As the lead producer on The Hour, the fictional show featured on the new BBC series of the same name, Bel Rowley (played by Romola Garai) is in charge of two men: presenter Hector Madden (Dominic West) and reporter Freddie Lyon (Ben Whishaw). Together they form a love triangle — but this being 1956, that’s the least of Bel’s problems. She’s the first woman in a position of power in British television, so her every move is scrutinized. And covering the breaking news of the day (the Suez Canal crisis, for example) often competes against the more insidious government cover-ups that her team is only starting to realize. We spoke with Garai about the show’s prescient timing, the downside to the fifties revival, and refusing to lose weight for a job.
There have been a lot of comparisons to Mad Men already. Wouldn’t Broadcast News be more appropriate?
Yes! [Our showrunner] Abi Morgan is actually much more interested in deadline dramas than in Mad Men. Network, as well, where you have a sense that you’re following a seemingly innocuous but confusing story line, but if you pull the thread, it leads all the way to the top. And this has something to say about society: the end of the British Empire, corruption, the effect of mass media.
And it doesn’t hurt that Egypt has been in the news recently.
We were shooting our last episode when that erupted! Obviously, everything happened pretty gradually, and the real standoff in Tahrir square didn’t happen until after we stopped shooting, but the initial conflict had started, and it was becoming a bigger and bigger news story. It felt so surreal, and it added poignancy to the scenes when we were talking about Britain’s decision to illegally invade Egypt: how they shrugged off a paternalistic foreign power, how a dictator grew out of that. So hopefully people are interested in seeing the root of those issues. What’s interesting making a show about journalists is that you very quickly realize that their main motivation is to get an interesting story. They’re not really motivated by altruism. The whole point of The Hour is that it’s a look back to a time when journalism encapsulated certain ideals. It doesn’t feel like that’s always the case anymore! [Laughs.]
What’s your take on the British hacking scandal?
I’m amazed anyone was surprised! I didn’t realize people were going to be shocked by that. I thought everybody knew. I thought everybody understood that’s how that happens. I mean, if you buy The National Enquirer, how do you think they get that information? And if you do buy it, you’re supporting that industry, the kind of journalism that invades privacy. It’s baffling, really. But what happens with celebrity news columnists is not a reflection of the news industry as a whole. There are still journalists who risk their lives in situations of conflict, versus those who sit behind a desk at News of the World to report on whether someone is going out with somebody or not.
Speaking of love affairs, who do you think Bel should end up with? Say by next season?
I feel divided about that. What I really want is that Bel doesn’t need to have a man, you know? And I don’t think she should have to choose between career and relationships. If she were married in 1956, there would be no way she would be in the workplace, so she certainly has no children, and since she’s in that climate, her choice becomes about having sex with people who are already married, which seems to be born out of practicality. She doesn’t have a terribly high opinion of Hector, even though he’s very attractive. She has more respect for Freddie. So if she could have both [career and relationship], I would like for her and Freddie to be together. He’s the kind of guy who would be okay with her taking over the whole BBC! If it were up to me, she would take over the world! [Laughs.]
It’s easy to forget how limited her options were, when she’s the boss.
I think that’s the problem with the fifties revival: If you can’t be openly sexist, you can at least return to a time that was. Return to corsets, to the explosion of the cosmetics industry, to a really dark time for women in terms of the power dynamic at home. I don’t think the women of that time would have hoped for their granddaughters to yearn to return to inches of makeup, to the obsession with appearances, and the narrow definition of what it was to be beautiful. Bel has no interest in being in front of a camera, but she wouldn’t have had much of a chance anyway. That wouldn’t have been an option. So Bel’s lucky in a way that she really wanted the job of producer, that it wasn’t second best for her. It wasn’t the booby prize.
She might not have much of a chance to be the presenter if she were living in modern times either: Women on-camera tend to be judged more for their weight than their abilities.
That’s absolutely true. Someone once suggested that if the world was populated as it is in the movies or on television, 75 percent of the world would be white males who work as forensic scientists! [Laughs.] When I was very young, I was encouraged — and when I say encouraged, I mean forced — to lose weight for a job. I don’t want to be put in a situation where that would happen again, so I don’t go for the job where that would be in the cards. It’s destructive, and I can’t handle it, psychologically. I think it’s a way to remind women that they’re not really in control.
I hear you’re about to direct a short film of your own — there’s one way to be in control.
It’s a bit about sex. I don’t want to say too much about it, because there’s a high chance it might be really shit, and if it is, then it’s just my mistake and I don’t ever have to talk about it or show it to anyone. It’s just something for me, just to have a go.