The Halcyon takes place against the backdrop of 1940s London, when luxury hotels served as opulent havens from the chaos of World War II. The show traces the intervening lives of those that wind up in its namesake, shuffling between the wealthy elite that rent out its rooms and the ragtag support staff that wait on them. But while it's certainly a vivid picture of a decade past, is it an authentic one? Is The Halcyon a true story?
The series itself is fictional, but it has rich historical roots, harkening back to a very real time in which British aristocrats flocked to upscale hotels as refuge from the war. There, they could continue their lavish lives away from the rationing and looming bombs, indulging in the fine dining and extravagant soirees that had long defined high society England. According to the Radio Times, historical figures like British statesman Winston Churchill and French general Charles de Gaulle were known to frequent such places for lunch, while displaced royals including the Queen of the Netherlands, the Kings of Norway and Denmark, and the Albanian royal family temporarily lived there. In fact, Halcyon star Olivia Williams told TV Insider that when she signed on to the show, her grandmother-in-law recalled her own memories from WWII-era London. She explained:
“London was a very, very drab and depressing place in the war time, and then you go through the doors of these hotels and they’d be bright and sparkling and people were dancing and drinking. My husband’s grandmother, who died at the age of 101 last year, she described going to this dance hall called the Hammersmith Palais and dancing away. And when an air raid siren would go [off], they’d either get under the tables or keep dancing. It really was people dancing to defy falling bombs."
That accuracy is due, in large part, to The Halcyon team's research. Producer Chris Croucher (Downton Abbey, Broadchurch) told The Telegraph that they have a full-time historic researcher who works with their script editors and writers to make sure everything is true to life — "within reason," he said, because it's still television; sometimes they need that dramatic flair. They also toured many of the hotels still standing from that time and read old transcripts from former guests, as well as worked closely with an archivist from The Savoy, Britain’s first luxury hotel and one of London's most celebrated landmarks. It — among others like The Ritz, which opened in 1910, and The Goring, a family owned Edwardian hotel — helped inspire the hotel at the heart of the story. Plus, Croucher revealed that some of the characters were also loosely inspired by real people. "Joe O’Hara has elements of Edward Murrow and Charity does have a whiff of the Mitford sisters about her," he continued to The Telegraph.
What's fictional, then, is the sex, secrets, and betrayal that fuel The Halcyon's storylines, though it's not difficult to imagine similar scenarios playing out within the hotel's close-quarter confines. The series features an ensemble cast of over 20 actors, including hotel owner Lord Hamilton (Alex Jennings); his wife, the formidable Lady Priscilla Hamilton (Williams); his son, Freddie (Jamie Blackley); general manager Richard Garland (Steven Mackintosh); housekeeper Lillian Hobbs (Annabelle Apsion); head concierge Dennis Feldman (Mark Benton); and a stream of guests, porters, housekeepers, cooks, musicians, and other employees.
Already, the show has drawn early comparisons toThe West Wing and Downton Abbey, but Croucher told the Telegraph that it's much "sexier" and "fast-paced." So, from the sounds of it, The Halcyon is a deft blend of real-life history and imaginative scandal — just enough truth to make it feel authentic, but a dash of fiction to give it a modern kick. See how the balancing act plays out when The Halcyon premieres Oct. 2 at 10 p.m. ET.