UNLESS SBS's Copper: I Love Nicking People has been severely underestimated, the first must-see show of 2013 is The Hour. The 1950s BBC drama, screening at 9pm on Thursday nights on the ABC, provides what every television viewer, bar the tennis tragics, desperately needs at this time of year. When the promise of fresh series is everywhere but virtually none has aired, The Hour provides smart storytelling, briskly batted dialogue and the unmistakable friction of thwarted screen attraction.
Created by writer Abi Morgan, The Hour is a welcome reminder that the British tradition of compact series runs - the present second season, as with the first in 2011, spans six hour-long episodes - can make for engrossing, purposeful television. There are no diversionary episodes in The Hour, no mid-series lull when the writing staff try to avoid accepting responsibility for a less-than-stellar outing.
The second series hasn't barrelled along as the first did, if only because it has familiar characters to reintroduce and astutely deploy. The backdrop of the show is the first fictional current-affairs program at the BBC, the titular Hour, which in the first season launched in 1956 against the backdrop of the Suez Crisis and the Cold War. The present season is set a year later, when the initial spark has dulled somewhat and ITV has a rival show competing for stories and attention.
The show revolves around three characters, all personally and professionally entangled. Romola Garai's Bel Rowley is the show's producer, a determined fledgling career woman in a country run by men. Ben Whishaw plays her best friend and platonic love, gifted reporter Freddie Lyon, and Dominic West brings his dangerous self-interest to the part of presenter Hector Madden, a privileged star who lacks scruples.
The British series uses a historical setting in a direct manner, showing how little has changed in more than half a century. One of the simmering backdrops for the present season is Britain's struggle to adapt to a multi-racial society, and the links to the London of today are pointedly clear.
Watching The Hour also serves to remind you how television so often benefits from a different setting from the contemporary norm, and how little that happens with Australian productions.
Last year Channel Ten's Puberty Blues, given licence by the original feature film, re-created the beach landscape and teenage peer pressure of 1977, but too often a period setting for a domestic show has simply meant vintage bras being removed, as on the latest edition of Underbelly. In 2011, Channel Seven rightly couldn't make a go of the 1860s-set Wild Boys, and there appears to be resistance - both budgetary and thematic - to the idea of setting a show in the past. The only exception it appears is when the biography of the character, such as the various Kerry Packer outings, demands it.
Too much of Australia's past remains veiled or unspoken, when it's actually plainly promising. How, for example, could the Rum Rebellion - in essence a military coup in Sydney in 1808 when a commercialised military put the then British colony's governor under house arrest - not inspire something that gives us a change from those comedy-dramas about extended families living in anodyne suburbs that the commercial networks keep producing?
The Hour uses its setting for vivid criminal conspiracies.
The show offsets the snap of dialogue between Bel, Freddie and Hector with mysteries that would shock Phryne Fisher, the character whose own ABC period series is one of the few successes.
The present run of The Hour has an air of sordid glamour - all exploding Scorsese-like flashbulbs - that accentuates the regrets from the previous year. ''You walk like Bacall,'' a Soho nightclub owner tells Bel, and she also has some of the same defiance.
Alongside Hector's considerable failings, which leave his wife as a kitchen-bound martyr literally baking with fury, the fictional Hour also answers to a just-appointed head of news, Randall Brown, played by Peter Capaldi and speaking in a whisper instead of shouting as he does on The Thick of It. When he wants to wind Bel up, he tells the driven producer her show has fallen away.
''One could hear the tingle,'' he says of the initial broadcasts, and that's just what The Hour series has retained.
It tingles in a way that Jim Courier never will.
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