Two minutes with: Dominic Westby The Listener
We recently saw him as serial killer Fred West (for which he won a Bafta), and now, in The Hour, the British actor plays smooth TV presenter Hector Madden in the early days of the BBC. Season two of The Hour begins on SoHo this week.
Season two is set in 1957, a year on from the first series. Is there another real political situation that forms a backdrop, in the way that the Suez Crisis was used in season one?
Yes, it’s the Macmillan Government now and a period of prosperity, but there was the resignation of his chancellor and that’s in the show, and also the question of the Notting Hill race riots, and the whole business of immigration is touched on. Also the legalisation of homosexuality; there’s race, there’s homosexuality, nuclear power – that all happened in ’57.
The team of Hector, Bel (Romola Garai) and Freddie (Ben Whishaw) was broken up at the end of season one. What are they up to in season two?
Freddie’s gone, and Bel and I are flourishing back on the show, which is doing really well. Hector’s a big celebrity, and Bel’s a successful producer trying to cope with Hector’s growing ego and lateness. I don’t know why [series creator] Abi Morgan wrote it that Hector’s late all the time; it might have something to do with me. So we start with them as fractured as we left, but we quickly get Freddie back and then Hector falls from grace in quite a spectacular way and that’s what’s been so fun to act – he’s at a very low ebb in season two.
It seemed that his trajectory was on the up.
It was; I think another theme of season two is celebrity culture. I suppose modern celebrity culture, with paparazzi and everything, started in the 50s. Hector starts as a major celebrity, because in those days there was only one channel and 20 million people would watch it, so a lot of people were big stars, and Hector’s really enjoying all of that in wine, women and song.
Is it fun filming with all that old news equipment?
Yeah, I love all that stuff. There’s a guy who used to work for the BBC and I think nicked all the equipment and has brought it onto The Hour. It was the last period when I sort of could understand what most machines do. Now, I have no idea what any machines do, not because I’m an old luddite, but because they’re all electronic. The last gasp of the pre-electronic age was then, and the machines are so satisfying – all the buttons and the dials. We’ve lost all that.
How do you cope with smoking on set?
I hate it. You have to smoke herbal ones as well, which are even worse than the real thing. They stink. It’s like smoking a plastic straw, but it does get you in the mood a bit. I think that’s part of the charm, or what people like about Mad Men or The Hour, the political incorrectness about smoking and drinking; also the sexism.
It does make you ponder how far women have come.
It’s extraordinary. My mum was a product of the 50s. She did go to university, but she basically couldn’t pursue her career once she’d married, because she had seven kids, and she was always amazed at the choice we have and how much we can do now with our careers. Hector’s marriage with Marnie [Oona Castilla Chaplin] is quite interesting because Marnie is the model 50s wife, initially, and in season two she breaks out of that and becomes much more attractive to Hector. I think we see that the change in women’s rights and what was expected of women and what women were able to do with their careers was good for men and women.
THE HOUR, SoHo, Sky 010, Monday, 8.30pm.
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