A fog machine is quietly pumping “atmos” — the stale smell of cigarettes and a smoky haziness — through an extensive office set. Desks housing typewriters, push-button telephones and overflowing ashtrays are piled with papers and folders. Counters are stacked with newspapers, street directories and phone books. Fax machines whir in a space defined by wood-veneer panelling, dull-brown colours and a scuffed floor.

This is a commercial TV-station newsroom, but not as anyone today might recognise it.

Constructed in a disused chemical factory in Melbourne’s industrial inner west, the expansive workplace is the “hero” set for the six-part ABC drama, The Newsreader.

And in the fictional world of the News at Six team created by writer and producer Michael Lucas, it’s 1986. This is the year that space shuttle Challenger disintegrated, that Lindy Chamberlain was released from prison and the Chernobyl nuclear plant erupted. There was a bomb attack on Melbourne’s Russell St police headquarters and excitement about Halley’s Comet.

In January 2021, filming under strict COVID-19 restrictions, series director Emma Freeman oversees work on episode five in which alerts about an explosion in Russell St hit the newsroom. This coincides with co-news anchor Helen Norville (Anna Torv) giving an office tour to Val (Maude Davey), the mother of reporter and aspiring newsreader Dale Jennings (Sam Reid).

When news of the bombing breaks, Dale and a camera crew are fortuitously in the CBD. Helen tries to shield Val from information about her son’s proximity to the blast with the aid of Jean (Caroline Lee), the watchful secretary of volcanic news director Lindsay Cunningham (William McInnes).

The choreography of the sequence, which involves a range of characters swinging into action, demonstrates why Freeman (StatelessGlitchTangleHawke) is such an admired director. Rather than shooting a number of separate scenes, she runs them together in an unbroken shot, heightening the impression of urgent activity and accentuating the sense of flow.

“It’s thrilling as an actor to be running five, 10-minute scenes,” says Reid (Lambs of GodThe HuntingHatfields & McCoys). “It’s like doing a play. You have to be really prepared, and it brings life to the newsroom.

“Emma’s an extraordinary director. Her vision is singular, but also malleable. She has the ability to keep many different characters’ journeys prescient in her mind at any moment. It’s amazing watching her work.”

While Freeman worried that having to wear a mask affected her ability to communicate with her cast, their enthusiasm for her approach suggests no impairment. She’s both clear in her vision and collaborative.

Torv (FringeMindhunter), who worked with Freeman on Secret City, echoes her co-star’s enthusiasm. “Shooting The Newsreader, there was a freedom and a safety net and an absence of judgment. Michael and Emma are confident enough to have an open discussion and to allow things to shift. What Michael wrote is what we shot, but there were lots of nuanced bits in-between and it felt as though it was evolving as we were shooting it.”

Reid and Torv are at the heart of the drama, with Torv playing an outwardly tough and ambitious reporter and pioneering anchorwoman who’s made her way to the desk in spite of the discomfort of her co-host, veteran Geoff Walters (Robert Taylor). Reid’s Dale yearns to get there.

Lucas explains that his story is set at a time when it felt like newsreaders were “unimpeachable”. For him, “they were dignified and you trusted them, although that sense of trust in news has been challenged recently”.

His idea for Dale’s character preceded the TV newsroom setting: “I’ve always wanted to write a protagonist who felt that there was this version of masculinity that they had to fit into, but that it wasn’t a natural fit. They were desperate to be the person that the world wanted them to be. I thought that there was great comedy and great tragedy in that. And he was always matched with a volatile woman. I developed many different versions of the complicated relationship between them.”

That he eventually settled on a TV newsroom setting had its advantages. In terms of plotting, it gave him real events to bounce off, which provided handy dramatic triggers for a writer who’s accustomed to the rhythms and requirements of relationship dramas and comedies including Offspring and Rosehaven.

While offering an account of the changing nature of news coverage, his compelling drama also presents a study of power and gender relationships at a range of levels. The most prominent involves Helen’s clashes with her bullying and abusive boss as she battles to cover hard news stories and not be relegated to the softer, human-interest options.

Composed and confident on camera, Helen, like a number of the characters, is concealing a different truth. Publicly, she can stand up to her boss’s tirades but, in private, she pays a price. Torv describes Helen as both self-aware and “a traumatised human”. She’s more fragile than she appears, as Dale inadvertently discovers.

Lucas explains: “Helen’s working in this toxic environment where she’s trying to claw her way through, without any allies. Dale becomes her ally.”

In part, the complex relationship between them grows because they’re kindred spirits, “outsiders pretending to be insiders” as Reid puts it, and they recognise and respect each other’s driving ambition.

“It’s sort of a classic buddy movie, in some ways,” says Lucas. “But their relationship is more complicated because it drifts into it becoming romantic, which is a career boon for them both, but things unravel as the series goes on.”

While their relationship develops, the drama probes the chasm between the public faces and private lives of several of the characters. “Michael really drew that element out,” says Reid, “these masks that we all wear.”

Quintessentially blokey sports reporter Rob (Stephen Peacocke), for example, has an ease on camera that Dale can only aspire to, but the possibility of promotion to weekend newsreader sparks his insecurities. Obliging production assistant Noelene (Michelle Lim Davidson) is treated as a dogsbody, sent out for pies and Polly Waffles and asked if she speaks Japanese when her heritage is Korean. There’s an ingrained culture of prejudice and abuse that afflicts everybody.

At every level, the production exhibits thoughtful and meticulous care: production designer Melinda Doring’s evocative sets; Marion Boyce’s striking costumes; the fog machine that generates the smell of cigarettes for atmosphere on the set and creates a haze barely perceptible on screen. The stories listed on the newsroom whiteboard pertain to their appropriate day; the news reports on the office TV monitors reflect real stories.

And while the series’ evocation of the period is precise and acute, the issues that it raises, to do with news coverage, public images and gender and workplace relationships, are as relevant today as they were in 1986.

It’s not hard to see why Torv says: “Making The Newsreader was one of the most satisfying and joyous creative experiences that I’ve ever had.”

The Newsreader premieres on ABC on Sunday, 8.30pm.

Credit: Debi Enker, The Sydney Morning Herald

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