

BBC

[This post originally appeared as part of Recommendation Machine, IndieWire’s daily TV picks feature.]

Where to Watch ‘The Hour: After originally premiering on the BBC in the UK, both seasons are available now via Acorn and Tubi.

A decade ago, Ben Whishaw was in a different kind of spy tale, one set against the backdrop of an escalating Cold War. On the BBC series “The Hour,” he played Freddie Lyon, a reporter/presenter aspiring to revamp the nature of TV news. It’s late 1956 and Freddie’s best friend Bel Rowley (Romola Garai) has just launched a new weekly show (also called “The Hour”) dedicated to issues both domestic and international. Though the main hosting gig goes to the suave Hector Madden (Dominic West), Freddie soon has his sights set on an even bigger story: a chain of mysterious deaths that may have global intelligence implications.

At the time, the booze and the suits and the extramarital tension made it an easy comparison to a certain AMC show at the height of its prestige TV reign. But a decade later, as one of its stars has also gone on to voice the title character in one of the most beloved film series (not to mention co-starring in “London Spy,” a show with a decidedly different psychological approach), “The Hour” is a perfect example of what makes Whishaw such a versatile and compelling screen presence.

It helps that Freddie’s search is almost completely analog, and not purely because the show is set decades before blood-tracking nanoparticles. The clues he’s following are encoded messages, hidden in plain sight with some of the simplest tools in espionage lore. There’s also an appeal here because he’s approaching this as a high-stakes amateur, veering outside the legal and ethical bounds of a TV reporter. “The Hour” isn’t exactly a race against time, even as it’s clearly eating away at the self-appointed sleuth.

Setting aside the mystery that takes up much of the first season, the backdrop of “The Hour” would be plenty. Watching this whole team effectively invent a new form of the weekly current affairs program(me) — Anna Chancellor is great as the foreign desk head helping to hold this fledgling enterprise together — is catnip to people even mildly interested in a bygone chapter of TV history.

Who knows what this show could have become with a longer leash and an extra season or two. (At the very least, it would have been a treat to get more of Kevin Sargent and Daniel Giorgetti’s saxophone-drenched nightclub-ready score.) But as it stands, “The Hour” is a fascinating portrait of a breakout, what happens when those in the wings get to take charge.

One More Reason to Watch: As tends to be the case when reaching back more than a few years into the UK TV archives, “The Hour” features a few more future stars on the rise. Vanessa Kirby has a relatively short time on screen, even as her character looms large. And before he began his own meteoric ascendancy, here Andrew Scott plays a high-society stage actor with his own secrets. “The Hour” is also a notch in the career belt of Harry Bradbeer, who had already made a TV name for himself and would go on to direct nearly all of “Fleabag.”

Pair It With: In the spirit of marrying a throwback vibe with a jazzy flair, sample a few tracks from Badbadnotgood’s “IV.” No one’s cut together the series highlights to “Cashmere,” but they really, really should.

Other Fans: This GQ interview from the time of the show’s run on BBC America is a quick window into the work of costume designer Suzanne Cave (who worked again with Whishaw on “A Very English Scandal“). One highlight? Freddie Lyon’s wardrobe was inspired in part by Jack Kerouac.

Missed any other outputs from Recommendation Machine? You can read every past version here

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