TV & Movies

Recommendation Machine: The Hour First Gave Ben Whishaw the Spy Story Spotlight

Welcome to Recommendation Machine, your daily IndieWire destination for TV suggestions of what to watch. Each weekday, we’ll offer up a series we think should be on your viewing radar. Though most of the shows included here are recent offerings from networks and streaming services, this will also be a place to take a look at different chapters in TV history readily available for anyone looking to immerse themselves in an ever-expanding medium.

As everyone with even a passing connection to TV will have happily told you for the better part of the last decade, there are too many shows. They’ll use words like cornucopia or plethora or deluge or glut. Bottom line: There are plenty of options for things to queue up next. So, while we’ll try to provide as many of those as we can from streaming’s heavy hitters like Netflix, Hulu, and HBO Max, there will also be plenty of chances to highlight the best shows on lesser-known services —  hidden gems to try out during one of those free trials you haven’t used up yet. International shows, docuseries, some projects that, at first glance, might not even seem like TV: They’re all up for grabs. 

In every installment, we’ll not only make a case for the show itself, but pick out some particular elements that make the whole thing worth a try. And for those who may have already taken the plunge on that day’s pick, we’ll also try to throw in some next-step ideas for something similar. Along the way, we may even toss in some suggestions for an album or a book or a movie. There’s no telling what the Recommendation Machine might manage to turn out next!

All past Recommendation Machine installments will be carefully housed here, for your bookmark and perusal needs. For now, here’s our choice for today’s show that’s very much worth your TV-watching energy:

“The Hour”

Where to Watch: 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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