Oline Cogdill

altThe 1950s were a heady time for the world, especially for America and Great Britain.

WWII was the past; the Cold War was the present. Spies lurked around every corner.

And journalism, especially that new product TV journalism, was changing.

BBC America's The Hour powerfully portrays this changing world with vivid storytelling and realistic characters.

The six-part series airs at 10 p.m. Wednesdays on BCC America with frequent encores; it also is On Demand. The DVD will be released in mid-September.

The Hour mixes Broadcast News with the era of Mad Men and a smidgeon of Lou Grant. Government conspiracies, espionage, a hit man and a couple of crusading journalists make this first-class drama, the kind we've come to expect from BBC America.

Set in 1956, The Hour concerns the launch of an investigative news show, a newfangled idea for a burgeoning medium. Intelligent journalist Freddie Lyon, played to perfection by Ben Whishaw, is frustrated by what he calls the "brisk banality" of TV news. He gripes that martial law has been declared in Poland but the lead news item is of Prince Rainier with "a showgirl." It's a good thing Freddie isn't seeing what passes for TV news coverage in the 21st century.

Freddie has little hope for The Hour , especially when the lead anchor is Hector Madden (Dominic West), whom Freddie is convinced is hired only for his good looks and his family connections. He's right, of course.

Still he is drawn into the new show to be called The Hour by his friend Bel Rowley (Romola Garai), a brilliant producer and one of the few women in management. Freddie and Bel have a close friendship with a strong undercurrent of sexual tension. They call each other Moneypenney and James, a nod to the Cold War and that new novel by Ian Fleming.

Following a meeting with a childhood friend, Freddie is drawn into a series of murders that may be connected to a government conspiracy.

The Hour intelligently hits all the key social and political situations of the time with a subtle hand. Bel is respected for her work but also runs into sexism at every turn. She and Mad Men's Peggy Olson would have much in common, including each's habit of getting involved with "unavailable men," as Freddie calls them. The view of early TV journalism is more than just nostalgia.

Each character is well developed and supported by strong actors. Garai and Whishaw are favorites of British and PBS viewers.

Dominic West is best known for playing Jimmy McNulty in HBO's brilliant The Wire. And West's accent in The Hour is closer to his own than the Baltimore accent he had in The Wire; he was born in Yorkshire. Lix Storm, a celebrated war correspondent, is played by Anna Chancellor, who American audiences may recognize from Four Weddings and a Funeral and MI5.

Photo: In front from left: Anna Chancellor, Ben Whishaw, Romola Garai, Dominic West, Oona Chaplin. BBC America photo