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25 July 2022

The Newsreader: the authentic din of an 80s Aussie newsroom

This Australian drama, now on the BBC, is well-written, well-acted, and gorgeous to look at.

By Rachel Cooke

Oh, Lord. What a treat The Newsreader is. A person would have to be almost unimaginably flinty-hearted and lacking in taste not to enjoy this delicious Australian drama just a little bit. And because (ha!) I’m the polar opposite of both these things, every time I watch it, I feel as though I’m wrapped in a million-thread-count sheet. Obviously, it’s an enormous relief at this point to find a well-written, well-acted show that has nothing to do with crime, whether true or not – and please, let it stand as encouragement to commissioning editors everywhere. But there’s much more to its gorgeous, Poison-scented embrace than these things alone.

It manages to be so many things at once: a comedy, a love story, a pastiche, an homage, a soap. Come for the shoulder pads and the awful (but you like them really) songs by Mr Mister, Cutting Crew and Toto. Stay for the office politics, the rabid ambition and to revisit the news stories that shaped 1986: the Challenger disaster; the release from prison of Lindy “a dingo ate my baby!” Chamberlain; the meltdown at Chernobyl. If it looks great – think carefully labelled video tapes and outsize gold Trifari earrings – it sounds even better, its dialogue at once cartoony and horribly convincing (its writer is Michael Lucas). Here is the authentic din of the Eighties Aussie male, a low and unrelenting grunt that sends even the toughest woman running to her dressing room for a good blub.

But I’m running ahead of myself; I should turn off A-ha and concentrate. The series is set in the newsroom of an Australian TV network, a bitchy realm in which egos are somewhat of a problem. The flagship early-evening news programme is presented by the veteran anchor Geoff Walters (Robert Taylor) and the younger (and vastly more proficient) Helen Norville (Anna Torv), and here’s where all the trouble begins. The network would like Geoff to go; he is old and pompous, and when Helen isn’t around, the ratings drop like a stone in a well. But he’s determined to cling on, a limpet approach encouraged by his steely wife, Evelyn (Marg Downey).

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And what of Helen, so beloved of the audience, and so smoothly confident in front of the camera? “You parade around this place like you’re Barbara bloody Walters!” yells her snake of a boss, Lindsay (William McInnes). But the twist (spoiler alert) is that she’s not half so invincibly fierce as she seems. Behind her TV mask, she’s on the edge of a nervous breakdown. After a row in the office, she goes home and takes one too many pills – it’s the Eighties; Valium is almost as popular as Cabbage Patch dolls – only to be found comatose by a hapless junior reporter, Dale Jennings (Sam Reid), who calls at her house hoping to return her bag to her. What will Dale do, and how will Helen respond? Suffice to say that they forge a bond, the nature of which is both obvious and opaque, and thus keeps you wondering – is she? Is he? Are they? – for several episodes.

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The backstage newsroom stuff is beautifully done: the struggles with the autocue, the disastrous live links, the grisly sense of triumph that follows the successful delivery of tragic breaking stories. Management insists that news be palatable (even cheery, if possible) and non-boring; reporters want it to be vital and crusading. I like all the sharp elbows, everyone in the newsroom desperate to get their turn doing an update (the bulletins that run throughout the day). And I adore the big set-pieces, such as Geoff’s 60th birthday party, a black-tie event at which everyone dances in an authentically Eighties, bad-but-utterly-unembarrassed manner (the men all look a bit Miami Vice; Helen does something monstrous with her fringe that has Dale swooning at her sheer magnificence).

But it’s Torv and Reid, and the chemistry between them, that makes this show truly irresistible. They look right, and they sound right, and there’s something so touchingly sincere at the heart of their performances, in spite of the massive blow-dries. You’re on their side. You long for them to succeed. You want them never to miss their cue, to fumble their lines, to gaze for too long at the wrong camera.

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This article appears in the 27 Jul 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Special