“I know that people are going to compare her character to Jana”
Any similarity to actual persons is purely coincidental, Michael Lucas says of his 1980s TV newsroom.
Now hear this.
“Helen Norville” (Anna Torv) in ABC’s 1980s drama The Newsreader is not Jana Wendt.
Of course, if you happen to see any similarities -or to other personalities of the past- then creator Michael Lucas is kinda ok with that too….
It’s not for legal reasons that he makes the distinction, but because the characters are genuinely an amalgam crafted from multiple research conversations.
“I know that people are going to compare Anna’s character to Jana, but the character is very volatile off camera and I don’t know what Jana was like,” he tells TV Tonight.
“I’ve got a bit out of Marg Downey, who portrayed Jana during that time, and everything I hear is that Jana was a very immaculately-composed, very balanced person, which Anna’s character is not at all! I’m not directly telling anyone’s story. But I’m hoping that there’s enough recognisable elements.”
Nor is News At Six based on TEN Eyewitness News. Although….
“We take the Frontline approach. You know it’s a commercial network, but we don’t ever directly specify it. I think it’s fair to say that out of all of the networks that we’ve looked at, and used as reference, we probably have hit closer to the TEN Eyewitness News in the 80s in terms of the set and the look.
“I think of 10 as the David Johnston / Jo Pearson era. A lot of their clips are there on YouTube, it’s a real goldmine. But also 10 got most of the Russell Street bombing, because their offices were very close to it. Jennifer Hansen was one of the reporters on the scene.”
The six part series features Sam Reid (Lambs of God, The Hunting) as a diligent young reporter, desperate to become a newsreader. Anna Torv (Secret City, Mindhunter, Fringe) features as the notoriously ‘difficult’ star newsreader determined to build credibility. Their story unfolds in a blokey network newsroom against a backdrop of 1980s news events, from the Challenger explosion, to Lindy Chamberlain and a growing AIDS crisis.
Lucas (Five Bedrooms, Offspring) won’t say whom he spoke to in researching the series, but admits to hearing industry stories that shocked him.
“Some of the stories that I heard from people that were there for decades, I have had to pare back. They were pretty sexist, racist, homophobic workplaces. There was a lot of casual harassment. If I had directly translated some of those stories, I think a contemporary audience would be like, ‘Are you kidding?'” he insists.
“It’s eye popping stuff.”
“We’re not shying away from the sexism, racism, and misogyny, but some of the expressions that you hear in the researching are so startling. It’s almost hard to believe for a contemporary audience that a woman could be treated in a workplace in that way. It’s eye popping stuff.”
The idea for the series grew from Lucas’ interest in exploring themes before it was rooted in a 1980s newsroom.
“An image of masculinity that he had to try and live up to”
“I wanted to write something about a young man who felt there was an image of masculinity he had to try and live up to, which wasn’t a good fit for him. That felt like a personal story to me. I thought it could be funny, tragic and dramatic. I even had the relationship with Anna Torv’s character before I had the news setting. I worked on it for about a year.
“I always knew I was going to set in the ’80s and then at a certain point, I thought, ‘What if he wants to be a lead newsreader?'”
Along the way he explores old / new presenting styles with Robert Taylor (Longmire, Ballykissangel, Wolf Creek, The Matrix) as a veteran presenter who rejects Helen’s more ’emotional’ approach to reading the news.
“Robert Taylor’s character believes that the newsreader should never be the story.”
“Robert Taylor’s character believes that the newsreader should never be the story. So whilst her character courts publicity, he finds that offensive. But also her character emotionally engages a bit more with the stories in a way that he finds troublesome,” he continues.
“We got a vocal coach from the era and we had to sharply define his vocal style, versus the more relaxed style that she has.”
The cast also features Stephen Peacocke, Marg Downey, Chum Ehelepola, Michelle Lim Davidson, Chai Hansen and as a blustering news boss, William McInnes.
“William is terrifying!”
“William is terrifying! Every bit of research I had suggested that those news directors were yellers.
“He knows the era so well. At one point he was giving Rob’s character a trip to Conrad Jupiters on the Gold Coast. We had researched the floorshow and it was Danny LaRue. He had this whole spiel about ‘You’ve got to go up there to see this performer!’ I’m shocked at how much fun he seems to be having.
“The fact that we began this in the pandemic also meant that so many people were home, and no-one was doing theatre.
“Almost every single one of them I feel is doing something that they haven’t done before.”
Filming of the news studio took place at NEP Studios in South Melbourne (formerly home to Dancing with the Stars, Deal or No Deal, Man O Man) while the newsroom offices were located in an abandoned factory in Brooklyn, west of Melbourne.
If it finds an audience Lucas is hopeful of a second season exploring more of the murky world of TV power, gender politics and real world news events.
“I’d love it to be! I mean, we still bring it to a satisfying crescendo. I hope that that emotional relationship is satisfying in and of itself. But there’s heaps of opportunity,” he teases.
“There’s a lot of things that we’ve saved…”
The Newsreader airs 8:30pm Sunday on ABC.