Shock: editor still in charge after shagging boss's wife

Writer
and director Mary McGuckian tells Rob Brown why her movie Rag Tale is
not attempting to have a go at tabloid journalism. Newspapers are
merely the setting for the first of a trilogy about amorality

THOSE who still mourn the
death of Fleet Street will be further saddened, though not at all
surprised, to learn that the latest film about British newspaper
journalism was shot almost entirely on location in a glass skyscraper
in sleepy little Luxembourg. Moviemakers clearly don’t need to go to
London Docklands to capture and convey the über-contemporary feel of
Canary Wharf. They can do so just as easily in the EU’s most
insignificant member state and take advantage of its enticing tax
breaks.

Rag Tale is being billed as “a contemporary and controversial urban
satire set in the ruthless world of British tabloid newspapers”. It
claims to chronicle a week in the life of a raunchy red-top, tossing
all the familiar ingredients into its over-the-top plot:
cocaine-snorting, black humour, fake pictures and manufactured front
pages. The first editorial conference opens with the typically subtle
line: “We have a paper to get out. Who are we going to get this week?”

The
writer/director of Rag Tale claims to have spent some time
surreptitiously observing a real London tabloid newsroom. Mary
McGuckian, a petite, chainsmoking Ulsterwoman, says she arranged
through a journalist friend to be a fly-on-the wall at Wapping.

Members
of the cast were also ordered to find mentors in the real-life news
media. Lucy Davis (Dawn from The Office), who plays Debs, the editor’s
meddling PA and a quintessential Essex girl to perfection, says: “To
research the role, I spent time with a girl who works with Dominic
Mohan at The Sun. She was brilliant and told me everything I needed to
know.” Ian Hart likewise “talked to paparazzi guys in London and spent
some time with a guy from The Sun” in order to inhabit the role of a
psychologically wrecked former war photographer who has descended into
a drug-fuelled haze and feeds his habit by distorting celebrity
pictures with digital technology (he’s called Morph).

But its
creator stresses that The Rag is not The Sun and its interfering
proprietor Richard Mason is not meant to be Rupert Murdoch, even if
they do share the same initials.

Actually, there are closer
parallels between this character and Conrad Black, as RM’s much younger
partner (like Barbara Amiel) is high up the editorial payroll of the
paper he owns. She’s also North American, a shopaholic and social
mountaineer.

Once again, though, McGuckian tells us not to read too much between the lines.

“Journalists
keep saying to me ‘you’re obviously having a pop at this paper or that
person’, but we’re really not. It’s not a straightforward attempt to
have a go at tabloid journalism. If I’d wanted to do that, I’d have
made a documentary.

“This film, like any other, has a mandate to
entertain in the first instance. It’s part of a trilogy set in various
environments and the theme is amorality.

If we’re having a go at
anyone, it is at the moguls who wield so much power and influence
through their control of the press. We wanted to turn this world in on
itself and see what would happen if a media baron got a taste of his
own medicine. We also want to discomfort those members of the great
British public who lap up such media without questioning their
motivations.”

McGuckian was speaking after the first British
screening of Rag Tale at the Edinburgh International Film Festival. She
splits her life between London edit suites and a rural retreat in the
south of France, where she lives with her husband, the Irish actor John
Lynch.

She will need a tough skin to cope with the press critics’
reaction to this film. The Hollywood Reporter savagely dismissed Rag
Tale as “screamingly unpleasant…with a cretinous plot”.

McGuckian
says the Brits – and the Yanks too – are simply not “visually
sophisticated” enough to appreciate her “hip and pioneering” approach
to filmmaking.

“I live in France a lot of the time and film
critics there respond to films on a philosophical level. In Ireland,
critics respond on a more poetic level. In America, there’s a need for
films to fulfil the American dream, while in Britain there’s a need for
every film to be realistic and make a social comment.

The critics
here have an issue with us because The Rag is not a credible newspaper.
It’s not a film about a newspaper. It’s a piece of drama set in the
context of a newspaper. We only want it to be credible to the extent
that it helps the audience to buy the narrative.”

What
credibility the film does have owes much to its stellar cast, headed by
Rupert Graves, Kerry Fox, Simon Callow and John Sessions.

Sessions, who plays political editor Felix Sty, believes they achieved a degree of verisimilitude.

“The
whole film tries to address some of the excesses of our media,” he
says. “Before now, there have been some overblown satirical looks at
the press, but I think this has tried to be a bit more realistic.”

Graves,
who plays Eddy the editor, comments: “I suppose any film about the
press is about how you tell the truth and how many multi-facets of the
truth you can spin and how flexible the truth is. Newspaper men are
professional – they can’t lie a huge amount because they can get sued,
but they are professional truth-twisters.”

And it isn’t just
tabloids that twist the truth, according to Rag Tale. The film takes a
satirical swipe at broadsheets as well, suggesting that they often feed
off a tabloid agenda. When Eddy is on the rack at The Rag, he turns in
desperation for help to his ex-wife Peach, who’s high up on respectably
titled The Press.

She devises a clever plot to give her
ex-hubby’s master a taste of his own medicine by concocting some
scandalous coverage about this proprietor’s private life.

“We’re
not intending to alienate the entire print media in Britain, but I know
from my own experience that the moral distinctions between the popular
and the quality press are not always clear-cut,” says McGuckian, who
confesses to a “sneaking admiration” for tabloid headline writers. “But
we were very worried about this aspect of the film.”

Such was her
concern about arousing the upmarket critics’ – and their editors’ –
wrath that, at a crucial stage in the production process, McGuckian
arranged special screenings for a couple of her journalist friends so
they could give critical feedback on the pre-cuts.

She also hired
two seasoned hacks to serve as consultants: Chris Horrie, now an
academic at the University of Westminster, who has written several
books about British tabloids; and Carl Bernstein, the legendary
American journalist who teamed up with Bob Woodward at The Washington
Post to expose Watergate. The film based on that exposé, All The
President’s Men, was one of several journalism movies McGuckian spooled
through as she prepared to shoot Rag Tale.

She was most
influenced, though, by Citizen Kane and managed to weave in several
tiny homages to this classic. If you look closely – not an easy feat
with this film, mind you – you may see rosebuds sprinkled on the bed in
the mogul’s ultra-modern penthouse apartment.

Rob Brown is senior lecturer in journalism at Napier University, Edinburgh. Contact ro.brown@napier.ac.uk

Rag Tale

A REVIEW BY JACK IRVINE

Picture this if you will. I am the editor of a national tabloid
newspaper and I am shagging the proprietor’s gorgeous American missus.
The proprietor finds out, but does he sack me or have me killed? No, he
calls me on the internal videophone and says: “Screwing the chairman’s
wife isn’t part of the job description.” Oh well then, fine and dandy,
I’ll just nip into the conference now and magic up a splash.

This we are asked to believe in Rag Tale, the latest cinematic
attempt to portray the everyday lives of the ladies and gentlemen of
the press. It was bad enough missing a morning’s golf in glorious
Scottish sunshine to review this load of tosh, but director Mary
McGuckian decided to use hand-held cameras and extreme close-ups that
moved the action so fast that several people in the preview audience
complained of dizziness and the threat of epilepsy. This was NYPD Blue
on steroids.

Of course it could be that McGuckian realised that
she had next to no story and so decided to let technology take over.
The result is an implausible mishmash that completely wastes the
talents of some fine actors.

Rupert Graves is totally believable as the editor, a sort of slimmed down, handsome Kelvin MacKenzie.

The
proprietor’s wife Jennifer Jason Leigh is sex on legs and if I was
going to poke the boss’s wife, she would be the one who would tempt me
to commit professional suicide.

Bizarrely, Leigh is also deputy
editor of The Rag (what a shit title, even for a movie) and she is into
calling up the editor’s secretary (the wonderful Lucy Davis from The
Office) and saying things like: “Tell him I want my front page.”

Yeah, right. I can just see a deputy editor sneaking in her front page while the boss went for a pee. I don’t think so.

There
are other annoying little quirks that I guess civilians wouldn’t pick
up, but which will jar immediately with working journos. Even when the
pressure is high, they all sit around with their jackets on and their
ties done up. The only guys I ever remembered doing that were David
Montgomery and Noel Young, former Sunday Mail editor, and I think it’s
fair to say that neither of these gentlemen could be described as
typical tabloid types.

And, as so often happens in films about
newspapers, the front pages are awful. Not even Peter Cox in his
darkest hours at the Daily Record could come up with BULLDOZE BUCK
PALACE with acres of white space surrounding the heading.

As I
mentioned earlier, Lucy Davis is magnificent as the Queen Bee secretary
and she and her secretarial colleagues seem to know more about what is
going on in the building than anybody else. Davis says more with those
big wide eyes than two pages of dialogue.

That’s the one thing
the film gets spot on. My old buddy Steve Sampson always worked on the
premise that if you were nice to the secretaries, you would unlock the
secrets of the organisation. How right he was, although I thought he
took it a bit far by actually marrying my old PA.

However, what
really beggars belief is that once the editor realises he’s rumbled in
the shagging stakes, he decides on a really desperate course of action.
He enlists his deputies to fit up the proprietor, played by Malcolm
McDowell, in a sex scandal. Wait for it – he then persuades his ex-wife
to threaten to run the story in her rival paper.

If they had
called me in to do a rewrite, I would have pointed out that most
ambitious deputies would immediately nip upstairs and tell the
proprietor what was afoot and it would be a case of goodbye old editor,
hello new editor.

So in some respects, you could say that while
director McGuckian tried to portray us as venal, amoral, backstabbing,
promiscuous toads, she clearly didn’t realise that we are even worse
than she thought.

To be fair, the office chatter was reasonably
accurate, with just the right mix of cynicism, sick humour and
occasional flashes of insight. The Scots accents of David Hayman, Bill
Paterson and John Sessions gave the newsroom an authentic feel and the
old slapper of a features editor was spot on. The language was
liberally sprinkled with the F word, but strangely not once did I hear
the C word. How quaint.

The actors – who made up their own
dialogue – (don’t laugh, you make up your own stories) have signed up
to do another two movies with McGuckian on the theme of amorality. If
the woeful Rag Tale is as successful as I think it will be, I suggest
they ask for payment in advance.

Jack
Irvine was night editor of the Daily Record, founding editor of the
Scottish Sun and managing director of News International Scotland.

He is now chairman of Media House International

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