Looking Back At HOT METAL - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Looking Back At HOT METAL

Tony’s holding the front page!
There have been some great shows set in the offices and corridors of the media. Some of the best of them have had writers and casts that have gone on to become household names – or at least household games of “Oh, it’s him from that other thing, what’s his name?”

But before Steven Moffatt’s Press Gang hit teenage screens in 1989, or Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin’s Drop The Dead Donkey took us into the changing world of broadcast news in 1990, there was the blistering satire on the downgrading and downmarketing of the print journalism world that was Hot Metal.

As early as 1986, writers David “One Foot In The Grave” Renwick and Andrew “2.4 Children” Marshall had seen what was happening to the nature of news, particularly in print, and decided it was ripe for their own brand of chilling satire.

Chilling? Absolutely – the two had previously collaborated on a range of projects, by no means the least of which was Whoops Apocalypse, a sit-com about a combination of idiocies leading to… well, to the apocalypse. It was both extremely funny and drop dead terrifying in 1982, and it still pulls off that unlikely combination now it’s available on Britbox – even if the terror is sharper now there’s an actual hot war in progress.

When Renwick and Marshall turned their attention to the print media, they unashamedly took the examples of rival press barons Rupert Murdoch and Robert Maxwell – and even as we write this, we’re conscious that there may be people reading it who have no memory of Maxwell. Think Murdoch, think horrendous pension fraud that left many of his workforce penniless, think swan-dive off a private yacht. Think Bond villain from Tomorrow Never Dies.

Between the two of them, Maxwell and Murdoch carved up the Eighties media scene, both in Britain and in large chunks of the world as regulations on media ownership were slackened by governments who a) wanted the press not to beat them up, and b) had a philosophical determination to let industries maximise their profit potential, affected by as little regulation as possible. Or any real brake pedals.

The premise of Hot Metal is almost libellously close to the real-life exploits of Rupert Murdoch, who bought The Sun newspaper in 1969 (beating out Maxwell to close the deal). This… takes some explaining, but once upon a time, The Sun was a reasonably respectable, left-leaning newspaper. It didn’t SELL as well as some sleazier competitors, but you could be at least relatively certain that it abided by the standards of an understood code of journalistic ethics.

Then Murdoch bought it. And in relatively short order, The Sun went tabloid, reduced its vocabulary by about half to appeal to a readership that was in very general terms less extensively educated. It began peddling scandal, sleaze, and Page 3 with a topless model on it. It increased its sports and entertainment coverage, and boiled its overall political coverage down to nuggets of right-slanting “common sense” that distrusted nuance as overly intellectual.

In essence, it reflected the views of “the man in the pub,” and convinced him that he was brighter than all the economists, career diplomats…*ahem* virologists and other “so-called experts.”

It sold in droves, restoring the balance sheet to health and speaking to a mass audience in a way that never challenged any lazy assumptions on the part of the public.

Both Hot Metal and Drop The Dead Donkey take the same premise as their starting point – one of the hungry press barons takes over a flagging media operation, installs a boss-pleasing sycophant in the top job and steers the organisation back into profitability by going scandalously tabloid and populist in nature.

Hot Metal though was also partially prophetic about the lengths to which tabloid journalists would go to get the stories they wanted (irrespective of trifles like factual accuracy). Ahead of The Sun’s disgusting Hillsborough coverage in 1989, ahead of the hacking of a murdered teenager’s phone for a story, ahead of the persecution of Princess Diana, resulting in her death in Paris, Renwick and Marshall’s Daily Crucible led the way.

And yes, for all those with a literary turn of mind, it’s very unlikely that the Daily Crucible was randomly named. The Crucible is also the name of a play by Arthur Miller, depicting the events of the Salem witch trials as a way to comment on the anti-Communist persecution presided over by Senator Joe McCarthy in the United States. The Daily Crucible, and its fellow tabloid newspapers in the real world, were about to appoint themselves judge, jury, and executioner over the lives of anyone whose humiliation gave them good copy.

Through the character of sleaze-merchant hack Greg Kettle (Richard Kane), Hot Metal shows the lengths to which some reporters would go, such as pre-planning a ‘Royal Baby’ story by sneaking into the bedroom of a girlfriend of a prince and sticking pins in all her condoms. While that still seemed like satire back in 1986, events in the following decades have shown that Renwick and Marshall were absolutely on the money in terms of their predictions.

But while there have always been rogue rats peddling sleaze, like Kettle, there’s much more to Hot Metal than him. There’s the exploration of how far rats like him were empowered by owners and editors with an agenda more tied to profit than to truth-telling.

To personify these high-powered figures, Hot Metal gives us Robert Hardy. Already a national treasure by the mid-90s, after landmark performances in Elizabeth R and All Creatures Great And Small, Hardy dominates Hot Metal as both the new media baron owner of the Crucible, Terence “Twiggy” Rathbone, and his parachuted-in new editor, Russell Spam (and this in an age before the invention of email!).

While they do both exist in separate bodies (by no means a certainty when the show starts), the double role for Hardy is a master-stroke, firstly because Hardy is a one-man (or indeed, two-man) tour de force, and secondly because, if you watch it with your satirical brain plugged in, it’s an object lesson in the symbiosis of Eighties newspaper editors and the barons who paid their wages – or could stop paying their wages if they displeased their masters.

Because the Eighties were a time when print media was in serious flux, though, Hot Metal is more than simply a razor-sharp satire on a media that’s beyond all control. That’s the point – there was a great tradition of journalism in Fleet Street that HAD control. That checked its facts. That weighted the importance of what it was trying to say. That believed in telling the truth, rather than simply reflecting a potential audience’s lowest impulses and lowest interests back at them.

So, as Drop The Dead Donkey has George Dent played by Jeff Rawle as the representative of the old way, the old standards that had led GlobeLink News into financial trouble, so in Hot Metal, the always-superb Geoffrey Palmer plays Harry Stringer, a bastion of old-school newspapers that delivered strong, well-researched, well-written world news. When he’s ‘upgraded’ from an active editor to an executive editor, it’s an Eighties innovation – a promotion to nowhere, while Russell Spam, the slick, sleaze-scenting hatchet-man who’s parachuted in to change The Crucible forever, sets about making the news. And by making the news, we mean making it up.

So you have a show about the struggle for decency in journalism, and the fight to let it survive against a profitable flood of hideous populism. The show is written by two guillotine-sharp satirists, with Robert Hardy in not one but two leading roles. You have Geoffrey Palmer giving his uniquely gifted rendition of a man of principle drowning in a rising tide of ordure. And you have Richard Kane as a hack who believes no law and no ethical code applies to him, because “the freedom of the press” is a licence to invade everyone’s privacy and ruin their lives by manufacturing what – for want of a much, much better phrase – is “fake news.”

Can it get better than that?

Oh, yes. Yes, it can. Because you also get John Gordon Sinclair as young reporter Bill Tytla, encouraged by Stringer to uncover real stories that matter, while the Crucible goes halfway to hell.

What’s more, for the second series, Palmer’s Harry Stringer is missing after a horrifyingly convenient plane journey, and is replaced at the Crucible by Richard Wilson as Richard Lipton, once a serious journalist, now feeling debased after a period on the fact-vacuum of daytime TV. As such, the mood shifts from Palmer’s Stringer, caught up in the tide of change, to Wilson’s Lipton actively seeking some kind of redemption through a return to print journalism – only to find that the journalism he remembers has been changed forever.

Hot Metal is much better than you remember – quite possibly because you don’t remember it at all.

You probably remember Drop The Dead Donkey much better, because it was paced slightly faster, and its Damien Day (the Drop The Dead Donkey version of Greg Kettle, played by Stephen Tomkinson) is younger and more fun that Hot Metal’s hack, despite being at least as amoral and uncaring about who gets hurt in the quest for his stories.

It’s also much more of a traditional sit-com in that it’s mostly office-based, and it broke some moulds by being a weekly sit-com about the news that was topical to the week of transmission.

But over 35 years later, the lack of weekly topical content makes Hot Metal the more evergreen show. And while plenty of people won’t remember a time before the internet and 24-hour rolling news, when a daily newspaper was the main way lots of people got their understanding of the world, for those who do, the process of media takeover and skewed narratives to serve the interests of owners and profit-margins, rather than truth and honour, is much more clearly delineated in Hot Metal.

For a show so often forgotten or overlooked in the popularity of Drop The Dead Donkey, Hot Metal is a phenomenal watch – twice the amount of Robert Hardy for your money, Geoffrey Palmer, Richard Wilson in a pre-Victor Meldrew collaboration with David Renwick, and a script from Renwick and Marshall that zings like the best stage satire you’ve ever seen.

Yes, it feels weird at this remove to laugh at the process that changed how the media worked for the worse in our culture, and did it forever. But if there’s a team in the world that can make you laugh at the sensationalization and trivialization of news, it’s Renwick and Marshall, the people who, even in the Eighties, could make the apocalypse funny.

If you’ve never seen Hot Metal, its arrival on Britbox is your golden ticket to a satire that’s stronger, sharper, and somehow, in the character-types it displays, if not the world of newspapers that is its background, remains incredibly, depressingly relatable in our social media, constant-news world.

Watch Hot Metal today with a seven day free trial of BritBox.

Tony Fyler lives in a concrete cave, somewhere on the edge of the sea, with his wife, who exists, and the Fictional People In His Head, who don't as yet. A journalist and editor by day, he has written Some Books, and is more or less always writing another. One day, he may even get around to showing them to people. In the meantime, he's Script Editor and occasional Executive Producer at Third Time Lucky Productions, and a proud watcher of things no-one remembers they remember until they remember.

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