“Ladies and gentlemen, please remain calm. I’m sure it’s just another false alarm”
Oh The Halcyon – shafted by the overwhelming desire for it to be the new Downton, or maybe the unfriendly Monday evening slot, or maybe the fact that Charlotte Jones’ serial never quite honed in on what it wanted to be. Following the fortunes of a luxury London hotel during the first couple of years of the Second World War, it took all possible opportunities to explore a society on the cusp of major change. But between the aristocrats who owned it, the aristocrats who stayed there, the lower classes who work there, and the multitudes of people affiliated to all these lives, the canvas was far too wide.
The hints were there right from the off in episode 1 which struggled to introduce even just its leading players in its running time, whilst still proving most tantalising, due to its cracking cast and its sumptuous design (those costumes!). At the heart of The Halycon lay the antagonistic relationship between Olivia Williams’ Lady Hamilton and Steven Mackintosh’s Mr Garland, owner versus manager as they butted heads over practicalities in the face of an ensuing Blitz but though their scenes were electric, they were given too little too late together to exploit this to its fullest.
Across the eight episodes, subjects covered included international espionage, the difficulties of securing a goose during rationing, the consequences of appeasement, homosexuality, inter-racial relationships, inter-class relationships, the ethics of war reporting, US reluctance to get involved in WWII, women’s rise in the workplace, just to name a few. And naturally, it dealt with the vast majority of them briefly, on the surface, an issue to be wrapped up neatly rather than investigated thoroughly which would have been fine if The Halcyon had leaned into its soapy side as much as its dramatic tendencies.
Similarly, the series suffered from the insistence on infusing more modern attitudes than would be strictly historically accurate into its scenes. So scenes dealing with the intolerance directed towards Nico Rogner’s Austrian Jewish refugee working in the kitchen were improbably wide-eyed; the build up to Edward Bluemel’s Hon. Toby Hamilton and Akshay Kumar’s barman’s illicit liaisons was sweetly done but once they started boning, they were ridiculously indiscreet (purely in service of the plot); Garland’s daughter Emma’s rise from receptionist to assistant manager to active WVS member was simplified and unproblematic and less interesting for it.
That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy The Halcyon, it was occasionally extremely good fun. The music always set the scene well, led by Kara Tointon’s cheery singer Betsey, Liz White’s telephonist eventually got a satisfying amount to do, and Charles Edwards’ Lucian D’Abberville had a most entertaining plot which unfolded as well as anything did in the show. Throw in cameos from the likes of Fenella Woolgar, Matthew Marsh, Beverley Knight, Danny Webb, Charity Wakefield et al, and no matter how nonsensical it got, things were always watchable.