Tag Archives: Hollywood

’Orrible murder! Readallabahtit!

1 Feb

Drugged, disoriented and with something horrific in his jacket pocket, Sir George Fenwick rolls out of bed in a cheap boarding house and stumbles to the window, where a man with a slightly orotund Cockney accent is selling papers on the street below. “Mornin’ paper! All abaht the murder! ‘Orrible murder! Mornin’ paper!”

Fenwick, ashen, gathers his hat and flees the scene, but the next thing that appears on screen, of course, is this:

The scene is from The Woman In Green, one of the classic Sherlock Holmes movies of the 1930s and 40s that starred Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. Although the series moved the characters forwards in history to contemporary (ie wartime) Britain, they were made 5,000 miles away in Hollywood, usually to a budget, with the result that London seemed to be populated by an unusual number of left-hand-drive cars and mid-Atlantic accents.

However, authenticity doesn’t seem to be a problem here for the “London Daily C…” (“Chronicle”, perhaps?). The headlines fit well and read well, unlike those in most movie newspapers. There is a story about football (Blackburn and Derby), and one about Oxford’s travails before the Boat Race. There’s even some proper copy for the fictional lead story.

Only one thing really jars: the headline about Puerto Rico. Would news from a US-administered territory really make the top of page 1 in a “Great Daily of the Empire”, and would “Beverley” (presumably James R Beverley, former governor) be a name well-known in Marylebone?*

Well, only that and the other thing, of course. Edgeware? With three E’s? “the Edgeware Road”? Gor blimey, guv, anyone could tell yer not from rahnd ‘ere.

*Also, if it is James R Beverley, he did indeed preside over rescue efforts after a devastating hurricane – but in 1932. He ceased to govern Puerto Rico in 1933, which would make that story several years old in wartime London. Furthermore, online research suggests that the controversy over using “swivels” (swivelling rather than fixed mounts for the oars) was already raging in Oxford rowing circles by the mid-1930s. That raises some interesting questions about how the props department put this edition of the Chronicle together for the screen.

The first uncontested crackerjack of grammatical expertise to appear in film

18 Jan

With a flourish, Alumna (Elisabeth Moss) spins round from a prodigious piece of sentence diagramming on a blackboard and fixes the camera with a proud glare. And another sub-editor (probably) enters the ever-increasing pantheon of Hollywood copydeskers.

This all happened some months ago, of course; given the necessity for masks, this blog is currently unable to attend the cinema without its glasses steaming up, so it has only just caught up with Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch on home premiere. Nonetheless, the story of the Dispatch and its last ever filings from Ennui-sur-Blasé back to Kansas features a strong corps of production types to go with its gifted writers.

I say “probably” a sub-editor because Alumna is a wide-ranging, influential figure whose job is not specified in the credits. It is even suggested in some quarters that she might be a reporter, but look at the photograph. Does a reporter know how to do that? (To save you the trouble, the sentence reads: “They will fail to notice the torn ticket-stub for an unclaimed hat which sits alone on the upper shelf of a cloakroom in a bus depot on the outskirts of a work-a-day town where were apprehended Nickerson and his accomplices.”) She’s also described as the Dispatch’s “uncontested crackerjack of grammatical expertise”, which doesn’t sound much like a reporter either.

However, it’s not 100% clear exactly what she is. If she’s a sub-editor, wouldn’t she have been tempted to intervene in that 41-word sentence rather than simply diagram it? (The verb-subject inversion at the end might have to stay; the Dispatch very much seems to be a writer’s paper.) Also, she seems to be in charge of editorial conference, demanding progress reports and worrying about pagination like a managing editor while Arthur J Howitzer, publisher, sits and listens. Most sub-editors know how hard it is to get in to the interesting meetings, let alone run them.

Furthermore, also in conference is a more junior figure, “The Proof-Reader”. When asked about one piece in production, she reports “three dangling participles, two split infinitives and nine spelling errors in the first sentence alone,” suggesting (i) that she might be more of a sub-editor?; and (ii) that this must be another sentence as long as the example on the blackboard.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with split infinitives, as we know; no doubt that is why Howitzer gently intervenes to say: “Some of those were intentional.” Also, one is left wondering what has happened to the Dispatch’s editorial processes if all these things are only getting picked up at proof stage.

No such problems exist with Howitzer’s very poorly typed will, which appears on screen covered in editorial blue pencil, including at one point where the “permanently” in “permanently cease” has been deleted with the note “cease alone is clear”. However, another hand has firmly struck out this correction and marked “stet”. Quite right too: for a matter as consequential as this, it’s worth a little redundancy to make the meaning quite clear.

Meanwhile, the lawyer is raising distinctly sub-editorial concerns about Herbsaint Sazerac, the “Cycling Reporter”, and his vivid account of Ennui’s lowlife. “Impossible to fact-check. He changes all the names and only writes about hobos, pimps and junkies,” he complains. (Howitzer responds soothingly: “These are his people.”)

So perhaps it’s the kind of small, freewheeling newsroom where everyone does a bit of everything. Certainly the net for opinion is cast wide at conference. Staring at the flatplan on the wall together, Howitzer turns to the waiter from the bar downstairs, who has just brought the drinks. “What do you think?” he asks. The waiter looks at the board and shrugs expressively. “For myself, I would start with M Sazerac.” And so they do.

Images: © Searchlight Pictures 2021

The Third (Actually, First) Sub-Editor Ever To Be Portrayed On Film

9 Jun

‘There’s bound to be a big replate for second edition’. (IMDB/BFI)

The street shimmers. A man trudges towards the camera through an apocalyptic glow, bathed in sweat. A tannoy announces there are “nineteen minutes before countdown” to a scorched, empty city. It looks like Doomsday, but all is not lost: because the man is a journalist, and he’s on his way to the newsroom.

And so begins The Day The Earth Caught Fire, Val Guest’s 1961 film with an exploitation-movie title that in fact manages to be a nuclear thriller, ecological parable and gritty love story all at once. And, almost above all, a film about newspapers.

It stars Edward Judd as washed-up reporter Pete Stenning, Leo McKern as grouchy science editor Bill Maguire, and Janet Munro as Jeannie Craig, a government press officer who knows a secret. The two male characters work at the Daily Express, whose newsroom was exactingly recreated at Shepperton Studios for the film. And although the story concerns America, Russia and the disastrous coincidence of two H-bomb tests, nearly everything that unfolds is viewed from the inside of a newsroom or a bar.

Scene after scene is heavy with the presence of midcentury Fleet Street. Billboards proclaiming disaster are displayed on Evening Standard vans. The wall of a lido where Stenning and Craig, his new girlfriend, meet is covered with a huge advert for the News of the World. The newsroom is led by a commanding Arthur Christiansen-type figure, played by … Arthur Christiansen himself, who was also the film’s technical adviser.  It is a disaster movie, certainly, but it’s about the end of the world in the same oblique way that All The President’s Men is about Nixon.

And the hacks themselves are also very real. Messengers and copyboys are chaffed and ordered about. The troubled Stenning sulks and slacks off, and is confronted about it unsparingly by colleagues (“If you borrow my car for lunch, why bother to hurry back at six-thirty?”). When he gets a sniff of the climate-disaster story, he shows little compunction in forcing Craig, who works at the Air Ministry, to act as his source, exposing her to the fate of a whistleblower. The film was somewhat scandalous in 1961 for its frank love scene, but you suspect it got its X certificate not because of all the sex, but because of all the journalism.

In the opening scenes in the newsroom, as a flash comes in and a shocked desk realises what’s happened, we see a detailed recreation of a post-deadline panic. The news editor dials the switchboard: “Head Printer, fast!” Maguire reappears. “Give me a quick 50 words across three columns. You’ve got five minutes. I’ll write the headline.” The head printer picks up the phone. “Smudge: slip edition coming down in five minutes at most, so get a bloody move on!” (“Don’t we always?”).

Cut to the composing room, where the head printer calls out “front page lead reset!” and dials the press manager to tell him there’s a newsflash. (“OK George. Know what it is? Well as long as they haven’t made beer illegal!”). The press manager goes to the press foreman, and against the din of the machines, raises his index finger and makes an upward gesture, meaning “lift page 1”. Then he goes to the delivery manager to warn him “there’s bound to be a big replate for second edition”. (“Someone up there hates me! All right, I’ll warn them”). He dials the loading bay, where the first edition is being gathered and baled (and where we see Stenning, stumbling in after another lost afternoon, and follow him back up to the newsroom).

‘Why is he trying to alter my heading?’ (BFI)

It’s three minutes of tense Fleet Street life, a vivid glimpse behind the scenes – except that, as you might have noticed, it doesn’t appear to involve sub-editors. The news editor talks straight to the typesetters, writes the headline, and even organises the photographs (“Jock! Find me the biggest mushroom in the file!”). It’s possible that a busy news editor might take on the task of writing a stop-press headline, for speed, but in real life there would be upwards of a dozen subs around who could do it for him.

Fear not, though: in such an exactingly recreated newsroom, sub-editors are indeed present – pre-dating both their appearance in The Paper (1994) and The Post (2017). Earlier in the evening, we saw Maguire – who appears to be the kind of reporter who likes writing his own headlines – kicking up a fuss about changes to his feature on thrombosis. “But why’s he trying to alter my heading?”, he complains to a mild-looking middle-aged man, whose patient demeanour marks him out as a member of the copy desk. “Is he trying to make a job for himself?”

“Bill,” the man replies (with justification), “you can’t print a feature on thrombosis and call it YOU TOO CAN BE THE DEATH OF THE PARTY.”

And when the early copies of the first edition eventually arrive upstairs, Maguire is seen holding one aloft in disgust. “Eight hundred grisly words on thrombosis and look what they do to me: STUBBORN MEN AND THE KILLER THEY COURT. What kind of an impact heading is that? I might as well be working on the Police Gazette!”

I quite like it myself. But anyway, it didn’t matter: the whole thing got pulled for the second edition because the Earth had been blown off its axis.

Hat-tip to Theresa Pitt at Horny Handed Subs of Toil, who recommended the film to the group.

Best Implied Object

18 Feb

Oscars night: the biggest night of the year for glitz, glamour and tabloid sentence constructions. And the competition looks  particularly fierce in one category:

Whereas implied-subject (or “flying verb”) headlines rarely make the red carpet these days, implied-object sentences – that is, sentences containing a normally transitive verb but no direct object – go from strength to strength.

To qualify for this award, the object has to be genuinely needed in the sentence; some naturally “unaccusative” verbs don’t require them. For instance, one may “sparkle” or “glow” in the absence of any observers, perhaps involuntarily,

but to “stun” or “dazzle” clearly implies inducing a reaction in a second party. Contenders must therefore rely on the understood presence of an audience to be parsed correctly.

And the shock winner is: SHOCKS!

The first foreign-language film to win Best Picture: that really did stun. The Academy never ceases to surprise.

The Second Sub-editor Ever To Be Portrayed On Film

23 Jan

Image: 20th Century Fox

The copy chief hands him the file with the typed copy in it, and the man sitting at the desk takes out his pen. The newsroom is dark, the clock is ticking, and the most important and sensitive story he will ever edit has arrived – like all important and sensitive stories – right on deadline. He looks up at his manager, the two men alone in the office at an epochal moment for journalism and America. “You’ve got half an hour,” says his manager gruffly.

For years, only one copy editor had ever appeared as a character in a feature film: Lou the front-page sub in Ron Howard’s 1994 comedy The Paper.* But now there are two, because in Steven Spielberg’s latest film, The Post, the focus is almost as much on newspaper production as it is on newspaper editing and reporting.

The story of the Washington Post and the Pentagon Papers – the leaked documents that destroyed the credibility of the war in Vietnam – is a subject worthy of what my boss at the Tribune refers to as “late-period Spielberg”: those recent films of his that tell huge American stories magisterially, at a medium pace and with limpid period detail. The ethical struggle between the first amendment and the security state is an eternal theme, taken up in several movies. But for someone like me who started their career in the Quark XPress era, it’s the recreation of a 1970s newsroom that’s really mesmerising.

There are enormous ties, and early colour TVs, and people in the background flicking through galleys with a familiar look of rising concern on their faces (is there a page missing here, or is this actually what was filed?). There are linotype machines filmed in fascinating close-up, real slugs coming out and being loaded into formes, famous headlines shown reversed in metal. There is also – and this is the thing I most regret never having seen – a pneumatic-tube messenger system for sending copy to the composing room in metal cylinders.

And there is also a copy editor. Only one, again, as in The Paper (although, to be fair, he and the copy chief had probably stayed behind specially). And he barely speaks, except to ask for a messenger tube. But you can tell he’s a copy editor, because the first thing he does, with the presses trembling, his proprietor under pressure and the reputations of four presidents hanging in the balance, is calmly cross out the first sentence of the story.

Then as now, sometimes the most important cut is the one you make in the first paragraph.  I like to think it said something like “Bombings and deception and McNamara, oh my!”. But it was probably something more like: “It’s official …”.


* To be absolutely accurate, as readers have pointed out previously, Drew Barrymore’s character in Never Been Kissed is also, notionally, a copy editor: but as she (a) appears to have an office to herself and (b) gets sent out on a whim to off-diary feature assignments, you would be forgiven for mistaking her for a columnist.

Crud distinctions

7 Jun

So this is what you don’t do. In the light of last time’s discussion about when you might, in the most uncomfortable of circumstances, be tempted to clean up a quote, here’s a clear example of the vast majority of cases when you wouldn’t and shouldn’t.

Screen Shot 2016-06-06 at 11.16.51

I could listen to showrunners talk all day, and this splendid roundtable with five of television’s most in-demand producers is a good example of the flair with which the LA Times covers its hometown industry – even in the face of competition from Variety, the film mags and any number of specialist websites. But in the transcription of the interviews beneath the video, that most genteel of vulgar terms, “crud”, has appeared next to the name of Fargo creator Noah Hawley.

Did he really say “crud”? Does anyone ever say that? Well, because we have the video at the top of the page, we can check. And, as you might have suspected, Hawley doesn’t say “crud” (at about the 31.45 mark on the tape); of course, he says “crap”. The word has been censored in print. It’s a classic example, presumably, of the misplaced sense of editorial propriety that Bill Walsh describes in Lapsing Into A Comma:

It’s pretty likely that somewhere someone is watching on CNN as somebody says, “I ain’t saying nothing to you [bleep]er [bleep]ers,” while reading a printed account of the same statement that says, “I respectfully decline to comment, my good man.”

The rest of the roundtable is transcribed punctiliously. And I don’t have a problem with occasional square-bracketed clarifications when they’re inserted into long-form quotes in which interviewees can clearly be heard speaking in their own voice. But it does seem odd, when happily publishing a video of someone saying “crap” on your own website, that you would bother to expurgate the word in the text beneath.

Not that swearing doesn’t present a tricky problem for editors; it does, especially in quotes. The rule here at the Tribune is that obscenities should be printed in full and uncensored within direct quotes, but may not appear anywhere else in the paper. The Associated Press disagrees, and recommends to “replace letters of an offensive word with a hyphen” when there is no compelling need to reproduce the term in full. But it too advises against censorship:

In reporting profanity that normally would use the words “damn” or “god”, lowercase “god” and use the following forms: damn, damn it, goddamn it. Do not, however, change the offending words to euphemisms. Do not, for example, change “damn it” to “darn it”.

All of which doesn’t help much in dealing with the knotty problem that started this whole discussion off a fortnight ago: outfielder Carlos Gomez’s anger at the all-too-accurate transcription of his words as they appeared in the Houston Chronicle.

When a player gives you this as a quote:

For the last year and this year, I not really do much for this team. The fans be angry. They be disappointed.

What’s the correct way to proceed?

  1. Run the quote verbatim, as the Chronicle did? That’s the impeccable journalistic thing to do – except that the player might feel slighted about his halting English, as Gomez now does, other non-native anglophones may detect a whiff of native-speaker condescension, and a difficult debate about social disadvantage could develop over what was meant to be a simple baseball story.
  2. “Clean up” the quote? Definitely not: the amount of work needed to turn it into standard English goes far beyond what even the most lax judge would consider acceptable. Huge amounts of it would have to be changed: “Last year and this year, I haven’t really done much for this team. The fans are angry. They are disappointed”.
  3. Take some the words out of direct speech? You could do – except, again, because every single phrase is in non-standard English, you would have to report the whole thing indirectly, leading to the peculiar situation of a player “speaking to the fans” without giving a single actual quote.
  4. Just not run the story at all? That wouldn’t satisfy anyone – not the reporter who brought the story in, the readers who like to hear from their beloved Astros, or the player who wanted to get a message through to the bleachers. (And how would you explain it to Gomez? “Sorry, Carlos, but we really can’t run this until your English improves”?)

After two weeks of thinking about it, I’m still not sure what I would do.