Review: “The Halcyon”. How our research topic almost became a TV sensation

“The Halcyion” aka The Land Registry Offices, Lincoln Inn Field.
Source: Wikipedia. Boilingfruit – Own work. CC BY-SA 3.0

TV is the new cinema and history sells, the Second World War in particular. Two factors why, after concluding their hit show “Downton Abbey”, ITV UK tried to build up a new series based on luxury and scandal during the Second World War. While outside the Blitz ravished the city (7. September 1940 – August 1941) and later, London was affected by rationing and bomb scares, Grand Hotels and High End restaurants became central locations of the upper class social and political life.
“The Halcyon”, produced by Left Bank Pictures and aired in 2017, deals with the events at a fictitious Grand Hotel in London during the Second World War.(1) As the exiles researched in the “London Moment”-project were refugees, while they were also close to the seemingly mundane side of the London Grand Hotels and restaurants, it is worthwhile to take a closer look at the series.
The images of the series clearly allude to other famous London hotels; the brick stone façade of the TV hotel, in particular, reminds the viewer of the Claridge’s or Grosvenor House. Indeed, the series was shot in central London, but the classic façade belongs to the former Land Registry building in Lincoln’s Inn Field, which by now belongs to the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). The storyline of the series revels in family rivalries, amorous adventures and dark secrets of staff and guests. In doing so, the plot engages with historical facts; it picks up on both stereotypes and knowledge about the British experience of the World War in general and the experience of the upper class and Grand hotels during the Second World War in London more particular.

 

The Halcyon series titlecard. Copyright Left Bank Pictures Itd.

Going even further, its fictional cast and characters are sometimes interwoven with allusions to real figures, among them British right-wing starlet Unity Mitford, sister in law to British fascist Oswald Mosley, here reinvented as the hotel owner’s spoilt fascist mistress. The most recognisable character is American journalist Ed Murrow, here in the adapted form of American journalist Joe O’Hara. Just like Murrow, O’Hara becomes a war reporter who, despite his original intent to leave London for the US, decides to stay out of a loyalty for the British cause and people. All through the war, O’Hara runs a regular radio broadcast starting and ending with a catchphrase (Murrow’s original catchphrase “Good night and good luck” was so famous and famously linked to Murrow, that it eventually became the title of the 2006 movie about Murrow during the McCarthy era). Unlike O’Hara, however, Murrow was not a loner in a Grand hotel, but lived with his wife Janet Brewster Murrow, herself a CBS radio broadcaster, in a small apartment close to the BBC main building in Portland Place. Other international journalists, in contrast, had indeed set up shop in the Grand Hotels, in particular the Savoy Hotel at The Strand, located close to Waterloo Bridge, which also hosted regular press conferences in its bars.
Apart from Murrow, the storyline does justice to the London microcosm during the war by introducing several other foreigners: an Austrian refugee working as a busboy in the hotel kitchen being constantly bullied by one other British cook, before it is revealed that he had been a celebrity chef in his home country. Several characters cover the imperial aspect of the British war experience, such as the West Indian bandleader, and the Indian barkeeper.
Even European allies are introduced. French upper class refugees check into the hotel, among them the Comte de St. Claire. O’Hara befriends the hotel heir, who introduces him to fellow RAF pilots, among them many foreigners. In the series, it is the death of a brave Czechoslovakian pilot, which eventually convinces the American journalist to stay in London and to dedicate his time and energy to inform the U.S. about the war and rally to support the allies.
The title and hotel name “The Halcyon” plays with the meaning of the adjective “halcyon”, “denoting a period of time in the past that was idyllically happy and peaceful“.(2) And indeed, life in Grand hotels seems easy and carefree, if significantly more so for the upper class than for the working class, as the TV series does not neglect to point out. Already during the 1940s, Michael Barsley drew caricatures of what he called the “Ritzkrieg” implying that the rich only fought for themselves.(3)
However, luxury – while surely not always shied away from – was not the only reason for Grand Hotels becoming important hubs of the London microcosm of émigrés. Many exiles either lived in hotels or else spent a lot of their time in hotels, using their restaurants for meetings and lobbyism. Grand Hotels offered more than accommodation, they provided resources foreign economic and political elites needed: space for social and professional gatherings, international press and telephone/wireless connections, and, not least, modern steel constructions which were considered safe refuge during air raids.
The British national commemoration of wartime London is mostly dominated by the Home Front and the British sacrifice. During the last years, however, the luxurious world of the Grand Hotels at wartime has fascinated wide audiences. Readers of the journalistic history “The West End Front” indulged in “The Wartime Secrets of London’s Grand Hotels”.(4)
“The Halcyon” caters to this interest, while also hoping to include a broader audience by combining the TV winning factors period drama (fancy dress!), war, love, secret and murder. After all, “Babylon Berlin”, employing a similar mix, was an international success and is currently going into its third season. However, the series “Halcyon” did not catch on and was cancelled after only the first season. Why, is to be discussed. Even though, it is a good first attempt to introduce the multinational aspects of the London microcosm and its war experience to a wider audience. Hopefully, more will follow.

References

(1) The Halcyon. Left Bank Pictures 2017, aired on ITV UK 2017.
(2) Definition according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
(3) The expression originating in: Michael Henry Barsley, Ritzkrieg. The old guard’s private war … Copiously and curiously illustrated by the author. Pilot Press: London 1940.
(4) Matthew Sweet, West End Front. Faber&Faber: London 2011;


OpenEdition suggests that you cite this post as follows:
Julia Eichenberg (January 13, 2020). Review: “The Halcyon”. How our research topic almost became a TV sensation. The London Moment. Retrieved July 18, 2024 from https://doi.org/10.58079/onma


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