Every reporter over a certain age looks back to a golden age of journalism with a certain rose-tinted whimsy.
We remember with fondness the egomaniacs, the tyrants, the eccentrics and the battle-scarred, boozed-up hacks who could regale a bar-room with outlandish stories.
It may be long gone, to be replaced with cheap, ill-experienced juniors straight out of media studies courses, but it has never been forgotten.
Certainly not by former Daily Express, Standard and Guardian hack Mark Jagasia who squirreled away his experiences to use for his stupendous debut play, Clarion, which opened at London’s Arcola Theatre last night.
The audience was packed to the rafters with former colleagues and national newspaper critics who laughed themselves silly (and that’s a rare sight).
To those outside the business they may think Clarion is a scathing satire about gutter journalism but to those in the know..well, we know different.
The Clarion is Britain’s worst newspaper (though I’d argue the point), led by zenophobic, egotistical, unscrupulous, old school editor Morris Honeyspoon (Greg Hicks, on splendid form).
His method for boosting sales is to feature the same topic – immigration – on its front pages every day for the past year and one poor journo, Joshua, has been given the thankless task of coming up with the stories – whether they’re accurate of not.
Morris thunders into the daily news conferences bearing a Roman Centurion’s helmet which takes pride of place as some sort of pseudo beacon for crusading journalism.
If he doesn’t like a story he sounds a horn; if he doesn’t like the reporter, he’ll blast them with rhetoric or worse.
Everything about Morris is full on as he struts around his little empire. Get a story and stuff the consequences.
Unfortunately one story is set to bite him on the bum. It’s a smoking gun that provides the intrigue amid the chaos and laugh-out-loud comedy.
This is a national paper that still retains some of its characters – just. Columnist Verity Stokes limps on. She’s a Kate Adie type who clawed her way up and over colleagues in the newsroom. A veteran of war zones, famines and global disasters with stories to tell.
But integrity and honesty have been replaced over the years by cold hard cynicism and a contempt for young upstarts thinking they can take a short cut to career success.
She’s a bit of a cliche. The only woman in a man’s world who has wine for breakfast, vodka for elevenses, and Morris when she’s too puddled to care – oh and a £1,000 a week expenses (blimey).
Who better to play her than Clare Higgins, darling, whose Verity has the patter, the burnt-out demeanour, the final vestiges of a moral code, and a nice line in put-downs.
News editor Albert (Jim Bywater) cares more about his next meal than a front page splash, Joshua (Ryan Wichert) is writing a book when he’s not writing about immigrants, work experience Pritti (Laura Smithers with the most annoying, London patois accent) has no concept of news journalism (so should go far) while management lackey Clive (Peter Bourke) has a hotline to God.
Jagesia’s hugely quotable dialogue is hysterically funny, unerringly astute, and outrageously accurate (though it did seem rather quaint watching Hicks editing paper page proofs with a pencil rather than doing it onscreen).
Greg Hicks is firing on all cylinders as Morris, an editor overflowing with nervous energy, adrenalin or just a fear of failing circulation.
His fingers constantly dance, there’s a twitch on his gaunt face and a mania in his eyes, and you’re constantly waiting to duck the next eruption of bile.
Clarion is a trumpet call to all those other journalists who spend a lifetime writing, or thinking about writing, their novels or plays.
Yes, there are a lot of in-jokes, apposite lines about freedom of the press etc but the broad sweep of the comedy and the knockout performances should guarantee more than just fellow journalists buy tickets.
Mark Jagesia has pulled off a remarkable splash. A headline-grabbing comedy that’s one of the funniest in years. Hold The Front Page, I think this writer has a future.
Clarion runs at the Arcola until May 16 (but hopefully will be looking for a West End transfer).