The Newsreader

Brilliant performances & storytelling bring to life a fascinating but scary era of television and headline news.

If you were there in the ’80s, you will have so much fun watching The Newsreader.

If not, ABC’s new drama will be a revelation as to how television news was made with clunky satellite links, mangled tapes and screaming news directors whose fortunes were won and lost on ratings numbers and what the bosses “upstairs” dictated (what’s changed?).

Michael Lucas’ 6 part essay on the inner workings of a fictional News at 6 newsroom is part workplace drama and part news events time capsule. But they mingle together deliciously.

Careers rise and fall around the Challenger Disaster, Halley’s Comet, Lindy Chamberlain, Russell St. bombing, AIDS crisis and Chernobyl -all of them in 1986. Like Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom real-world events are the backdrop to the characters’ arcs, but this time they centre around a torrid relationship between rising reporter Dale Jennings (Sam Reid) and ambitious news anchor Helen Norville (Anna Torv).

Both work under Head of News Lindsay Cunningham (William McInnes), a terrible tyrant who barks orders from his desk, demeaning anybody who gets in his way -especially Helen whose modern style and challenging personality grates.

“I’ve got 20 girls just like you ready to go tomorrow!” he yells.

Then there is veteran anchor Geoff Walters (Robert Taylor) whose presenting style is never to emote or upstage the news itself. Sharing the desk with Helen, who manages to convey feeling and drama with her delivery, tests his place in the evolving world of television. Yet his society wife Evelyn (Marg Downey) is even more demanding and manipulative.

In the middle of it all is Dale, a smart if sometimes awkward young reporter, trying to land good stories and leapfrog in this very messy hierarchy.

News boss Lindsay initially dismisses his ambitions with a savage critique.

“When the camera goes on a particular sort of person, the viewers feels very secure. Look at Helen.
You put a lens on her, she connects. But other people? Nothin!” he insists.

Dale soon bonds with Helen in a tryst of convenience, but there is more to this than meets the eye…

The newsroom is also home to Chief of Staff Dennis (Chum Ehelepola), Autocue Operator Noelene (Michelle Lim Davidson), Sports Reporter Rob (Stephen Peacocke) and Cameraman Tim (Chai Hansen). Production designer Melinda Doring has perfectly rooted them in boring brown, overflowing ashtrays and box monitors, matched by retro costumes, hairstyles and 80s songs.

Anna Torv’s character may be reminiscent of Jana Wendt, at least in her on camera persona, but visually I was reminded of former 10 presenter Annette Allison. Sam Reid handles the nuances of his rudderless reporter with aplomb, and the more the series goes on the more you will appreciate this balancing act.

William McInnes is sensational as the bullying boss and it was particularly pleasing to see Marg Downey allowed to show her dramatic subtlety as the woman behind the TV star. Award nominations to come…

All of Lucas’ references to Ray Martin, Harry M. Miller, 60 Minutes and chequebook journalism demonstrate insight into a ferocious era, but one brimming in misogyny, racism and homophobia. These make the ride brilliantly entertaining and scary all at the same time.

You’ll probably laugh and cringe in equal measure, and be thankful we have moved on. I think.

The Newsreader airs 8:30pm Sunday on ABC

10 Responses

  1. Almost everything about the landscape of TV news in the 80s is wrong – including the notion of a female newsreader struggling for survival. The 80s was when almost every news program appointed a female newsreader to work alongside the male readers who had been there since the beginning of TV. Some were experienced journalists, most were not (they were typically young and chosen for their looks – rightly or wrongly). The male readers were not threatened by them, as in The Newsreader, because they were seen as valuable assets – decades of audience recognition and the authority that came with it – like Brian Henderson and his many equivalents. They were also not typically crusty old journos. They were mostly “announcers”, there because they had great voices and projected a sense of authority (again, see Hendo and his equivalents). And no newsreader anywhere had the kind of clout to make the kind of demands Helen makes. From an historical POV, The Newsreader is 90% hogwash.

  2. I was not disappointed, I loved every minute of The Newsreader and can’t wait for the next episode. And, comments about politically correct, ethnically diverse casting are unfair. In fact, it didn’t seem far off the mark at all. I was there, freelancing around the networks and TV was breaking out of the bad old 60’s and 70’s. I mean, for starters, Trish Goddard hosted The 730 report and Stan Grant hosted Real Life. It was the beginning. And, who’s to say this show isn’t a representation of all the Aussie news rooms back then? And that would include SBS and Auntie. It’s a pretty small office, so more likely SBS than anything else. Anyway, whatever, it’s bloody great TV and I’m loving it.

    1. … yes, well … 7.30 Report is ABC and Real Life didn’t start until 1992 … but yes, the show is more a representation of an ABC news room in 1986 than commercial (I worked in both) … for example most metro commercial newsrooms had adopted computers by that time, only the ABC (due to union industrial action) kept using typewriters until the end of the decade … but I agree, who cares, it’s only fiction!!!

  3. “… and be thankful we have moved on. I think.”
    I loved the show and obviously haven’t moved on much at all. My (current) bedside clock radio looks like Dale’s.
    My only criticism is the over-representation of non-white characters which is not authentic for a 1980s newsroom. I guess neither Screen Victoria nor the ABC would have funded the show otherwise.

    1. Your comment about non-white characters is interesting Roger, but let’s not forget that viewers born in the late 80’s wouldn’t know much about 70’s-80’s Australian culture so probably wouldn’t have noticed. The same could be said about having a Black British Monarch in Bridgerton, as historically inaccurate as it was the character creatively suited the stylized production.

      1. … your comment about Bridgerton is interesting JamieL, particularly as it calls itself a “period drama” which is defined as “a drama set in a particular historical period” (Source: Collins) … so, by that definition, it isn’t a period drama at all … The Newsreader doesn’t make that claim, which is probably a good thing because there were so many inaccuracies contained in the first episode … but who cares, as long as it does its job of providing an entertaining hour of television (which it largely did) there’s no real reason to get picky about the historical clangers … I rather suspect that US legal offices don’t carry on like they depict in The Good Fight either, but it’s my favorite piece of satire …

  4. I am so excited about this series. The 80’s news and current affairs game was such fun, both the watch and to make. We worked hard and played even harder. Can’t wait to relive the glory days…after The Block, of course. Thank you Auntie!

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