Dominic West is mock-disgruntled – it seems that he was off duty on the day when they filmed a scene in which a striptease artiste removed her bra.
“Dominic got to watch a lot of burlesque girls,” Abi Morgan, creator and writer of BBC2’s 1950s-set newsroom saga, The Hour, told me, with the sort of fond indulgence that a lot of people seem to extend to the former The Wire actor (it’s something to do with West’s air of a naughty over-grown public-schoolboy, but also because he is disarmingly – almost recklessly – frank).
“The dancers gradually got more and more risqué as the episodes went on,” continues Morgan, “and in the end there was a girl who did all that thing with her… ”
“When?” asks West. “Took her top off? I missed it… I wasn’t in the bloody scene… Damn.” The volume of burlesque girls in the new series of Morgan’s widely (but not universally) acclaimed drama can be explained by the fact that West’s character, Hector Madden, the anchor on the titular BBC news programme, is spending an increasing amount of time in seedily glamorous Soho nightclubs – mixing with a heady brew of journalists, prostitutes, policemen and gangsters.
We are a year on from the first, Suez-era series of Morgan’s drama. It’s now 1957, Prime Minister Harold Macmillan is telling voters that they had never had it so good, which, for the immigrant families running vice in Soho, and the Metropolitan Police officers paid to turn a blind eye, was undeniably true.
“Series one was very much about post-war austerity,” says Morgan. “Series two is really about us preparing ourselves for the Sixties, and a time when London was feeling a sense of glamour. But the counterpoint to that was a dark, seedy underworld, a lot of it related to these migrant families.”
The day-to-day reality for West filming all these nightclub scenes involved smoking a lot of fake fags (“those honeydew cigarettes – we tried every brand and they’re all awful”) and sipping flat cola and cold tea as if it was hard liquor. But the Old Etonian actor did get to imbibe on a delicious storyline, as Hector finds himself wooed by the BBC’s brash new commercial rival, ITV, and slips out of his depth in the company of his “friends” in the underworld.
“It was an actor’s dream, my story arc,” enthuses West. “In episode one, I start as this celebrity on top of the world and within two or three episodes he descends into the pits of shame and ignominy – you very rarely get a part like that and it was a real challenge. I don’t know what viewers will think – I don’t tend to think about that – but just in terms of a character arc it was a wonderful season for me”.
“In the first series, Dominic is completely charming , strong and is in many ways unbreakable,” says Morgan. “Series two is very much about this man being taken on a downward spiral, and I was really inspired by Dominic and where he can go as an actor.” And where West can go as an actor was forcefully demonstrated by his Bafta-winning performance as serial killer Fred West in ITV’s Appropriate Adult – a bit of a one-off, he remarks, and West was glad to get back to The Hour. “I got a huge sense coming back for the second season of familiarity,” he says. “It saves you so much time and effort, particularly between actors because we had a rapport… we knew each other’s foibles. That’s the nice thing about doing the second season – you get stuff done more quickly.”
But hadn’t the actor turned his back on episodic television after his epic five seasons playing Detective Jimmy McNulty in The Wire? “I was very reluctant to do any more episodic television”, he had told me on an earlier visit to the now de-commissioned town hall in north London where The Hour is filmed. “What I like about acting is that you do something intensely for a finite amount of time and then you move on, and episodic television just goes on and on and on. In America, the contracts are such that you feel that you’re being co-opted into a vast corporation and that they own your arse for a very long time, and you don’t get that sense, thank God, here.”
In fact, West turned down a meaty role in the epic HBO fantasy Game of Thrones because it meant shooting for six months in Iceland, and being away from his family in London. He lives in Shepherds Bush with his wife, the Anglo-Irish aristocrat Catherine FitzGerald, and their three children, Dora, Senan and Francis (he has an older, teenage daughter, Martha, from a relationship with Polly Astor, a grand-daughter of Nancy Astor). West himself was born in 1969 into an Irish Catholic family from Sheffield, where his father owned a plastics factory.
The relatively short shooting schedule for The Hour also meant that West has the freedom to pursue his eclectic, post- McNulty career, with projects ranging from Disney’s $250m Edgar Rice Burroughs movie adaptation, John Carter to the low-budget Irish short, The Girl with the Mechanical Maiden. And he has just opened to rave reviews in the acclaimed Royal Court Theatre production of Jerusalem writer Jez Butterworth’s new play, The River.
In the meantime, West has been optioned for more series of The Hour, Morgan telling me that she hopes to set any next series in 1960 or ’61. “Well, I’ve got 10 years of school fees to get through,” she says with a laugh. “No, I really would love it to grow.” And grow it most certainly has. The second series feels more confident and less clumsy, with no noticeably (to my ears, at least) anachronistic language – the first series having been peppered with such modern expressions as “Note to self”, “Farting about” and “You just don’t get it”, while “bottled it” was not recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary until 1979.
On the evidence of the opening episode of the second series, The Hour seems to have truly found its feet. Ben Whishaw’s character, the hot-headed Freddie Lyon, returns from America with a beard and a surprise for the object of his unrequited love, Romola Garai’s producer, Bel Rowley (the character based on innovatory 1950s producer Grace Wyndham Goldie, and yet arguably the least plausible of the leading characters). And a newcomer has been drafted in to replace Anton Lesser’s Clarence Fendley, the head of news who was revealed, at the end of the first series, to have been a Soviet mole.
Peter Capaldi – the actor best known for playing the sweary Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It – gives a far more low-key (but strangely just as menacing) performance as the new BBC executive, “Mr Brown”. “I came very late to The Thick of It and I’m very glad because I think I would have been incredibly intimidated if I’d seen how brilliant his performance was in that,” says Morgan, who wrote the part specifically for the Scottish actor. Capaldi’s character brings a new sense of jeopardy to the newsroom, clashing repeatedly with Hector, who is being tempted away by ITV. Did West model Hector on any particular 1950s broadcasters?
“Well, inevitably I did find you can’t get Paxman out of your head,” he says, “And I suppose the sort of confrontational kind of interviewing only really came about with Robin Day, after this period, so I think there’s a bit of anachronism in the way one approaches the interviews we did. But I did look at a lot of the presenters then, particularly the paternal, or avuncular, Richard Dimbleby,” he adds, slipping into a 1950s-style broadcasting voice to mimic the vocal style of the era: “ ‘Now then, viewers, we’re going to listen very carefully to an expert or an academic here and he’s going to teach you what’s what’…
“I long for those days to return,” he adds, perhaps only half-jokingly. “My dad wasn’t like Hector but he was a man of the Fifties, and dressed like that, and so I felt my affection for the character and the period was because of my dad.”
Another difference with the first series is the way in which Abi Morgan found herself writing while episodes were being filmed – Danish author Soren Sveistrup puts together The Killing in this last-minute manner, and it seems to give dramas more flexibility and less predictability. It also allowed Morgan to have digs at West, for his poor timekeeping and ever expanding stomach.
“First of all because I’m so late, she put in ‘Hector is always late’,” says West. “Lots of great speeches about being late… how rude that is and unprofessional. And then it was how fat he was. And we did have incredibly good caterers on the shoot and because it was incredibly long hours… you look forward to lunch. I put on about two stone. Thank God for elastic seams…”
‘The Hour’ returns to BBC2 on 14 November at 9pm