08 October 2012

The Truth Game: “The Truth is not always that simple".

Playwright Simon Cunliffe tells drama on the waterfront about the inspiration for The Truth Game.

Playwright Simon Cunliffe. Photo by Paul McLaughlin.
I didn’t formally become a “journalist’’ until I was in my early 30s. And by that time – the mid-80s – I had lived, travelled and worked in various capacities across the world:  plastics factory labourer in Christchurch; mine worker in Northern Australia; aid convoy driver in Kenya; development project tutor in Sudan, hotel assistant in France; warehouse man and cheesemaker in London

So you could say I brought something of an outsider’s gaze to the profession even as I embraced it and immersed myself in its intriguing milieu.  For the next-to-penniless would-be writer I was striving to become, it offered a good income and the opportunity to hone my craft. And though I didn’t fully realize it at the time, it began to throw up colourful characters and dramatic possibilities that would, a couple of decades on, seep into a play I had begun to write.

By about 1987, I found myself working casually at the Mirror Group in London. Its buildings straddled New Fetter Lane, just off Holborn Circus, which ran down to Fleet Street. Two of them were connected by a glass covered walkway above the street. It joined the satellite offices in which my colleagues and I worked to the labyrinthine maze opposite. This larger complex housed the newsroom of the Sunday Mirror. From the upper floors the magnate Robert Maxwell cast a sort of malevolent pall of dis-ease over his empire below.

It was the sort of building in which you could get lost. Indeed, it was here I first encountered that apocryphal tale of the editorial writer who, disoriented by the introduction of computers, was dispatched with his typewriter to “Siberia’’, an office on the dark side of a dark building which ordinarily you needed a road map to find -- and in which the editorialist’s crumbling cadaver was discovered a year or two later.

Below the offices of the Sunday Mirror Magazine, the launch of which I had been recruited to assist, there was a pub. It was dark, dank with stale beer and tobacco. Whorls of cigarette smoke hung in the air, illuminated by the occasional suffused shaft of light. A den of intrigue and internecine office politics, it was known as “The Stab’’ – short for “The Stab in the Back’’.  Here information was bought with a bevvy, liaisons initiated, careers begun and ended.

“Watch yours,’’ my chief sub used to tell me as we adjourned for a pint of  IPA. He was a gentleman, middle-aged, kind and learned, but, like that long-lost editorial writer, bewildered by the change that had overtaken his industry. For him, it was the end of the era. For me, eventually inheriting his job, it was just the beginning.

From his yacht anchored somewhere in the eastern Mediterranean Maxwell called up one day and demanded of a subordinate: “Sign three sub-editors!’’  Wishing neither to delay nor disappoint, the man shoulder-tapped the first three people who hove into view. I could have been the cleaner for all he knew; two or three years earlier, I probably had been.

I plunged into it with all the gratitude and zeal of the saved, regularly pinching myself. I drank in the lore, the stories, the conduct – hungrily. It seemed impossibly exotic: the two alpha male sub-editors bloodying each other’s noses over the placement of a serial comma; the  editorial “executives’’, back from a five-hour lunch, exorcising their booze-induced lust in the women’s loo, a crowd of  office eavesdroppers cheering them on.

I moved on to The Independent, still in its heyday. Here, the diversions were of a different order –  even the sex was more literary -- but in their own way, equally colourful.  Half expecting to be found out, and as insurance against that eventuality, I began acquiring keepsakes:  collecting incidents and observations like a magpie nicking  shiny trinkets, and filing them away in a slot called memory. 


One of the central conceits of my contemporary drama, The Truth Game, is that all the crises of the age come to a head during one night’s production of a fictional daily, The Advocate. It is in fact haunted by, though not based on, ghosts of people, places and events encountered over almost three decades in journalism.

In 1994, I returned to New Zealand, initially as a feature writer on The Press in Christchurch, a solid if somewhat conservative metropolitan broadsheet which had been recently taken over by the Murdoch-dominated Independent Newspapers Limited. A culture of “change management’’ was afoot in which, in increasingly senior roles, I played my eager part. But by the time I resigned as deputy editor at the end of 2002, small misgivings about the business of journalism had begun to gather.

It was these that got me started on the play, following a move to Dunedin. I began hawking round early versions of the script in about 2006, rewriting over the next few years as readings and workshops prompted advice from all quarters on how to construct the perfect drama. I was, initially at least, just as anxious that by the time it reached the stage, the fictional newsroom I had created, and the concerns of its inhabitants, would be laughably dated.

I was at that time fortunate to meet director Danny Mulheron, to whom the existence of this play owes a great deal. He loved newspapers; he loved the script, even in its earliest guise. He simply said: don’t worry, good things take time. We’ll get this play on.

He was as good as his word.


At the heart of The Truth Game is Frank Stone, “the last great snorting warhorse of print journalism’’. Acting editor of daily newspaper The Advocate, recently taken over by an international media company, he is an old-style print warrior for “truth’’, grammatical correctness and the watchdog role of “the Fourth Estate’’ – who finds himself at odds with his paper’s corporate masters.

While all around him marketers, managers and disciples of the new digital media  – Twitter, Facebook, YouTube – peddle their pervasive dedication to focus groups, loose-lipped trivia and the bottom line, Frank  tries to  reconcile the colliding demands of  principle and personal aspiration, while confronting the demons of his messy past, and mounting a rear-guard action for the very “soul’’ of news. Ambition, loyalty, love and betrayal act upon his careering orbit and on those surrounding him.


There is an old and clichéd piece of advice given to would-be authors: write about what you know. But, paradoxically, knowing too much can be a hindrance. Feedback on early drafts from journalists  -- “just like a documentary’’ --  and others, tended to confirm this. I also had to be reminded I wasn’t writing for my colleagues: they would form a tiny percentage of the potential audience.

The challenge was to turn my subject into compelling drama. And this meant learning about dramatic structure -- one not greatly informed by the exigencies of daily newspaper journalism. Sophisticated narrative form and feature writing apart, news reportage requires the conveyance of as much information as possible in the most economical way -- leaving nothing to chance and even less to suspense. On the other hand, newspapers and theatre both thrive on crises and conflict – it’s just that good drama offers its delayed gratifications in a series of stages as it drives towards climax and resolution.

I wanted to write a play set in a traditional newsroom besieged by the “crises’’ of the age --  before that newsroom disappeared entirely. In part this was to be an affectionate valediction, but also an interrogation of the confused and diffused role of the Fourth Estate in contemporary democracy. For if a well-functioning democracy requires the transparent and untrammelled passage of information – of “truth’’ –  through the media to the people, it is arguable that, assailed by a perfect storm of  falling circulation and splintered ad revenues, debt loading, changing ownership patterns and digital  consumption, that role has been increasingly compromised.

That’s the columnist and editorial writer in me: the now traditional newspaper man in control of his material who assembles facts and opinions and relays them – matter-of-factly. The dramatist within knows, however, that the theatrical substrate and the characters created don’t always want to play ball. They challenge you constantly, and haul you off in directions you might not have anticipated.

In his powerful indictment of the modern media, Flat Earth News, Guardian journalist Nick Davies suggests more than once that telling the truth is the proper business of journalism. But as even Frank Stone, its greatest advocate, is at one point forced to concede, “The Truth is not always that simple".

If it were, I suspect The Truth Game would never have been written, much less produced.

Simon Cunliffe
October 2012

The Truth Game opens on Saturday, 13 October with $25 Specials on Sunday, 14 October and Tuesday, 16 October. To book, please call the Circa Box Office on 801-7992 or visit www.circa.co.nz.

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