The day I passed over Vestey - and a Dimbleby

In America, hacks are portrayed as heroes. Not like in Britain ...
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Pravda, the newspaper satire by David Hare and Howard Brenton that wowed National Theatre audiences 21 years ago, is revived for the first time this week at the Chichester Festival, and then moves on to Birmingham Rep.

When the play first opened, I discussed it with the authors in a platform performance, in which I listed the vices of which they accuse journalists: "Ambition, cruelty, cynicism, incompetence, complacency, defeatism, snobbery, bias, deception, plagiarism, triviality, sycophancy, cowardice, corruption, of being opinionated, arrogant and drunk, of lacking convictions, of having fantasies about our own power and influence, and no solidarity."

I recall being taken aback in the question-and-answer session that followed by the contempt for newspapers, chiefly but not exclusively the tabloids, shown by the Olivier Theatre audience. The play tapped into this feeling and touched a raw nerve. This was a period of anguished public debate about privacy and intrusion, leading up to David Mellor's "last-chance saloon" when, after the Calcutt Report, the press came close to statutory controls. This topicality was one reason for the play's success.

It was also very funny. It was crowned by a masterly portrayal by Anthony Hopkins of the South African press baron, a monstrous creature called Lambert Le Roux (I later presented an Olivier award to Hopkins for this performance; The Observer then sponsored the awards). People assume Le Roux was Rupert Murdoch, but my recollection is that Hopkins played a character with the gross physicality and menace of Robert Maxwell.

At one point, Le Roux addresses the paper's drama critic, who is lying drunk on the floor. This took me back to my only visit to the real-life Pravda in Moscow. I couldn't get into the newspaper office, not because of security, but because a man was lying drunk across the doorway. When I pointed this out to the senior editor who greeted me, he replied airily: "Don't mind him - he's just the drama critic."

There are several good plays about newspapers, mostly written by former journalists - Alphabetical Order by Michael Frayn, Night and Day and Professional Foul by Tom Stoppard, and Keith Waterhouse's comic masterpiece, Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell. Arnold Wesker wrote Journalists after spending months observing Harold Evans's Sunday Times. There are also some good novels, such as Evelyn Waugh's Scoop, Frayn's Towards the End of the Morning and Robert Harling's The Enormous Shadow.

But there are no great British films about newspapers, which seems strange when you look at the United States. The greatest film ever made, Citizen Kane, was about newspapers, as was one of the funniest comedies, The Front Page (made four times, most memorably with Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau).

American journalists are generally portrayed as the heroes of democracy, fighting for justice and human rights, upholders of the constitution. British journalists seem to appear as seedy drunks. Graham Greene created three such figures: Minty in England Made Me, Hale in Brighton Rock and Fowler in The Quiet American. Last year's movie Rag Tale was a distinctly unsympathetic portrayal of life at a British tabloid.

Practically every great Hollywood star has appeared as a heroic reporter or editor: Spencer Tracy in Keeper of the Flame, James Cagney in Each Dawn I Die, Humphrey Bogart in Deadline USA, James Stewart in Call Northside 777, Edward G Robinson in Five Star Final, Gregory Peck in Gentlemen's Agreement, Burt Lancaster in The Sweet Smell of Success, Kirk Douglas in Ace in the Hole, Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman in All the President's Men.

American women also feature as intrepid reporters: Katharine Hepburn in Woman of the Year; Jean Arthur in Mr Smith Goes to Washington; Bette Davis in Front Page Woman; Barbara Stanwyck in Meet John Doe; Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday. (I am indebted for much of this to The Observer's Philip French, the doyen of film critics, and a book he produced to accompany a National Film Theatre season of newspaper films).

The history of British newspapers is just as eventful and dramatic as that of America, with larger-than-life figures in Northcliffe, Beaverbrook, Delane, Stead, Garvin and CP Scott, through to Cudlipp, Evans, Deedes, Hastings, Worsthorne, Morgan and MacKenzie. Yet none of this colourful history has been converted to film. There are few British newspaper films worth remembering: Thunder Rock, starring Michael Redgrave; Front Page Story, featuring Jack Hawkins as a journalist of rugged integrity; So Well Remembered, with John Mills as a crusading local editor; The Day the Earth Caught Fire, in which Arthur Christiansen, a former editor of the Daily Express, makes a guest appearance; Defence of the Realm, with Gabriel Byrne and Denholm Elliott; and Cry Freedom, Richard Attenborough's film about the South African editor Donald Woods.

Woods, who was also an Observer correspondent, told me how flattered he was to be played by Kevin Kline. This reminded me of the quip by Ben Bradlee of The Washington Post, when told that he would be played by Jason Robards in the Watergate film, All the President's Men: "I always saw myself as Fred Astaire."

A newspaper film that might appeal to Messrs Hare and Brenton is Theatre of Blood, in which Vincent Price kills off all the London critics one by one for their bad reviews.

THERE was a wonderful line in The Daily Telegraph's obituary of Michael Vestey. The late BBC reporter was quoted as saying of a colleague: "He went off to teach journalism - a sure sign of desperation and mental turbulence." I'm sure this will amuse my friends in the journalism department at Sheffield University.

I nearly gave Vestey a job when I was on the news desk of The Observer 40 years ago, and I followed his career with interest. Another budding reporter I couldn't find room for at the time was called Jonathan Dimbleby. I wonder what happened to him.

THE death of that great figure at Granada TV, David Plowright, reminded me of a story about his father William, who was editor of the Scunthorpe Star. Plowright of Scunthorpe was also a legendary stringer for newspapers all over the country.

In 1961, while I was working on the Sheffield Telegraph, news came through that his daughter Joan was going to marry Laurence Olivier. But not a word came from Plowright of Scunthorpe. The news desk begged him to file a piece about this great family event.

Eventually, and grudgingly, a story came through: "The engagement is announced of Miss J Plowright, from Scunthorpe, to Sir L Olivier, an actor from London."

HOW much would you pay to have lunch at the Ivy à deux with Ulrika Jonsson, who is, among other things, a columnist on the News of the World? This is just one of many treats offered by the Press Ball, organised by the London Press Club in aid of the Journalists' Charity, at the Natural History Museum on 12 October. Details, tickets and tables are available from lpc@

Donald Trelford is a former editor of The Observer

Stephen Glover is away