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Do you ever cringe during those scenes in Morse where the grumpy old detective picks up a newspaper, reads its latest sensationalist garbage (about how he’s made a right mess of the investigation into the mysterious torso in the canal), and throws the rag to the ground?

I do, all the time…

It’s that moment where the Chief Inspector sneers at the front page and trashes this rubbishy piece of reporting because – as he has to keep reminding his long-suffering sidekick – “it’s COMPLETELY AND UTTERLY UNTRUE LEWIS! I NEED a drink! (You buy it, I don’t seem to have any money.)”

What makes me reach for my sawn-off metaphorical shotgun isn’t the reporting per se. It’s the look of the newspaper.

It’s almost invariably a tabloid. Occasionally a local rag (many a local freesheet has terrible design, so fair enough), or sometimes a national paper. A redtop perhaps.

I know the TV show or film only gives you two nanoseconds to see this thing in all its tabloidyness, yet something’s not quite right.

It’s a prop, and we all know it.

A certain kind of realism

News and newspapers crop up often in crime fiction, so you want to get it right, right? And Morse is the type of fiction that demands a reasonable degree of social realism.

It’s not like, say, a comedy film, or something from the Superman franchise, which can afford to take liberties with the paper’s appearance, which can get away with a slight exaggeration here or a joke there.

Wallace from Wallace and Gromit reading a paper with some sheep

Besides Wallace and Gromit, I guess we’re also more forgiving with newspapers in period dramas, or with unfamiliar newspapers from overseas. Maybe it’s because we’re less attuned to all their historical or regional niceties.

But not so if it’s supposed to be a contemporary newspaper, a familiar national, a daily tabloid, something you’d know the general look of in your local newsagents. There’s something amiss and you can’t put your finger on it.

Exhibit A, m’lud, is from a trailer for A Long Way Down (2014), based on the Nick Hornby best-seller. The newspaper prop appears at 0:55.

It’s a trite British black comedy. Do you want to see it again? No, I don’t either. But here’s a still of the prop:

A prop newspaper from the film

The page isn’t a total disaster by any means, yet something doesn’t ring true. It’s as though the world of prop newspapers doesn’t quite “get” the underlying design conventions of real-life ones. Where do we start?

  • Take the strange five-column strip of white space near the top of the page. Why?
  • Or the page’s left margin, slightly too narrow.
  • Or the headings that all clash as they float up towards the very top of the page.
  • Or the wishy-washy wording of “TV’S MARTIN SHARP & POLITICIAN’S DAUGHTER”.
  • Or “Topper’s Tower” – such is the spacing that I mistook it for the name of a regular column by a Mr Topper or Mr Tower, rather than a subheading about an infamous tower off which toppers (toppers plural – that’s the whole point) top themselves.
  • Or the large uninterrupted slabs of fine print underneath, with no subheadings or quotes or little piccies or drop caps or anything else to break up the sea of grey.
  • Does the physical paper itself look too heavy for newsprint? And see that extra fold in the middle of the page – is it the wrong way for a left-hand page? I mean, has the paper been folded so that the front page is on the inside, and the sports back page is outside?

At least the headings are reasonably short. Often, though, a prop newspaper’s main headline will be far too long and convoluted, and in a smaller typeface than it ought to be for a real tabloid.

In fact it can be more like a “broadsheet” heading, because the design has got the scale and visual grammar all wrong. In the topsy-turvy physics of newspaper design, as the page gets smaller the headlines don’t shrink – if anything they get much bigger. Ask The Sun. Or even “compact” versions of broadsheets.

Often when the prop is supposed to be a front page, it’s too simplified: there’s none of the promo clutter for all the other stuff inside the edition, the headline has too much white space on either side of it, or there’s only one story on the page (portraying Inspector Morse as PC PLOD!). And so on.

A newsflash!

Let’s turn to crime novels, and not only how they treat the design of newspapers – or, more often, the wording of their headlines and the text in their news stories -but also those moments when a character hears a newsflash on the radio or TV.

Does it pull you up and make you say, “Hold on, that doesn’t ring true”? Does the news reader sound all wrong?

I won’t name and shame any fellow crime fiction writers, but the biggest crime is prose littered with long-winded, clunky, passive constructions, and pushes the subject and the most important information to the wrong end of the sentence. TV and radio hate that. Heard out loud, it’s hard to follow.

The fictional news bulletin has been written to be read in a book, full stop, with no consideration of how it might sound when read out loud.

I know. It’s “only” fiction. A fictional bulletin is bound to take a few shortcuts here and there (because this is fiction). But it can’t simply ignore most of the basic conventions of your typical real-life bulletin. Even in fiction you need to give a nod or two to verisimilitude. It doesn’t have to be word-for-word like a real bulletin, but it can’t afford to be speech that’s so stilted that it doesn’t ring true.

Maybe the problem is that the author hasn’t bothered to listen. I mean really listen, to real news readers. These authors are writing what they think those news conventions should be, as opposed to something remotely approaching real-life news-speak.

Once again, the moment draws attention to an awkward “prop” because the writer doesn’t quite grasp the news genre. (Either that or they want the news reader character to give a damn fine impression of a work experience trainee newbie person reading the late-night headlines for the first time.)

From newspaper props to news bulletin speech, you get something that vaguely symbolises “The News” but is unconvincing, unreal, too proppy.

It reminds me of Hollywood’s long-standing convention of portraying someone logging on to their laptop: the interface is supersized, clunky, oversimplified, like a child’s toy rather than a real PC.

And don’t get me started with email. A huge icon of an envelope (that’s an email message) flutters across the screen, and in the background the desktop is always clean and tidy compared to the real-life clutter of a real-life screen.

It reminds me of those big blobby cartoon-like countdown clocks for bomb in 1980s action thrillers.

News and texts on mobiles

Or forget laptops. Nowadays we’re increasingly using much smaller screens: mobile devices. That’s where people increasingly get their online news, texts and so on, right? A mobile, an iPad, or one of Apple’s new watches perhaps.

Question #1: Are there cheap, elegant, better ways of showing text messages (and online news and the Internet in general) within a film or TV drama nowadays?

Answer: Tony Zhou’s brilliant video says a resounding “Yes”.

Question #2: Are there better ways to do it in a novel, on the printed page (or eBook screen)?

Maybe. Any suggestions?

And in other news… the Weatherfield Gazette

As for fictitious newspapers in soaps, where do we start? With the Weatherfield Gazette of course. In recent times this local paper’s (prop) designer has been one James Court, who creates editions that look very convincing in their true-life tackiness.

I don’t tune in to Corrie that much, but I do recall that Boring Ken Barlow used to be a local hack and at one stage even edited the Gazette. Or was it the Weatherfield Recorder freesheet?

How Boring Ken managed to have time to do all that in between all his steamy affairs is still beyond me. And you never really got a good look at Ken’s handiwork, that hard-hitting Pulitzer prizewinning media product that would put the fear of god into anybody even slightly mentioned in a two-inch story on the back page of this week’s issue.

Then around the turn of the century Ken became “a weekly communist” for the Gazette. I think that’s what he called it. Again, I can’t remember ever seeing his actual communist scribblings close-up on the page, though characters would often barge up to him in the Rovers and complain (“mildly” or “bitterly”, as this was a pub) about something he’d written in his “weekly commune”.

Instead, they’d just point and stab at some general lump of newsprint. Or hit him with it. All very vague, but a vicious little prop all the same.

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