As Aaron Sorkin knows, dramatising journalism can be hard to pull off. For every exciting aspect of a newsroom—the breaking stories, spitfire expletives and race to deadline—there are the everyday realities of office work, or the sense that fictional news can never live up to the real thing.
In the past year, several shows have competed to present the most accurate, or potentially the most toe-curling, depiction of Fleet Street and its televised equivalents. Sorkin’s The Newsroom, set on a fictional primetime cable news channel, has not been well received. The New Yorker’s TV critic declared that the series “gets so bad so quickly that I found my jaw dropping.” She was not alone.
The Hour has fared better on both sides of the Atlantic: nominated for a Golden Globe, it is the first BBC2 drama to be recommissioned for 11 years. The show looks at a current affairs programme in the 1950s and the intrigue surrounding it. But its success may comes not as much from the profession it depicts as from the glamour of the era—with its double-breasted suits and fanned skirts—that it manages to evoke.
Enquirer, currently in production with the Barbican after a run in Scotland, is very different from these. Co-created by the writer (and London Review of Books contributor) Andrew O’Hagan and the directors Vicky Featherstone and John Tiffany, it takes 50 hours of interviews with 43 journalists including Ian Jack, David Aaronovitch, Suzanne Moore, Zoe Williams—and transforms them, verbatim, into snappy, clever theatre. What results is a promenade performance—the play takes place in an office space in Clerkenwell, the audience ferried from boardroom to the basement and back again —which combines the gossipy, quick-witted aspects of being a hack with its more mundane realities. It manages the rare feat of depicting journalism in a way that is both compelling and realistic.
Six actors flicker between the different parts, among them a man in his mid-30s who mourns the loss of what he sees as proper reporting in journalism (Hywel Simons); an ex-tabloid journalist who claims not to know that paying government officials is illegal (Billy Riddoch); and a blonde female (Gabriel Quigley), who mainly takes on the role of Guardian columnist Deborah Orr and provides possibly the performance of the evening when recounting a dream she had about hiding a body in Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger’s office.
The play ostensibly takes the shape of a typical journalist’s day as its starting point. Simons begins by standing on top of the boardroom table and informing the audience that “the day starts with the Today programme.” The actors scatter downstairs to the newsroom after the morning’s meeting, then back up again for the afternoon debrief. In between these, interviews take place, all dealing with one of the topics that journalists like to talk about most: their profession.
One-liners, similes and metaphors abound as they try to describe their work in different guises: “Journalism is a sexy profession full of ugly people.” “All we want is for people to pick up the newspaper and choke on their marmalade.” “Journalists are predators.” In some ways, it is as if the play is constructed of headlines, with a few meatier bits in between. Like headlines, some of these pronouncements can become a little histrionic—I am not sure Independent columnist Owen Jones will thank anyone for having his proxy declare, while standing on a boardroom table, “I am an insurgent,” just after the older journalists have peeled off, muttering to themselves that it is a dying profession. Similarly, although momentum is kept up through the show, the movement between the rooms can lag a little, as audience members find themselves slowly winding through a cramped building.
These flaws aside, Enquirer is intelligent and entertaining. It has some very funny lines, and the performances are consistently good. Certain scenes stand out for their inventiveness: an interview between Orr and Times executive editor Roger Alton takes place in a very small office space, so that the 60 or so members of the audience have to crowd round, some of them with their noses pressed to Alton’s desk as Orr interrogates him over the state of journalism (Alton: “as far as I know no newspaper editor has ever had an affair”). Others, such as the final scene, are more surreal—“putting the paper to bed” is interpreted literally, with all six actors curled up under a mound of shredded paper, cushioning it underneath them, hugging it close.
It is these aspects that make Enquirer enjoyable, even while it whittles away, unrelentingly and slightly obsessively, at the darker sides of the profession. Its conclusion may be gloomy—“I don’t think you can honestly say, hand on heart, this is the industry of the future”—but it captures a world which, for good or ill, may no longer be so vividly remembered. In some respects, it’s an elegy for a world that is diminishing. Like the best elegies, it brings it momentarily back to life.