Fictional newsrooms have always been more glamorous than the reality

Sorkin's The Newsroom isn't alone in sexing up the day-to-day grind of journalism on screen.

The Newsroom has faced a mixed reception, but it’s the latest in a long line of dramas to use journalism as a stage for drama. Here are some other attempts to render the business of newsgathering into entertaining stories, with variable results...

One of the problems about The Newsroom is its immediate comparison to a host of other attempts to show "the lives behind the anchors". Network (1976) and Broadcast News (1987) are two of the most obvious examples, and without them there probably wouldn’t have been Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, an improvised adventure set at San Diego’s KVWN channel. The strict “I love lamp” adherence to autocue, the catty male vs female anchor, the jazz flute... It had it all. Was it a fair reflection of a newsroom, as a bunch of socially inept misfits with monstrous egos all attempting to fight one another? Maybe closer than you might think.

Will Ferrell as Ron Burgundy in "Anchorman".

A lot of that groundwork had been covered by Channel 4’s hit-and-miss Drop the Dead Donkey, a show that aimed to provide topical comedy and sitcom in one hit. Something had to give, and it was the satire that didn’t quite come off, though the hastily-filmed last-minute jokes must have provided something of the thrill of a real newsroom on deadline. It did provide some wonderfully cynical moments, though, with

The newsroom from "Drop the Dead Donkey".

In terms of print journalism, All the President’s Men is the obvious place to go, but the more fictional offices of the Daily Planet are worth a closer look, from the first (and only good) Superman films. The seething chemistry between Margot Kidder’s crabby reporter Lois Lane and Christopher Reeve’s folksy alien hack was really something special. Watch this scene and you’ll enjoy not only the interplay between Reeve, Kidder and Jackie Cooper but also the rather quaint newspaper atmosphere:

“It’s got everything, it’s got sex, it’s got violence, it’s got the ethnic angle” says Lois, pitching her story idea to editor Perry White. “You’re pushing a bunch of rinkydink tabloid garbage,” sighs White. An editor with principles! A rare breed indeed.

My favourite depiction of Fleet Street – and it really was Fleet Street – is in 1961’s The Day The Earth Caught Fire. It’s a story that probably seems entirely implausible today, given that the conceit rests on the Daily Express (yes, the Daily Express) honestly reporting a genuine catastrophe (rather than, say, catastrophising a slightly drizzly afternoon, as is the case in 2012).

The presses roll in "The Day The Earth Caught Fire".

It jars slightly in another way: the journalists are heroes, not the sneaky phonehacking lowlife we know they all are (all of them, without exception) nowadays. It’s the honest hacks who are the ones trying to get the truth out while the powers that be attempt to conceal it. Filmed in the Express offices, it captures an era that won’t ever return: the crossword compositor perched in front of his grid of letters, a giant sign demanding “IMPACT!” hanging from the ceiling, and the presses actually rolling within a hundred miles of the people writing the news. Those were the days.

But those of us who are of a certain age see only one thing when they think of a TV newsroom – Press Gang. The simmering sexual frisson between Julia Sawalha and Dexter Fletcher! The fact they somehow managed to produce an entire newspaper – The Junior Gazette – every week despite having no feasible form of revenue! The way they were barely out of school but managed to scoop all other news outlets! The weird flashbacks and dream sequences!

Julia Sawalha in "Press Gang".

But my god, it was glamorous. If you didn’t have a yen to be a hack after watching five minutes of that, you never would. It was certainly what made me want to become a journalist, back in the day. One day, I told myself, I would work in a place like that, where young people wore CASUAL CLOTHING and REPORTED on PROPER NEWS and all that.

Of course, reality wasn’t quite the same. My first newsroom was a tin shack in the middle of a horrible industrial estate, with water gushing in through the ceiling and over the electrical cables. One false move and you’d be zapped across the banks of slumbering corduroy-covered subs and impaled on a giant metal spike (which hadn’t yet been outlawed by the elfnsafety killjoys). Did we have two-hour lunches though? Yes, we did. At least in those days there was a healthily tolerant attitude towards drinking in the workplace, which has sadly never quite been replicated on screen.

The stories weren’t quite as fun, mind. There wasn’t much challenging authority and sticking it to the man with a last-minute deadline: it was all tedious nibs about craft fairs, school fetes and overgrown front gardens (leading to the memorable front-page headline "OAPs TRAPPED BY 3FT LAWN").

No wonder we’re a little more drawn to the less realistic, more glamorous, more exciting side of newsgathering when it comes to dramas. Give me the fake newsroom world with its huge egos and lingering sexual tension rather than the reality of tedious copied-and-pasted press releases any day...

 

The Newsroom's anchor, played by Jeff Daniels. Image: HBO.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media

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The amazing lawnmower man

How ex-bank manager Clive Gravett became obsessed with Edwin Beard Budding, the inventor of the lawnmower.

It’s midday in the Museum of Gardening. Clive Gravett, the founder, curator and owner of most of the exhibits here, is pondering a relatively unimportant item in his collection: a glass tube, about a foot long. “Blown glass,” says Gravett, leaning in close, “so it’s probably early Victorian.” This, he explains to a curious visitor, is the work of George Stephenson, the “father of railways” and inventor of an early miner’s safety lamp. It’s a device for straightening cucumbers.

Stephenson’s triumphs are listed on a plaque nearby, but this museum, located in a corner of a garden centre in Hassocks, West Sussex, is one of few places on Earth where a luminary of Stephenson’s stature must stand in the shadow of a more exceptional figure. The Museum of Gardening is a shrine to Gravett’s hero Edwin Beard Budding, who in 1830 made one of the great intellectual leaps of the 19th century. He invented the lawnmower.

Budding was one of those bright-eyed tinkerers so common in the 1800s – a “machinist”, according to his epitaph. Legend has it that he was sitting one day at a cloth-cutting apparatus, watching a bladed cylinder travel over wool and cleanly remove the nap. He glanced out of the window to where men were working a lawn with scythes, and had a sudden moment of inspiration. Surely this cutting cylinder could be used just as easily on grass as on cloth?

In that instant, the lawnmower was born. “And it’s barely changed to this day,” explains Gravett, a sinewy man in his early sixties with icy blue eyes that thaw when he gets excited. “Compare it to the fine-turf mowers of today. It’s the same thing. You have a roller, a cutting cylinder, and a drive. That’s his design.”

Gravett was destined to fall for Budding. The son of farm labourers, he wanted to follow his father into horticulture. “I planned to stay on the farm but my mother said, ‘You don’t want to end up like us, living on tithed property.’ She gave me a bit of a push.” Instead, he went into banking and – smart, energetic and blessed with an unforced quirkiness – rose to be branch manager.

“Thirty-five years later I was very disillusioned,” he says. “I’d seen a lot of colleagues waylaid by stress, and I thought: ‘No, you’re not going to do that to me.’ We got our branch to the top of the list and I resigned, and accused [then RBS chief executive] Fred Goodwin of corporate bullying in my resignation letter.”

He then started up a small horticultural business. It was while tending the gardens of a retired solicitor in Ditchling that he discovered four old mowers in the garage. “He said he wanted to dump them,” Gravett remembers. “I took them away, found there was an old lawnmower club, and it went from there.”

Gravett is cagey about how many lawnmowers he owns, but it’s somewhere around a hundred. That’s not many, he suggests, given that antique lawnmowers are hardly pricey. It might seem excessive, though, given that there’s no lawn on his property. Many of his mowers reside at the museum. They are huge and bulky and strangely insectoid in the 19th century, with motors coming in about 1904, and then the weight drops away until the Flymo arrives in the 1960s – a gorgeous piece of domestic futurism, more manta ray than machine. “A lot of collectors are quite funny about Flymos,” he observes.

Gravett loves to talk about the magic of restoring a lawnmower. “Some Ransomes mowers can be difficult to date,” he says, “until you strip the cutting blade back to the metal and see 1907 or 1911, and you’re the first person to see that since it was put together.” His real passion, however, is research. It’s the research that brought him to Budding.

Born in 1796, the illegitimate son of a farmer (“his mother was probably the housemaid”), Budding was a clever child, training in carpentry and then engineering. As well as the lawnmower, he designed an early pepper-box pistol, and in the 1840s, a few years before his death, he invented the screw-adjustable spanner. None of these made him much money: they arrived too early. His lawnmower was so ahead of its time that he had to test it at night – “possibly because of prying eyes”, Gravett says, laughing, “but possibly because people would think he was stupid”.

Today, Gravett remembers Budding though his museum and charity, the Budding Foundation, which supports young people across education, training and sport. He is still looking out for lawnmowers, and urges everybody he meets to check their shed for forgotten treasure.

There is one machine he doesn’t have in his collection: a Budding. “Nobody has a Budding,” he sighs. “He probably made a few thousand, but the wars gobbled up scrap metal. Even so, I like to think one might be found.”

But Gravett managed to get close to his hero a few years ago when he took a trip to Dursley in Gloucestershire, where Budding is buried. “Nobody had written about his grave, so I decided to find it. I researched the churchyard, and the council provided me with a map to the plots.” The border fence had been moved twenty years earlier after six graves were taken away. When he found Budding’s plot, it was right up against the new fence. “We’re lucky we didn’t lose him.”

The grave, like Budding’s legacy, showed signs of neglect. It was overgrown and covered with brambles. Gravett lights up at the memory. “I cleared all the brambles off, and then, since I happened to have a 100-year-old lawnmower in the back of the truck, I hefted it over the fence.

“I mowed as close as I could to his resting place.” 

This article first appeared in the 05 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain