As London slakes its thirst on the first of many summer spritzers, don’t you think our cool, balmy evenings suit the outrageously sexy The Hour on Beeb 2? I do. Essentially, The Hour had me with it’s era-faithful hairstyles, structured 1950s and air of noble broadcasting intent, and I even managed to get away from the fact that Dominic West has a neck that makes him look like a toad. For Mr West is aware – exuberantly aware – that he is rather Hot Stuff. He minces his eyebrows about quizzically, looks out of that oddly craggy face and leers out of the television as if to say “Ladies – Get a load of what I’ve got, you lucky lucky minxes.” Strangely, I cannot find him attractive. I think he’s borderline sinister, but in a way that suits The Hour. His is the public face of this fictional news show set in the late 1950s and broadcast from the imitation White City building of “Lime Grove”. In this week’s instalment he had Romola Garai in her vintage seamed stockings on what looked like an extremely uncomfortable settee. In fact, Romola Garai’s flat in The Hour doesn’t so much look like a flat as a annex book lock-up round the back of Senate House Library. Still, there was Mr D West, smirking and slurping his way through the scene in order to distract us from the dreary municipal – looking surroundings. But we know, don’t we, that D West’s character is Bad News. He’s probably going to break Romola Garai’s post war, rationed little heart by Week 5 and leave her weeping in a 1950s headscarf whilst nursing the very first English cappucino.
The show has thrown me into a vintage quandary. I was so disappointed to miss the Vintage event at the South Bank last weekend (a repeat of what happened at Goodwood last August) as it would have been an ideal opportunity to whip out the gravy browning, roll my hair into bangs and find out just what ladies did in the 1950s to make their tits look like missiles. Unfortunately, I wound up in another country. The Hour is an education. Everything is bolstered and strapped and contained within clean lines. The millinery is presented in beautifully classic style. Set against a Egypt-tastic back drop of the Suez Crisis, it also features a grand performance by Anna Chancellor in mannish white shirts, who gets to smoke fags, look rueful, drink whisky out of beige coffee cups and sidle about pouting and barking out historically-vital pieces of information, such as “They’ve set fire to the central square!” “We need you to radio in on Thursday – all day, do you hear?”, “The French are getting testy.”
Somewhere there is a spy. A great big fat one. This being the late 1950s it has to be a Russian. Or a Czech. Or Lucille Ball. The phrase that sums up the 1950s is more You Never Felt More Paranoid, rather than You Never Had It So Good, although D West was having it rather good last night. The furtive World Service BBC worker of no particular Eastern European heritage who has been creepily oozing around the sidelines since Episode 1 played more of a central role last night. Well, a central stairwell role, anyway, as he lost a peculiar struggle in a stairwell last night with a man who weighs about 8 stone. His opponent was Featherweight Freddy Lyons, sidekick to Romola’s character, Bel, who is clearly daft in love with her and doomed to misery, as no one can ever overawe the potency of D “Toad” West once he gets himself going (poop poop). Featherweight Freddy’s grammar school integrity and almost-innocent, wide-eyed application to his craft is partnered with a habit of using newspaper cut outs of gruesome going’s on as wallpaper in the house where he lives with his father in an unknown London suburb.
Personally, my money for the spy is on Anna Chancellor. All that hanging around the Lime Grove studios on Saturdays in red lipliner? Surely that could only mean an assignation with one of Russia’s fruitiest cunning villains. Last night’s episode featured a really bad excuse – apparently old Duckface was at work as she was “early for supper with a dreadful Great Aunt…” and had nothing better to do. You don’t allow Great Aunts to take you out for supper. It’s too terrifying. Anyway, most of my great aunts are now unavailable to dine as they are dead.
Someone else who is dead is Terence Rattigan. But you wouldn’t know that he is dead because he is basically everywhere. In one of those eerie zeitgeist moments, something in the upper-middle class pinched emotions of Rattigan’s world has struck a very loud chord with an entirely new generation of theatregoers in the last 18 months. For about twenty years there were no Rattigan plays on at all, now the West End is swimming with them. The tide shows no sign of going out either. BBC4 hopped on this 1950s bandwagon this week by chucking Benedict Cumberbatch in a three quarter length coat and sending him moodily strolling about Soho (Why?) whilst telling us the story of Rattigan’s life and career, from nerve-wrenching opening nights at The Criterion through to money, adulation and fame, on to hosting grand parties at his Ascot manor, and out the other side into drunkenness, Rattigan a forgotten, maligned and sick man. This was excellently told. I knew very little about Rattigan, beyond the genuinely superb plays, and the nicest thing about Cumberbatch is that he is very personable, i.e. not at all like an actor. He is also very articulate and modest,i.e. not like an actor. Benny Cumberbund and T Rattigan were both Harrow alumni so it was dead glam.
What was noticeable was the archive trawl. Televised plays of Rattigan’s work from the 1970s and 1980s, complete with bendy sets and 1980s pale brown Habitat sofas masquerading as 1930s Brighton chaise longues, were a real revelation, and a horrible reminder that the BBC doesn’t film plays anymore to televise them, because they’re a bunch of lily-livered pussies who think we are all too stupid to want to watch them. The recent Old Vic production of Rattigan’s Cause Celebre was brilliantly done on Radio 4 (complete with resplendent gin and tonic ice chinks) but no one would be brave enough to put it on the television. Oh, and please PLEASE can we have a full viewing of the version of Cause Celebre they did show a slither of, which seemed to come from the back end of the 1980s? With Helen Mirren swooning over the young David Morrissey as if her eyes would fall out? Something for gentlemen in that scene, and something for the ladies. Double bubble.
Benny Bumbercund was of course in the recent NT production of After the Dance which could also be called After the Dance I did Frankenstein and stuff and SO much in demand I went to do Sherlock. A televised version of that after the interesting Rattigan documentary would have been delightful. Instead, we got this hackneyed 1985-ish version of it, with terribly sound editing, absolutely no David Morrissey, and Anton Rodgers playing a dipsomaniac fruitloop (I preferred him in that thing set in Pinner called May to December where he dated a gym mistress). If BBC4 isn’t prepared to televise plays I don’t know who is. The universality of Rattigan’s work means they continue to have resonance and ballast to engage with the modern televisual audience. Systematically, television undermines and underestimates our intelligence, until, eventually, we shall all be forced to watch Teletubbies on a 24 hour loop. We have some of the best plays ever written and no one televises them. Something tells me that back at the fictional Lime Grove studios of The Hour of the late 1950s not filming our own plays would have been unthinkable.