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Drop the Dead Donkey is why I wanted to be a journalist

A rapid interface in the chin-wag department.

I  grew up in suburbia. My parents worked in offices. As a podgy, nerdy kid always picked last in games, I was never going to be a fireman or an astronaut or anything else that required my body to be anything more than the place I kept my mind. And so, I guess I always knew, I was destined to work in an office too.

Which was a problem, because offices are bloody boring. They’re bad enough now; they were worse before the age of the internet and social media, because you weren’t just bored, you were isolated. On work experience in the mid 1990s I spent three days reorganising a company’s filing system – not because they made me, because it was genuinely more interesting than anything else I could find to do. There were only so many rounds of Minesweeper a kid could play.

As with most forms of suburban mediocrity, of course, this comes under the heading of good problems to have, since very few people lose limbs or meet an early death thanks to catastrophic photocopying accidents: if you are in a position to whine about how dull your boring job is, that is, in itself, a form of class privilege. All the same, as much as I may have longed for the freedom of adult life, I was also slightly concerned I was going to be bored for most of it.

Until I saw Drop the Dead Donkey.

If you’ve never had the pleasure, Drop the Dead Donkey was a Channel 4 sitcom which ran for six seasons between 1990 and 1998. It was written by Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin, who’d later produce Outnumbered; it effectively launched the careers of several of its cast, including Stephen Tompkinson and Neil Pearson.

And it was set – this is where it gets kind of self indulgent; I am aware of the problem, I promise, but I’m in this now – in the media. The show took place in the news room of the fictional GlobeLink news.

Some of the show’s humour came from office politics. But much of it came from topical jokes: the scripts were written, and the episodes filmed, mere days before broadcast, and repeats required a voiceover explaining what was in the news at the time of original broadcast just so that viewers would have some vague chance of understanding what the jokes were referring to. (The setting, incidentally, explains the show’s apparently nonsensical title: it’s an example of the sort of thing the writers imagined might be yelled out in the last few moments before the news went on air. It was almost called “Dead Belgians Don’t Count”.)

There was much about life at GlobeLink News that didn’t look pleasant. In the first episode the company is taken over by Sir Roysten Merchant, a media mogul with suspiciously familiar initials, who pressures the editors to be more sensationalist and run fewer stories that might negatively affect his businesses.

We never actually see Sir Roysten: he appears once, to speak one line in the very last episode, but his views are made known via his right-hand man Gus, a walking LinkedIn account who speaks in a surprisingly creative stream of incomprehensible management-speak (“There is just something I’d like to pop into your percolator, see if it comes out brown.”)

All this, though, was rather better preparation for real life than I appreciated at the time, and there was a lot else about the show that made the media look like an interesting place to be. The way the staff were mostly clever, engaged people who sit around making jokes about the nation’s leaders. The energies they poured into, basically, trolling each other, with varying degrees of plausibility. (This will make no sense whatsoever if you’ve never seen the show, but for those who have, a personal favourite is: “‘Xylophone for sale’? Who put this here?”)

Then there was field reporter Damian Day’s habit of sexing up his footage of war zones or natural disasters by adding a battered child’s teddy bear to every pile of rubble (“This bear’s visited more disaster scenes than Margaret Thatcher! It’s the only cuddly toy to have taken part in the Iran-Iraq War!”).

Best of all, the thing I feared most about most about working life – being shut off from the world, isolated in a world of post-it notes and white boards – didn’t seem to apply. The show took place in an office; but it was an office where what happened in politics and the wider world mattered. It made working in journalism look fun.

As with most British sitcoms, most of the characters were utter wankers. But, as I watched Drop the Dead Donkey, I would find myself thinking: “That’s the kind of wanker I want to be.”

As a kid, your view of the world is tightly constrained, and your idea of what options might be open to you in adult life can be directly influenced by the books, TV or film you consume. There’s a generation of SpAds who got into politics in part because they wanted to live in The West Wing. I suspect there are lawyers out there, too, who grew up with John Grisham or thought it looked fun on The Good Wife. (This raises the interesting possibility that, somewhere in the world, there are guys who, inspired by The Wire and Breaking Bad, went onto a career in the exciting and lucrative illegal pharmaceuticals industry. But anyway.)

For me, though, it was Drop the Dead Donkey. It didn’t make me become a journalist. But, as Gus Hudges might say, it certainly put the idea in my mental microwave to see if it would defrost.

This is part of the New Statesman's look back at classic sitcoms from the 90s. You can find our takes on why Martin Crane's hideous chair was the true star of Frasier here​, and how Absolutely Fabulous is a reminder of pre-Brexit Britain here.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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Bertie Carvel's diary: What would the French think about infidelity to Doctor Foster?

The joy of debuting a new series, Rupert Murdoch's squeamishness and a sting in the tail.

According to the adage, the first thing an actor does when he gets a job is to go on holiday. And so, having finished our sold-out run of James Graham’s Ink at the Almeida and with the show (in which I play a young Rupert Murdoch) about to transfer into the West End, I’m packing my bags.

But before I can skip town, I’ve one more professional engagement: the press launch of series two of the BBC drama Doctor Foster, which we finished filming at Christmas. I’ve now seen the final cut of all five episodes, and I’m excited to share it with an audience. There’s no substitute for seeing other people’s reactions at first hand, especially with a show that got people talking so much first time around, and it’s electric to sit in a cinema full of expectant journalists and commentators and feel the room respond. Nothing beats this: to put so much into making a thing and then experience an audience’s unmediated, reflexive reaction. When it goes well, you feel that you’ve shared something, that you’ve all recognised something together about how things are. It’s a unifying feeling. A sort of bond.

Cheating spouses

Handling the interviews has been tricky, when there’s so little one can say without giving the plot away. (The first series began with Suranne Jones’s character Gemma, a GP, suspecting her husband Simon of having an affair.) What’s more, lots of the questions invite moral judgements that I’ve tried my best to avoid; I always think it’s really important not to judge the characters I play from outside, but simply to work out how they feel about themselves, to zero in on their point of view. There’s a sort of moral bloodlust around this show: it’s extraordinary. People seem to want to hear that I’ve been pilloried in the street, or expect me to put distance between myself and my character, to hang him out to dry as a pariah.

While I’m not in the business of defending Simon Foster any more than I’m in the business of attacking him, I am intrigued by this queer mixture of sensationalism and prurience that seems to surface again and again.

Shock horror

Oddly enough, it’s something that comes up in Ink: many people have been surprised to find that, in a story about the re-launch of the Sun newspaper in 1969 as a buccaneering tabloid, it’s the proprietor who considers dropping anchor when the spirit of free enterprise threatens to set his moral compass spinning.

I’ve never given it much thought before, but I suppose that sensationalism relies on a fairly rigid worldview for its oxygen – the SHOCKERS! that scream at us in tabloid headlines are deviations from a conventional idea of the norm. But what’s behind the appetite for this sort of story? Do we tell tales of transgression to reinforce our collective boundaries or to challenge them?

For me there’s a close kinship between good journalism and good drama. I’m reminded of the words of John Galsworthy, who wrote Strife, the play I directed last summer, and who felt that the writer should aim “to set before the public no cut-and-dried codes, but the phenomena of life and character, selected and combined, but not distorted, by the dramatist’s outlook, set down without fear, favour, or prejudice, leaving the public to draw such poor moral as nature may afford”.

So when it comes to promoting the thing we’ve made, I’m faced with a real conundrum: on the one hand I want it to reach a wide audience, and I’m flattered that there’s an appetite to hear about my contribution to the process of making it; but on the other hand I think the really interesting thing about the work is contained in the work itself. I’m always struck, in art galleries, by how much more time people spend reading the notes next to the paintings than looking at the paintings themselves. I’m sure that’s the wrong way around.

Insouciant remake

En route to the airport the next morning I read that Doctor Foster is to be adapted into a new French version. It’s a cliché verging on racism, but I can’t help wondering whether the French will have a different attitude to a story about marital infidelity, and whether the tone of the press coverage will differ. I wonder, too, whether, in the home of Roland Barthes, there is as much space given to artists to talk about what they’ve made – in his 1967 essay, “The Death of the Author”, Barthes wrote that “a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination”.

No stone unturned

Touring the villages of Gigondas, Sablet and Séguret later that evening, I’m struck by the provision of espaces culturels in seemingly every commune, however small. The French certainly give space to the work itself. But I also notice a sign warning of a chat lunatique, so decide to beat a hasty retreat. Arriving at the house where I’m staying, I’ve been told that the key will be under a flowerpot. Lifting each tub in turn, and finally a large flat stone by the door, I find a small scorpion, but no key. I’m writing this at a table less than a yard away so let’s hope there won’t be a sting in this tale.

Ink opens at the Duke of York Theatre, London, on 9 September. More details: almeida.co.uk

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear