Entertainment & Arts

Romola Garai: 'I'm a news junkie'

Dominic West and Romola Garai in The Hour
Image caption Dominic West and Romola Garai star in The Hour

Actress and "news junkie" Romola Garai reveals how she researched her role as a TV news trailblazer in The Hour, and why she craved the role of a porn-obsessed mum-to-be in the play The Village Bike.

At a time when 21st Century journalism is under intense scrutiny, along comes The Hour to remind us how things were changing on TV in the 1950s.

Written by Sex Traffic author Abi Morgan, the BBC Two drama charts the shift from staid newsreel footage to the investigative journalism of programmes like Panorama.

Garai plays producer Bel Rowley who comes up against political challenges and sexual politics as she launches the BBC's first topical news programme in 1956.

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Media captionWriter Abi Morgan and actress Romola Garai talk to BBC Breakfast about The Hour.

Opposite her are Ben Whishaw as outspoken journalist Freddie Lyon and Dominic West as the show's slick presenter Hector Madden.

The 28-year-old actress already has journalism in her family tree. Her great grandfather ran a photo agency called the Keystone Press that supplied photos to newspapers in the 1950s.

"I often thought of him while working on The Hour," says Garai, when we meet to discuss her latest TV role.

"I am a news junkie, definitely," she admits.

"I read the paper pretty much every day, as well as getting news from the internet and on TV. But I don't do social media at all, I'm a Luddite from that point of view."

The Hour is her first TV role after the recent BBC adaptation of The Crimson Petal and The White in which she played Sugar, a Victorian prostitute.

Garai is also known for her screen roles in period dramas such as Atonement, Glorious 39, I Capture the Castle, and the TV series of Jane Austen's Emma.

'Poisoned chalice'

As part of her research for The Hour, Garai immersed herself in the history and politics of the 1950s.

Image caption Romola Garai and Ben Whishaw play soulmates Bel Rowley and Freddie Lyon in The Hour

"I love history, so I had a field day," she says, launching into a knowledgeable summary of Britain's role in the Suez Crisis and how it chimes with current events in the Middle East.

With so many other articles already comparing The Hour to Mad Men, it comes as some relief when Garai is the first to invoke the name of the hit American show.

Does she find the comparisons a bit misguided?

"I think it's a poisoned chalice for us because Mad Men is one of the greatest TV shows ever, so you don't want to be standing next to Elle Macpherson when you're in your pyjamas!

"The Hour is set in the same period, but it's a very different climate in Europe. I hope that it will work as a companion piece."

Insatiable appetite

It is no secret that Garai is drawn to working on projects that explore gender issues. The character of Bel, for instance, is a woman in a man's world.

"I love anything to do with that subject matter," she explains. "After the war, there was an expectation that women in the workplace would return home.

"The women that didn't do that had to experience a kind of tacit aggression; not necessarily an open misogyny, but a feeling that they were somehow betraying the ideals of the period."

Image caption Romola Garai plays mum-to-be Becky in The Village Bike at the Royal Court

Sexual issues are also at the heart of Garai's current stage role in The Village Bike at the Royal Court.

Garai plays English teacher Becky, newly pregnant and with an insatiable appetite for the collection of porn DVDs stashed in the attic.

"I desperately wanted to do it," says Garai of Penelope Skinner's dark comedy drama.

"It's a fascinating play because it takes as its central acknowledgement that women really want to have sex, and if they don't get it that energy will became negative and it will destroy relationships."

Garai will be seen next in the movie adaptation of David Nicholls' best-seller One Day, with Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess.

The story revisits the relationship of a couple - Emma and Dexter - on the same day over a period of 20 years. Garai plays Dexter's wife, Sylvie.

"The book is like crack," Garai enthuses. "I read it in a about a day in a splurge sitting in my garden."

She says she has no work lined up after The Village Bike.

"I'm waiting for the play to finish and then it's back to walking into rooms saying: 'Employ me! I'm really interested in women's issues - but not too much!'"

The Hour is at 2100 BST on BBC Two on 19 July. The Village Bike is at the Royal Court in London until 6 August. One Day opens in cinemas on 24 August.

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