LONDON (AP) — The media are under fire, celebrities are under the microscope. Welcome to Britain in 2012 — or in the 1950s, the setting for the BBC drama "The Hour."
A newsroom drama/political thriller about the staff of a current affairs TV program, "The Hour" gained attention last year when it debuted for its resonant story lines and distinctive retro style. The latter aspect — all mid-century modern interiors, sensuous silk dresses and slim suits — prompted the show to be dubbed, inevitably, a British "Mad Men."
The second six-episode season — in the middle of its run in Britain and starting Wednesday on BBC America — stays focused on the tempestuous trio of battling producer Bel Rowley (Romola Garai), combative reporter Freddie Lyon (Ben Whishaw, tech-master Q in the Bond film "Skyfall") and smooth anchorman Hector Madden ("The Wire" alumnus Dominic West) as they confront meddling management, murky maneuvers in high places and tensions between work and their private lives.
They also must deal with the consequences of their show's rising profile — especially the impulsive Hector, who finds that fame comes at a cost.
Series writer Abi Morgan, whose work includes screenplays for "The Iron Lady" and "Shame," said she was drawn to the period's sense of style — "a certain kind of 'La Dolce Vita' glamour that I really love." She also wanted to explore the birth of modern culture in a decade often seen as staid and conformist.
"What we know about history is inherently, it repeats itself," said Morgan, counting off the show's modern themes: "Immigration, women trying to have it all, the sense of a kind of greater global threat (because of the Cold War) ... the rise of capitalism and consumerism in Britain, the birth of celebrity, and the vulnerability of celebrity."
"The Hour" has been hailed for recasting a time usually remembered in Britain as a gray era of postwar austerity. Prosperity took a long time to arrive in Britain, which emerged from World War II victorious but broke — wartime food rationing continued until the 1950s.
But by 1957, when the second series of "The Hour" opens, wages were rising, the economy was growing, new consumer goods were available and the tempting devil of rock 'n' roll was washing up on Britain's shores.
The series introduces the BBC's brash rival ITV, which launched in 1955 as Britain's first commercial TV network, and takes excursions to seedy Soho nightclubs, where journalists and politicians mingled with denizens of the London underworld.
Garai, whose television roles include the title role in Jane Austen's "Emma" and an ambitious Victorian prostitute in "The Crimson Petal and the White," said "The Hour" helped correct "the idea that somehow the '60s was the sea-change."
"The '60s was born out of the '50s," she said. "In this series, we talk a bit about Ginsberg and Kerouac. The birth of everything we identify as 'modern' was definitely seeded in the '50s and the Beat Generation."
Like Aaron Sorkin's "The Newsroom," the show is also a love letter to journalism — a much-needed one in Britain, where the profession's image has plunged after revelations of tabloid phone hacking, and where even the august BBC has been tarred by its bungled response to a sex abuse scandal.
"I still believe in the nobility of journalism," Morgan said. "I still love good journalism, and I wanted to hark back to an age when you didn't instantly tweet and you didn't instantly blog and you didn't videophone an event. The slow burn of building a story and nurturing a story and investigating a story is still fascinating to me."
"The Hour" continues a run of strong female characters for Morgan, who dared to depict the divisive former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in "The Iron Lady."
In Bel, she has created something still too rare on television — a sympathetic, competent woman in a position of power. Garai said it was a delight to play a strong women who is "not seen as being bossy or controlling."
Her only qualm is the show's luscious costumes, which have made Garai and her co-stars the subject of glossy magazine spreads about '50s fashion.
The real-life Bel, she says, would have worn "a tweed suit and brogues."
"You sort of think, could Bel really afford a silk two-piece on a BBC producer's salary?" Garai said. "And then everyone goes, 'Oh shut up, Romola.' So I say 'OK, OK, yes. I'll wear the beautiful suits. And breathe in.'"
Jill Lawless can be reached at http://Twitter.com/JillLawless
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