Newspaper editor Morris Honeyspoon is two currants short of a UKIP fruitcake. He sounds the clarion for a forgotten England – the pastures green and lunchtime Vaughan Williams recitals long lost to lattes, Brussels, and a youth that’s jettisoned Chaucer and Byron for “iPads, golden shows and cock-rings.” Honeyspoon rules over an apology of a newsroom at The Daily Clarion, churning out red-top bilge that blames Everything on immigration (obviously) – and when he feels his editorial agenda sliding he dons a centurion’s helmet and blasts a car horn in the face of his dissenting staff until they come to heel.
But Honeyspoon has his own orders to follow – the Clarion’s owner, a Cypriot media mogul living in Monaco, wants to ditch Fleet Street legend Verity Stokes in favour of a weekly column by vacuous celeb Sapphire, whose missing tutu-clad dog must dominate the front page in the meantime.
So it is at “Britain’s worst newspaper” – a cycle of hopeless hacks who’ve each developed their own coping mechanism for the daily trash-mongering: a jaded young Immigration Editor holding out until a boutique agency eventually reads his debut novel (set to bridge the gap between Iris Murdoch and H.P. Lovecraft); a wine-soaked Stokes burying her morals in bottles of pinot and outrageous expenses claims. Director Mehmet Ergen’s frenetic staging of the farcical editorial meetings is a delight, with Greg Hicks’ Honeyspoon channelling Fawlty and Spencer, Farage and Mosely, and Clare Higgins’ Verity Stokes a hopelessly tragic sketch of a journalist-of-her-generation slogging out two-bit columns to pay the bills.
What makes Express Showbiz Editor turned playwright Mark Jagasia’s satire so terrifying is how it could all be true – the allusions to real-life papers are thinly veiled, with a dozen Clarionite front pages from The Express, The Daily Mail, and The Sun pinned up in the Arcola foyer to ram the point home. Diarists have speculated on Jagasia’s true-life influences; Nick Davies’ Rules of Production for a tabloid paper (select safe ideas, give readers what they want to believe in, go with the moral panic) could be a blueprint for the Clarion’s morning conference.
‘British Tabloid in Ethical Quagmire’ is hardly a revelation, however. Having laid out the Clarion’s terrain, Jagasia’s debut play sometimes feels laboured and predictable; a couple of scenes clunk their way to a faux climax (“What are we going to do?”, “Are you going to be OK?”) before blacking out. The potentially richest narratives are the subplots – the media’s commentary on itself; the surprising decline of a rival paper; and in particular the effect of the Clarion’s commentaries on the readers themselves, with one disgruntled devotee, Colin Hayward-Murray, so enraged by the immigrant takeover he sends a Breivikian manifesto to the news desk en route to blowing up a Blackburn mosque. But these remain relatively unexplored in themselves compared to their (largely predictable) impact on Honeyspoon, who is so bawdily cariacatured that he struggles to command empathy in his fall from grace. Secondary, particularly younger characters struggle to back up the primary narratives, being sketchily drawn – Immigration Editor Josh (Ryan Wichert) and intern Pritti (Laura Smithers), while both well and humoursly performed, remain at the same level throughout; events happen to and around them but their narrative purpose is always measured in terms of its impact on Honeyspoon, and sometimes Stokes, rather than developed in its own right. They’re supported in turn by a bizarre silent trio (the Caesarian chorus?) who pop up as journalists, secretaries, soldiers in various scenes – a literal embodiment of the characters whose voices might have helped flesh out Jagasia’s script.
But where there’s a Caesar there’s a Brutus. Jagasia’s farce moves towards a tragic conclusion, with the editor-general sending a young recruit to the frontlines of the search for Sapphire’s dog while his own grip on power comes under threat from the Hayward-Murray revelations. Stokes, the long-term ally, the confidante, the woman Honeyspoon calls Mother, proves his undoing, and Clarion’s final twists ring out like a cry of rage from a writer looking outside-in at the sausage factory. It’s sharply satirical stuff, but more sketch than Scoop.