It’s the mid nineteen-eighties, and there’s trouble afoot. All is not well with The Fourth Estate. Indeed, things are getting nasty. Following a protracted spell of unrest over unfair working conditions one of the major newspaper publishers in Britain secretly builds a new base and transfers all operations without telling anyone. As publisher loud Australian Twiggy Rathbone is at the heart of it, indulging in mind games and dirty tricks with the rest of the press in an attempt to win the circulation battle and keep his newspapers at the top of the heap.
Wait a minute. I’m getting my realities confused again. Surely something like that couldn’t have happened in real life, can it? I mean, building an entire new plant and moving in overnight without telling anybody. It’s just too silly, surely?
And yet… well, let’s just say that you can find comedy even in the least promising of situations. Or you can if you’re as talented as Andrew Marshall and David Renwick, and you have a thing or two you want to say about the newspaper industry. Which brings us to “Hot Metal”, making a welcome reappearance on DVD. Occasional mild comedy spoiler alert. It’s difficult to get across how funny this is without revealing a couple of jokes.
It’s difficult to think of any writers in comedy (both together and individually) since Galton/Simpson or Clement/LaFrenais who have as consistent a hit rate as this pair. With “The Burkiss Way” a huge hit on radio (well, with everyone apart from Eric Pode of Croydon, possibly), they produced potentially the finest television sketch show since Python with the terminally underrated “End of Part One”. After that, they came up with “Whoops Apocalypse”, which long-term readers of this blog will know I’m rather fond of.
Somehow managing to find time between writing for Spike Milligan’s “There’s A Lot Of It About” and creating a short-lived spoof of horror films for Thames (“The Steam Video Company”), they set their sights on the remarkable shenanigans involved in getting a daily tabloid newspaper onto the streets. Series 1 of “Hot Metal” debuted in February 1986, with a second series following in March 1988. Marshall and Renwick aimed, fired and hit their target squarely amidships. In hindsight, with the weight of further years of lunacy behind us, “Hot Metal” barely seems like a comedy at all, more a documentary with copious jokes. The styles may have dated but sadly, the targets remain unsunk. Pretty much everything the writers were attacking still happens today. Only more so. More’s the pity.
Both series of “Hot Metal” have been available on DVD for a while now. This month they get a re-release in one package and for your hard-earned you’ll get two comedy series that come perilously close to the heights attained by “Whoops Apocalypse”. When you see stuff this good it makes you wish that everyone else would raise their game to match it. We need more comedy as burningly savage, as angry, as downright *funny* as this.
As series 1 opens we’re introduced to life at The Daily Crucible. Dry, full of financial stories and barely competent (when its own editor commits suicide it gets scooped by all of the other tabloids), times are ripe for a change. Unfortunately, incumbent editor Harry Stringer (Geoffrey Palmer at his most hangdog) doesn’t think so, and is steering the Crucible to oblivion. Despite the presence of borderline psychotic reporters like Greg Kettle (Richard Kane, the personification of the word “weasel” – resplendent in a dirty mac and trilby with a pencil mustache not seen since Private Walker “left for the Smoke” in “Dad’s Army”), it seems like Harry’s chosen path of sensible, non-hysterical stories isn’t flying with the public.
Times are changing and the change hits in a big way when The Daily Crucible is bought out by Rathouse Industries. The domineering mogul Twiggy Rathbone (Robert Hardy, delivering a performance so large it may well be visible from outside of the solar system) has plans. He isn’t going to change The Daily Crucible one little bit. Of course he isn’t.
As Harry is promoted upstairs where he can do no damage, new editor Russell Spam is installed. Meanwhile, Harry’s office would do just nicely for a new private bathroom. There’s no room anywhere else in the building and Harry jokes wryly that he’ll probably end up in the lift. Which floor, sir? Twiggy shares several characteristics with The Deacon, his spiritual predecessor from “Whoops Apocalypse”. Much given to deviousness and unwilling to be seen to instigate things, he spouts much the same gobbledegook masquerading as profundity, especially when there’s a camera on him.
He’s got an ego on him too. When Spitting Image features Harry and Twiggy in a sketch you know he’ll not rest until the slight is avenged. Which it is, but not in any way you’d expect. This man doesn’t litigate. He’s much more slippery than that, and it all contributes to the eventual plot resolution.
Meanwhile, Spam sets to with a will. There’s something oddly familiar about him, and there should be, given that he’s played by – Robert Hardy.
With Harry deeply concerned that his new boss is psychotically schizophrenic and the script playing with the concept for all it is worth, it’s time for The Daily Crucible to make some changes in the way it covers the headlines. There’s a new Royal girlfriend to persecute. An innocent vicar protesting against the closure of his church may be a werewolf. Oh, and did we mention that we’ve found Nikita Khruschev, alive and well and living in exile? All in tomorrow’s exciting Daily Crucible, the only paper with page three girls in “Wobblevision”. Get your free glasses with tomorrow’s issue.
Meanwhile, cub reporter Bill Tytla is on the trail of a major story. Played by John Gordon Sinclair as a Scottish version of Colombo (his m.o is full of rumpled suits, a distracted air and lot of “oh there’s just one more thing”s), the plot gradually darkens as the series progresses. Almost despite themselves, The staff at the Daily Crucible uncover a plot that goes right to the heart of the British Government.
Suddenly in posession of material that might topple Prime Minister MacNamara (a very welcome cameo from Jack Watling), it’s up to the editorial staff to decide – publish and be damned, or not publish and be damned. Can the paper that bought sextuplets and tried to give them away to the first six childless couples to write in be trusted to do the right thing?
You’ll need to pay attention when you start to watch “Hot Metal”, because the pace never lets up, not for one minute. Taking a cue from “His Girl Friday”, the Daily Crucible is full of treachery, deceit and one-liners. Determined to stop at nothing in his quest to be the most successful editor in Fleet Street, Spam is more than capable of nobbling the competition in a series of ever more outrageous publicity stunts. Harry tries to maintain quality levels but it’s a doomed effort, especially when Spam has the assistance of master reporter Greg Kettle.
While Bill Tytla chases the real story (and quite why Renwick and Marshall have named the character after one of Disney’s most beloved animators I don’t quite know), the staff at The Daily Crucible engage in an ever more ludicrous series of circulation ploys. Watch carefully, because every scene is plotted so tightly it squeaks.
Although the madness in the offices seems like a mere framework to hang jokes on, it’s not. Everything’s connected. Kettle and Spam’s seemingly arbitrary persecution of John Horsley’s potentially lycanthropic Padre leads to the Khruschev plot being shown in a new light, which in turn feeds back into Twiggy’s desire for a place on the New Years honours list and his courtship of PM MacNamara. It all counts, and the disparate plot threads wind together so tightly that by the end of the series you’re looking back and wondering why you didn’t spot their significance before. Things reach a peak when Harry attempts to force a vote of no-confidence and goes before the board of governers, only to discover that they *all* look like Robert Hardy. It’s also an oddly sinister scene, reminding this viewer of some of the sequences in the original BBC version of “Quatermass II”. There’s one Robert Hardy in here who looks and acts like someone rather familiar. Keep an eye out for him. You should be able to spot the one I mean.
There’s a “recap the plot” scene in the final episode which perhaps strains a little at the bit to lay things out (indeed, you can hear the audience laughing a little uneasily at the massive info-dump delivered by Palmer) but this is a comedy with a beginning, a middle and an end. And another beginning. And possibly another end.
Barely a year later, The Daily Crucible is still in business as Hot Metal returns for a second series. Things have changed a little. There’s been a slight cast reshuffle, with Geoffrey Palmer replaced by Richard Wilson’s ever more tortured Dickie Lipton. Once a middling television personality, Lipton is recruited by Rathbone as the new editor, replacing erm, what’s his name – the previous editor. Missing after an accident, he’ll never be forgotten. Harry…. what’s his name again?
Indignity after indignity is heaped upon Wilson over these six episodes (from getting both hands broken, he progresses through a nervous breakdown episode involving Sooty, Sweep and an unscheduled appearance on a certain BBC magazine programme for children), and I presume Renwick remembered when it came time to cast “One Foot In The Grave”. I shouldn’t have been at all surprised if Victor Meldrew had turned out to be a retired newspaper editor.
John Gordon Sinclair has moved on (although I’m fairly sure he can be spotted in the background for one scene in episode 1). He has a more than capable successor in the pint-sized but extremely handy Maggie Troon. Played by Caroline Milmoe with a Liddypool accent and a power-bob not seen since Nicola Bryant let her hair grow out for the 1986 season of Doctor Who, Maggie knows a story when she sees one. Armed with a nose for the real facts and a Gilliam-esque talent for caricature it’s up to Maggie to uncover another massive conspiracy.
This one involves the disappearance of one “Judge Hitchcock” and the inexplicable death of his entire immediate family. There may be a psychopath on the loose. Or is it aliens? Perhaps End of Part One’s Tony Aitken – cameoing as a conspiracy nut – has the answers. McGuffins abound, not least the gigantic one that hides in plain sight for the entire series and which I completely failed to spot. Clever old writers.
Meanwhile, a returning Greg Kettle has other things on his mind. He starts the series attempting to obtain a list of all known AIDS carriers, which he intends to publish as a cut-out-and-keep relationship aid. By the time he’s done he’ll have smeared an entire primary school, caused a Nicaraguan horse to be sawn in half as the result of a dispute with a rival paper, infiltrated the writing staff of EastEnders and bought some babies. Many, many babies.
Meanwhile, Twiggy Rathbone has got over being lampooned by Spitting Image in the first series. Having brought Lipton in to “control” Russell Spam and his more fanciful excesses (some hope), he’s busy trying to fend off rumours that he’s seduced Meryl Streep. There’s a philanthropic mission in the offing, distributing many hundred thousand chocolate Ratbars to starving children in Africa, and there’s the small matter of the opening of RatWorld theme park in what used to be the New Forest to be attended to.
As for Spam? He’s kidnapped an overweight woman and wired her jaws together as a publicity stunt. Oh, and in order to drive Lipton insane he’s also taken the Crucible to a 24 hour publishing schedule. Not to mention triggering off Britain’s first ever page three girls strike.
Incidentally, while you’re enjoying all this you might want to pick up your Bingo card with tomorrow’s exciting Daily Crucible. You could win the bones of Elvis Presley.
This second series is even more bitter and angry than the first. The jokes are more outrageous, the plot is even more watertight and audacious and the thriller motif comes a lot more to the fore, with some genuinely unsettling episode endings. Making good use of incidental music from Nigel Hess (who scores both series, following on from his previous work with Marshall/Renwick on “Whoops Apocalypse”), there’s some nice Hitchcock / Hermann tension building going on here.
Once again, it all builds to a gloriously satisfying finale, with every line and random event dropping into place. Look for plot-holes at your peril, because you won’t find any. Even the seemingly arbitrary hiring of Lipton to keep an eye on Spam’s antics pays off. You have to wait until the final scene of the series, but it pays off, and how.
It’s difficult to choose standout performers in either series. They’re pretty much all great, although with twice as much Robert Hardy as anyone else, it’s pretty much his series from the get-go. Geoffrey Palmer is predictably superb – is he capable of anything else? There’s ample opportunity for him to put that hangdog mien to use, and you will find yourself rooting for Harry all the way through. Not least in a simple and elegant exchange with Spam towards the end of series 1.
Richard Kane provides a memorable monster as Greg Kettle twists everything he encounters into a headline – perhaps reaching a peak when he claims that a primary school teacher is grooming small girls for a life in prostitution while teaching them to cross at some traffic signals (“she instructed them to always stand under the red light”). If not discovering anything resembling a conscience, he does sort of come over to the side of the angels by series end. Either that, or he thinks there’s a story in it.
John Gordon Sinclair seems oddly muted at first, livening up as he ends up attending an autopsy, having a fire extinguisher fired down his keks and indulging in some bed-fu to get out of a tricky situation. Rumpled in a parka and eating in every scene (much to Geoffrey Palmers surprise), Sinclair motors the plot along in series 1 without actually seeming to. His encounters in a car park with an informant known only as “Sore Throat” are an early highlight.
If I had to choose a standout though, it’s got to be Caroline Milmoe’s remarkable turn as Maggie. She’s absolutely brilliant. Sharing her predecessor’s ability to drive the story along without even trying, she’ll walk into a village stalked by a potential psychopath, answer the hotline in a top security American airbase and – occasionally – knee a Sun reporter in the balls without breaking her stride. She’s great, and a spin-off would surely have been a marvellous thing indeed.
There was more to come from Marshall and Renwick after this. They went on to give Alexei Sayle the perfect television vehicle, with three series of “Stuff”. The much delayed “If You See God, Tell Him” marked the end of their television partnership, with Renwick subsequently contributing to the sum of human happiness by creating first “One Foot In The Grave”, “Jonathan Creek” and “Love Soup”, amongst others.
Not content with being the apparent inspiration for Marvin The Paranoid Android, Marshall went on to write the hugely popular “2Point4 Children”, and then created my great lost television hope. “Strange” should have been gigantic. Wasn’t, and that’s a shame.
Both can be seen in the newsroom scenes in the 1989 “Hot Metal” Comic Relief sketch (sadly not included on this set). Working seperately, they’re superb. Together, they’re responsible for a run of consistently wonderful material, with “Whoops Apocalypse” and “Hot Metal” sitting squarely at the pinnacle of eighties comedy. “Black Adder”, “The Young Ones” and the like are all more fondly remembered, but these match them scene for scene, joke for joke.
This DVD version contains both series, with no extras. A making of would have been fascinating, but to be honest, the series themselves are all the material you could ever want. Endlessly rewatchable, with jokes and plot details that reveal themselves after repeated viewings and wrapped up in an urgently memorable Alan Price theme tune, this is perfect comedy. You now have no excuse not to own a copy.
Go and buy. Or face the might and wrath of Her Majesty’s Press.
Availabe 18th October from Network DVD.