Ben Wishaw and Romola Garai as idealistic journalists Freddie and Bel

There is something in the way that Romola Garai is eating a cheese sandwich that suggests this is not your typical A-list actress. The sandwich is a resolutely unstarry one – ordinary sliced bread with a cheddar filling – but Garai is demolishing it with a kind of gusto that is rarely witnessed in interviews.

Many actresses would not dare eat during an interview, too worried about the blob of mayonnaise on their chin appearing in print, but Garai has no such qualms. In between the enthusiastic bites of sandwich – and now handfuls of crisps – she is talking passionately on subjects ranging from gender politics and the Middle East, to feminism and 19th-century English literature.

Garai, 28, may be one of Britain’s most talented actresses, heart-stoppingly beautiful and doing the best work of her career, but she is not one to stand on ceremony – hence the sandwich. She is unselfconscious, forthright and clever. And after years of being touted as ‘the next big thing’ she is now, well, huge.

She has only just left our screens as Sugar, the lead role in the BBC drama The Crimson Petal and the White, and she’s back again, leading another BBC2 blockbuster drama, The Hour, which starts next month.

The Hour, written by the Bafta award-winner Abi Morgan, is set in a BBC television studio in 1956, the time of the Suez Crisis, and captures the dawning of a new era of television news. Garai plays Bel Rowley, a producer battling to carve out a groundbreaking news programme, whom Abi Morgan describes as having ‘the beauty of Lauren Bacall, the wit of Katharine Hepburn, and the spirit of Rosalind Russell’.

Dominic West plays the show’s vain presenter, and Ben Whishaw its investigative reporter (and West’s rival for Bel’s affections). It is a brilliant mix of espionage thriller, politics, lush period drama and soap opera.

‘Bel is such a great character,’ Garai says, taking another bite of sandwich. ‘She was a huge draw to me. It is quite hard to find those kinds of parts for women. Abi’s a great writer and it’s an amazing period of history. The Suez Crisis, especially in terms of the parallels with what’s happening in the Middle East at the moment, well, I found it absolutely gripping – it’s the Cold War but not the Cold War as we know it.’

Because it is set in the 1950s and has such forensic attention to detail (the telex machine in the newsroom actually works), The Hour has already been compared with Mad Men, the American television series that single-handedly sparked a mania for all things mid-century. In fact, it feels more reminiscent of film noir. Although she is a fan of Mad Men, Garai is not sure our current love affair with the 1950s is entirely positive.

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