I enjoyed the first series of the BBC drama The Hour, despite its somewhat far-fetched plot, and had been looking forward to the start of a new series. Apart from anything else, it’s impressively aesthetically accurate, the clothes, the colours, the sets seem to be perfectly 50s and if, like me, you are a vintage freak, this is extremely appealing. This series sees the characters continuing in their personal and professional lives on the trajectory begun by the previous series, but what particularly struck me about the first episode is how it seems to be a catalogue of women’s despair in a world with fewer options open to them. Bel (Romola Garai) seems to be in the best situation: she’s a woman in a man’s job, and clearly relishes the power she wields. As Caitlin Moran, a fan of the show, pointed out in Saturday’s Times, Bel’s wardrobe is awash with jewel colours in a sea of monochrome, and this rainbow in many ways sets her apart, as a successful and independent woman. She has done well, but is not as happy as one might hope because, after her fling with Hector ended, she is alone. Freddie’s (Ben Wishaw) return was accompanied by a new wife as well as improved job prospects, and her romantic prospects look gloomy. This is, of course, because in Fifties terms, she can’t have it all: a career woman is likely to end up alone, and perhaps somewhat embittered, like the mysterious Lix (Anna Chancellor), with her discreet affairs.
In a man’s world, the alternative is to be like Marnie (Oona Chaplin), Hector’s long-suffering wife, destined to play the perfect housewife by spending the empty hours baking pastel confections in her pastel flat while her husband is out drinking and womanising. The sadness of her empty nest, her unfulfilled dreams, is one of the most striking things about the first episode, and is perhaps a good indicator of why feminism became so important in the subsequent decades. Another alternative is Kiki Delaine’s (Hannah Tointon) life: she is a singer, performing in the cabaret clubs that Hector goes to. Dressed in skimpy clothes and singing daft songs (Alma Cogan’s ‘Never do a Tango with an Eskimo’), she is as far removed from Bel as possible, though she also has a successful career. But she is subject to (presumably male) violence as well as performing for men; autonomy and independence still seems a long way off here.
Hector, meanwhile, seems to have it all: heading the news show The Hour, a beautiful wife waiting at home, whilst he lives it up in Soho nightclubs. I suspect this is about to all go wrong for him, though; after all, this series is set towards the end of the Fifties, and feminism must be just around the corner. The domestic family centre with the home-making woman at its heart was beginning to disintegrate, and Betty Friedan’s book The Feminine Mystique would begin second-wave feminism across America in 1963. Yet the issues of womanhood in The Hour are in many ways still pertinent: the clash between home-making and working, between career and family, are very different today but they are still clashing, and articles in the newspapers nowadays are still asking if women really can ‘have it all’. The women in The Hour show some of the difficult choices women make, and I am hopeful that the rest of the series will offer some kind of justice or recompense for them.