For journalists, the most fundamental lesson is that what sells the news and gets the clicks is a good story. James Graham’s Ink is the cracking story of the rebirth of The Sun – Britain’s most notorious tabloid newspaper owned by arguably the world’s most powerful media mogul, Rupert Murdoch. But the center of this unmissable London transfer is not Murdoch, rather it’s his legendary editor Larry Lamb, whose ruthless pursuit of circulation gave the world cut-throat check book journalism, topless Page Three girls and a wanton disregard for ethics and truth in print. Ink steers clear of polemic and focuses instead on the disruptive nature of Murdoch’s will to win at any cost, how his pervasive influence has depended on the people he chose to run his newspapers and TV stations.
Britain in 1969 was a country in transition – still clinging to its traditional class-ridden colonial legacy but producing the quintessential music and style of the swinging sixties. The country’s media was most definitely stuck in the past when Rupert Murdoch unnerved the establishment by buying the floundering broadsheet newspaper The Sun from the media empire that also owned the country’s most popular paper The Mirror.
Murdoch persuaded Larry Lamb, a working-class outsider who was also a former Mirror journalist with chips on both shoulders to run his new venture. As Murdoch and Lamb, under the flawless direction of Rupert Goold, Bertie Carvel and Jonny Lee Miller are both superb. Carvel captures the foul-mouthed, socially awkward Murdoch with subtlety while Miller’s Lamb is all twitchy nervous energy and striving angst. Miller barely leaves the stage for the entire performance in what must be an exercise in stamina.
The first act portrays the breakneck rush to produce the first issue of the paper with immense energy and humor. Lamb sets out to recruit a scrappy group of journalists and as each one joins the team they burst into a song and dance routine that would do The Temptations proud. The strong ensemble cast portray all the newsroom characters with Andrew Durand particularly memorable doubling as a fey photographer and an hilarious voiceover actor.
This all plays out on Bunny Christie’s intricate set where a newsroom of old metal desks and typewriters towers precariously toward the sky. The cast deftly scales the teetering furniture while the action gathers ever more frenetic pace. As the first edition rolls off the press, projections on the backdrop show a continuous stream of papers and throughout, relevant headlines bolster what’s happening on stage. From time to time, the entire backdrop is ominously flooded with black ink.
The first act reflects one of tabloid’s well-known populist taglines “No one does fun like The Sun.” But Act Two delves into the questionable practices the paper adopts to beat The Mirror in the circulation war. As a crisis befalls a member of the paper’s board, Lamb refuses to steer clear of the story. His lurid coverage of the event may have contributed to the tragic outcome. The owner of The Mirror, Hugh Cudlipp, played suavely by Michael Siberry has already warned Lamb where his editorial policy will lead: “Pander to and promote the most base instincts of people all you like, fine, create an appetite, but I warn you. You’ll have to keep feeding it.”
Feeding the beast becomes Lamb’s obsession culminating with the introduction of photos of topless women on Page Three. It’s hard to underestimate how deeply shocking this blatant grab for readers was at the time. Even a decade later, when I was a child in London, The Sun was seen as smutty and not a paper that respectable people read because of the Page Three Girls.
Here, Murdoch is portrayed as conflicted by the move, that is until he sees the readership numbers. The Sun and other papers in Murdoch’s stable went on to pay for stories especially salacious ones involving celebrities and to illegally tap phones of the powerful and the famous and later with the advent of mobile phones, even abduction victims. The tone of the second half is dark and foreboding. It sets the scene for Murdoch’s ever-expanding media acquisitions and his influence on politics both in the UK and the US.
The documentary-style play is by turns an affectionate and skeptical portrait of this iconic newspaper’s beginnings – which a major milestone in the career of Rupert Murdoch. As viewers of the TV drama Succession that is closely based on the Murdoch dynasty may know, there are potentially many more “chapters” of Murdoch’s life that could be dramatized. But even if Ink remains a stand-alone play it is a timely reminder that popular media and responsible journalism don’t always make good companions.