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

Donmar Warehouse
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Limehouse raises the question of when party loyalty becomes political irresponsibility

Labour's “Gang of Four” are brought to life brilliantly at the Donmar Warehouse.

A star of the Labour Party right wing, exiled from the shadow cabinet for deviating from the dominant orthodoxy, rants about how a decent but weak Labour leader, with an election-losing anti-European, anti-nuclear manifesto, risks letting the prime minister get away with whatever she wants.

Laughter shows that the audience gets what the dramatist Steve Waters is up to. Limehouse takes place on 25 January 1981, when a gentle veteran, Michael Foot, seems to be leading Labour to such sure oblivion at the next election that Dr David Owen has summoned his fellow moderates Shirley Williams, Bill Rodgers and (just back from a stint running Europe) Roy Jenkins to Sunday lunch in his kitchen in east London. This meeting led the “Gang of Four”, as they became known, to make a statement of estrangement from Labour that heralded the creation of the Social Democratic Party.

Waters was inspired by a New Statesman interview in which Rodgers wondered if the left-right divide under Jeremy Corbyn might justify a similar evacuation of the pragmatists now. The debates that the play stages – fidelity to party and national tribes against a fear of political and historical irrelevance – feel hotly topical.

Williams, considering an offer to abandon Labour and teach at Harvard, faced then the dilemma of an Ed Balls or Tristram Hunt now. And Labour members today who fantasise about a new progressive grouping might reflect that, while the SDP briefly seemed a plausible alternative to Thatcherism (winning 7.8 million votes at the 1983 election), the middle-class revolution was squeezed externally by two-party domination and internally by disputes over leadership and direction.

But, for all the parallel relevance, the success of Limehouse ultimately depends on the convincing re-creation of an era and its people. Enjoyable period details include the luxury macaroni cheese to a recipe by Delia Smith that Debbie Owen, Delia’s literary agent, chops and fries on stage to fuel her husband’s discussions with his three wary comrades. Waters also skilfully uses the mechanics of a pre-digital world – having to go out for newspapers, going upstairs to answer a phone – to get one character out of the way to allow others to talk about them.

As a good playwright should, Waters votes for each character in turn. Owen, though teased for vanity and temper, is allowed a long speech that honours his status as one of the most memorable orators in modern British politics. Tom Goodman-Hill samples Owen’s confident baritone without going the whole Rory Bremner.

Playing Jenkins, a man celebrated for both a speech defect and rococo cadences, Roger Allam has no choice but to deliver the voice perfectly, which he does. Waters carefully gives the character an early riff about the “crepuscular greyness” of Brussels, allowing Allam to establish the w-sounds and extravagant adjectives. Actor and playwright also challenge the assumption that for Jenkins both to love fine wine and to advocate social justice was inevitably a contradiction.

Debra Gillett refreshingly avoids the scattiness that caricaturists attribute to Williams, stressing instead her large brain and deep soul, in a portrayal that increases the sense of shame that the Tories should lead Labour 2-0 in the score of female prime ministers. As Rodgers (in Beatles terms, the Ringo of the confab four), Paul Chahidi touchingly suggests a politician who knows that he will always be a bag-man but still agonises over whose luggage to carry.

Unfolding over 100 minutes, Polly Findlay’s production has a lovely rhythm, staging the delayed entrances of Jenkins and Williams for maximum impact. Biodramas about the living or recently dead can be hobbled by a need to negotiate objections of tact or fact. Politicians, however, often purchase even the rudest cartoons of themselves for the loo wall, and the real Owen, Williams and Rodgers laughed warmly during, and strongly applauded after, the first night.

At an impromptu press conference afterwards, a genial and generous Owen astutely observed that what at the time was “a very happy day in our house” has been dramatised as tragicomedy. But, regardless of whether Marx was right about history repeating itself the second time as farce, the possibility that farce is being repeated in Labour Party history has encouraged a compelling play that is sublimely enjoyable but also deeply serious – on the question of when loyalty to party can become disloyalty to political responsibility.

“Limehouse” runs until 15 April

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution