News media · Public affairs · Reviews

Golden age of newspapers recalled in The Post, a film that could not be set today

Every journalist brought up admiring Woodward and Bernstein will be seeing The Post, though of course, this film is set (just) before Watergate, and features Washington Post publisher Katherine Graham (Meryl Streep) and editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) rather than America’s most famous reporting duo.

The film is about an important footnote to America’s war in Vietnam, the 1971 newspaper scoop-publication of the so-called Pentagon Papers, a secret Defense Department true history of successive American government machinations in that hopeless war. The documents were leaked first to the New York Times, and then the Washington Post, by military analyst Daniel Ellsberg, whose pyschiatrist’s office was later infamously burgled by Richard Nixon’s “plumbers” (the leak-fixers behind the 1972 burglary of the Democratic National Committee offices in Washington DC’s Watergate complex).

Hanks and Streep play Bradlee and Graham much as I remember them from books and their reputation at the time, as being the stubborn newspaper editor wanting to bring his “small-town” paper to national prominence, and the proud establishment proprietor of a family firm.  Their close working relationship and the challenge that taking on the power of the state means for both the company’s finances and freedom to publish is the heart of this film. The film also references Bradlee’s close relationship with John F Kennedy (they met every week till his death) and Lyndon Johnson, which had given the Post the whiff of being a Democratic Party mouthpiece, accusations still thrown by conservatives against America’s traditional liberal newspapers.

But what leapt from the screen for me was the film’s stunningly accurate recreation of the newspaper world I began working in in the late-1970s and which is now long gone; the clattering typewriters, the rows of chain-smoking reporters yelling into telephones at their paper-piled desks under fluorescent lights, the Lamson (pneumatic) tubes that whooshed canisters holding the paper pages of typewritten stories from the news desk to the printers down below; and above all, the clanking ancient Linotype machines that cast newspaper stories (yes, type-cast!) line by line in hot lead for fitting in the big metal page frames from which printing plates were made. And, oh what an experience, the rumble and shaking of the whole building as the huge presses built up speed to thunder out tens of thousands of thick, inky newspapers an hour.

Hanks Post linotypeTom Hanks as Ben Bradlee, posed beside a Linotype machine.

I don’t pine for those days; today’s technology is superior, cheaper and produces a better physical product, let alone the online access. But The Post reinforced for me that the film is set in what really were the golden years of newspapers, years when newspapers, routinely,  actually broke very big news stories, when most households in most Western countries had the paper delivered not just daily, but every morning and afternoon. An era when politicians respected, and sometimes feared, the power of the press rather than manipulated it with photo-ops and sound bites. I became a journalist near that era’s end, but at least I was part of it before the decline.

Nixon’s White House took the New York Times and the Washington Post to the Supreme Court to try to stop publication of the Pentagon Papers. The court ruled six to three that the First Amendment (“Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press”) trumped the desire of a government to keep its deepest secrets secret.

Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black famously wrote in his judgement on the case: “In the First Amendment the Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfill its essential role in our democracy. The press was to serve the governed, not the governors.”

It all seems so quaint in this new age of a news media world-wide mostly obsessed with clickbait, celebrities and bread and circuses.

Doctor Who · Reviews

Review: Four to Doomsday still a great classic Who 35 years on

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The Doctor had three companions with him in the Tardis in 1982; from left Peter Davison, Adric (Matthew Waterhouse, Tegan (Janet Fielding, who seemed never to change out of her air hostess uniform, first worn in the final Tom Baker story Logopolis) and Nyssa (Sarah Sutton).  Producer John Nathan-Turner felt the Doctor plus three was a crowded house, but Davison insisted Sutton remain rather than being written out in Four to Doomsday.

Some “classic” Doctor Who stories have not dated well. Some remain very good. One is Four to Doomsday (January 1982), which I’ve just re-watched. It’s the first Fifth Doctor — Peter Davison — story filmed, though not the first screened (that was Castrovalva, which is not as good).

Davison took a break from playing Tristan Farnon in All Creatures Great and Small to play the Doctor for three years, afterwards returning to the Yorkshire Dales. He played the Time Lord as a boyish, cricket-loving Englishman (!) much like the Tristan character. He was recruited by long-time Who producer John Nathan-Turner, who’d also worked on All Creatures.

It’s a dramatic story with good acting and very good sets and special effects for the time, when Doctor Who was hilariously noted for cardboard props as alien worlds and flying kettles as space ships, such was its low budget from its 1963 start till its 1989 hiatus. In the story, the Tardis lands in a gigantic Earth-bound craft controlled by the Monarch of Urbanka (played by Stratford Johns of Z Cars and Softly Softly fame), who intends to take over our planet after he had mined and polluted his own to destruction.

The latter was a Global Warming plot reference six years before Nasa’s James Hansen created this still very current “we’re all doomed” scenario. The story cites an ozone hole (the Antarctic one was of big concern in 1982) on Monarch’s home planet as the final cause of Urbanka’s ruin, burning it to cinders.

Aboard the Monarch’s ship are four people, at first sight apparently humans kidnapped by Monarch during past visits to Earth over thousands of years—ancient Greek philosopher Bigon; Chinese Mandarin Lin Futu; Mayan princess Villagra; and Kurkutji, an Australian Aborigine.

The latter was played by Ilario Bisi-Pedro, who appears to have been a Black British actor about whom little information exists. Though the part was sympathetically portrayed, I doubt a non-Aborigine would be allowed to play one today without an uproar. At the time, the BBC was actively promoting Doctor Who‘s popularity in Australia, with the Davison era featuring Australian actress Janet Field as one of the Doctor’s companions, air hostess Tegan, she of the execrable accent no dinkum Aussie would speak.

As the story develops, it is revealed that the four kidnapped humans and others like them are really androids whose human memories have been implanted in silicon chips. Monarch and his Urbankan companions Enlightenment (Annie Lambert) and Persuasion (Paul Shelley) refer to Urbanka’s pre-android era as “the flesh times,” with distaste, hence their plan to quickly poison Earth’s population, before mining our planet’s resources, too.

Monarch’s mining scheme is designed to amass the energy to build a spacecraft capable of travelling faster than light, to enable him to go back in time to before the Big Bang that created our universe, where he expects to meet himself, whom be believes is God. It is a fascinating concept and I am surprised no Doctor Who story has actually been set before time began, or featured a meeting between the Doctor and Jesus, for example.

After all, in the 2006 story The Satan Pit, the Tenth Doctor (David Tennant) meets the Devil. Einstein’s Relativity theories (drawn on in Four to Doomsday, and this year’s World Enough and Time and The Doctor Falls) allow time travel, so it’s not an impossible scenario.

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Frozen in time. From left, Enlightenment ( Annie Lambert; I remember thinking she was drop-dead gorgeous in this role in 1982; she’s 71 now and doubtless I still would find her so); Monarch (Stratford Johns (1925-2002); well known on our screens in the 1960s and 1970s as the detective Charlie Barlow in Z Cars, Softly Softly and Barlow at Large) and Persuasion (Paul Shelley, born 1942, a classical actor noted for his Shakespearian performances).

Footnotes:

I’ve lately been re-watching All Creatures Great and Small on DVD too, and the resemblance between Davison’s Tristan and Doctor characters is palpably obvious and deliberate, no doubt to maintain the Tristan character’s popularity at a time that Fourth Doctor Tom Baker was replaced by Davison after seven years which had entrenched Baker as the doctor for many viewers.

Davison’s daughter Georgia is married to David Tennant, who was most recently seen on our screens in Broadchurch, which also starred Jodie Whittaker, recently cast as the Thirteenth Doctor.