A lesson in misteaks: Hot Fuzz and Tim Messenger

The fiction: Hot Fuzz, released 2007. Director: Edgar Wright. Props master: David “Springer” Horrill

The newspaper: Sandford Citizen

A sleepy town full of flowers, churchyards and the elderly. Such a sight would not be complete in Britain unless there was a local newspaper that regularly struggled to find anything exciting for the front page… if only the editor knew that the Neighbourhood Watch Alliance was secretly murdering ne’er-do-wells left, right and centre! That’s not quite the set-up to Hot Fuzz, because Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg astutely observed that making the police the centre of attention means lots of third act gunfights. I don’t blame them — and, in fact, Wright did a stellar job of representing local journalism anyway.

Deconstructing the action genre and then revelling in its excess while making you laugh, Hot Fuzz is already a towering achievement and recognised as such. One of my favourite gags comes fairly early in the film, when hotshot policeman Sgt Nicholas Angel arrives in the ‘sleepy’ village of Sandford, only to face the alarming greeting “Fascist!”. But it turns out it’s just a case of crossworder’s tourettes:

HotFuzz002
As Angel rightly points out, the word is actually “fascism”.

This is our first glimpse of the town’s local newspaper, the Sandford Citizen, and it’s already rather telling.

As a general rule, British crosswords — which feature more black squares and cryptic clues than American ones — are symmetrical in some fashion, just to help the setter construct a grid. This one is manifestly not a symmetrical grid and has far too many black squares, even by British crossword standards. It’s not only an eyesore but a waste of ink.

So although the puzzle design is sloppy, it still works as a crossword. The box that correlates to seven across is indeed seven squares long and would comfortably fit the correct answer, so perhaps we can just chalk the crossword up as an unconventional one. Most local newspapers will farm out their crossword creating to somewhere like the Press Association, who would then syndicate puzzles to papers across the country (duplicates and all, because most readers will only encounter one of these local publications in any given week). But the unconventionality of this one suggests an independently created crossword.

And that’s probably how the Sandford Citizen works. Because when Angel meets the Citizen’s reporter Tim Messenger, it seems that he does pretty much everything for the paper. He’s the reporter…

Messenger dictaphone

…and the photographer…

HotFuzz011

…and a sub-editor with a knack for sensationalist headlines…

HotFuzz026

…and he mans the features desk as well as the newsdesk…

HotFuzz027

Unfortunately, Tim Messenger might be spreading himself a bit too thin across the Sandford Citizen’s work.

With this apparent jack-of-all-trades set-up, it would be no surprise to see the Citizen’s output suffer. It would also suggest that the Citizen is an independent outfit, rather than one of the UK’s many regional newspapers owned by a larger publisher such as Newsquest, Johnston Press, Trinity Mirror or Archant. Because although those companies are aware that their regional titles are cash-strapped, I don’t think any of them run one-man operations.

If Messenger was part of a larger company there’s a good chance his reporting would be sent through to a subbing hub, a large office dedicated to assembling newspapers far away from wherever the reporter works, allowing the company to establish a base that covers a whole region. It loses the touch of local knowledge, but it’s a cheaper way to run things and so is popular.

If that were the case, the Sandford Citizen would probably be a decent read. But it seems a lot more likely that Messenger is the sole sub-editor of the office, and he’s abysmal at it.

Angle wide

This front page is never going to win any awards, but it’s not a terrible piece of design by any measure. The mixed sans/serif masthead is a tradition in the form of the old Guardian logo, and the teasers underneath are pretty standard. It’s only when you look at the actual words that Messenger’s work gets noticeably iffy.

Angel finds this out for himself when he reads the latest edition shortly after his arrival in Sandford, which puts a story about him on the front page:

Top Cop Angle

This is monstrous for a couple of reasons. The headline teases into the subhead with a colon, which is not standard or especially pleasing to read. That said, the headline itself is a fun enough pun and fits the space very well, although it’s such a yawn-inducing story that any editor would prefer to keep it back for an inside page rather than the main front page story.

The subhead then gets anarchic with two different sizes of type, and further adds confusion by capitalising every word on the top line, even though “cop” should be lower case — if it’s a word allowed at all, given that some style guides frown upon it, as they also do on “kids”. To top it all off, there’s a full stop at the end, which almost no newspaper in the world would ever dream of doing, given how it saps all the blunt energy a subhead should fizz with.

And, of course, the main issue as far as Sgt Angel is concerned is the spelling of his surname: “Angle”. If you look at the copy you can see it’s a mistake repeated there and could therefore suggest Messenger cannot spell — or it’s one of those words he just can’t type without slipping up. (We all have them: I could never type Inspector Goole, in an essay on An Inspector Calls, without first writing “Inspector Google”.)

We learn in The Swan pub that the Sandford Citizen is not averse to making such mistakes, either, when the landlord and landlady reveal their distrust of the publication:

HotFuzz006
According to the DVD’s trivia track — I do like a good trivia track — this is inspired by a real life incident from director Edgar Wright’s family

This is the sort of thing that genuinely annoys readers of local newspapers. They enjoy being in the paper — an easy circulation-boosting trick is just to photograph random members of the public in the hopes they will fork out for a couple of copies at the newsagent — but woe betide any journalist who slips up on an age or name spelling. This is especially damaging to the newspaper’s reputation in the case of a tragedy — no family wants to read a report of their loved one’s death, only for Mr Thompson to become Mr Thomson.

Or, if you’re Nicholas Angel, then the issue is your colleagues who find it hilarious and decorate your locker:

Angle locker

It’s not just the readers who would be unhappy with this, though. Every sub-editor lives in constant fear that one day their attention will slip and somebody’s name will be spelled wrong on the front page of the newspaper. It’s an immediate siren to readers that newspapers are not infallible, quite prone to mistakes and maybe not worth the 50p or so they may be asking for.

Readers of the Sandford Citizen should be used to such errors, as we discover when Angel heads off to the library, which collects — like any good library should — past editions of the paper.

These stacks of old papers are also usually used to compile features on
These stacks of old papers are also usually used to compile features on “what the paper reported on 100/75/50 years ago”

What he finds is enough to make anybody involved in newspapers flinch with revulsion. So strap yourselves in, because this will not be pretty.

Inside 15

We can see here that the Sandford Citizen has quite a proud history, dating back to 1848. But any goodwill built up there is sure to be squandered by the “Bipass” spelling, which also scores double horror by way of random capitalisation. Newspapers frequently deal with matters such as bypasses (the White Pine Bay Current, for example) and for that to be a weak point of the paper’s only sub-editor seems to be a catastrophic calamity.

Inside 1

Clearly that is not his only weak point, as this brief snatch of news indicates that Tim Messenger may just be at odds with all convention. For starters, we have a repeat of the “full stop at the end of a subhead” issue from earlier, although mercifully both lines remain the same typeface size. Apart from that, it’s a total mess.

There’s a criminal amount of whitespace on the second deck of the headline, leaving a good inch of space that seems especially ugly when the subhead goes underneath it — only to then face its own, slightly lesser, whitespace issue. We also have the word “local” thrown in there, a largely useless term to use in a local newspaper: if this wasn’t happening locally, it would not be in the paper at all.

“Barsket” is, of course, incorrect and suggests that Tim Messenger might spell things phonetically (if he pronounces long As, as the ‘posher’ English accents do). Beyond that stand-out horror of a spelling, the caption above gives us school “puppils” — double letters are an easy typo to commit, but that hardly helps here — and also the name Amada, which I am 90 per cent confident should be Amanda. Style guides vary on whether “headmistress” is an acceptable term to use (“headteacher” being the alternative), so we’ll let the Citizen off with that one.

Inside 2

We shall certainly not be letting them off this offence to the eyeballs, however.

Colons are a tricky business, because you often want to repeat them and have to find some way around it. Film titles are the worst for this, with Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace looking so overburdened with colons that convention settled on Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace, shaking things up with a dash. (It only gets more baffling with the irritatingly punctuated Mission: Impossible franchise, in which the third film did double-colon itself.)

Here, the most elegant solution would be to have “Sandford Family Trees” in some other font or with some specialised piece of design, as it clearly is a regular feature which could benefit from a designed header image. But it all fits quite nicely, and even the capitalisation seems sensible. The glimpse of a nicely presented family tree also looks good, and is a frankly lovely ploy to sell more copies of the paper by targeting concentrated groups.

Inside 5

Even the bylines appear to be inconsistent in this carnival freakshow of a newspaper, with this appearing as “Story by” where previously it was “Words and pictures by”. Nonetheless, the man responsible is the same old Tim Messenger, and he does not disappoint. In the brief flash of this clipping, we can find at least four errors (more if you’re not generous).

At the top of the frame we can see a story begin “The garden extrravanager”, a butchering of “extravaganza” that beggars belief. “Plantlife” has a capital in the next sentence even though it shouldn’t, and we take a trip to homophone corner in the shadow of Angel’s hand with “The land… was formally an an arable feild”, which means to say “formerly” and chucks in a mixed-up E and I for good measure. For added confusion, you can clearly see “A formal application” in the intro, perfectly correct.

Headlines don’t often give people titles and dotted initials like that “Mr G. Merchant” example but, by this point, this is the least of your worries.

And it just keeps going…

Inside 4

Although that singular pronoun hovering at the end of the top deck of the headline is irritating, it is not terrible. Apart from ending with a full stop — a definite wrong move for a headline — it’s not a bad quote to summarise the story, although most papers would prefer single quote marks to double (simply because it takes up less space).

The body text fares a bit worse, with “self confessed” lacking a hyphen, no paragraph indents and a repeat of the “bipass” error.

Inside 3

This next page looks fine, although if “Sandford People” is a regular feature then it too could do with a snazzy header image. The advert in the top right is another nifty moneymaking exercise to wring a few extra pennies out of readers who have appeared in the paper, offering a reprinting service of any photos that have appeared in the paper.

The advert beneath appears to be offering fridges as sold by George Merchant, resulting in a dodgy juxtaposition of story and advert that makes the story seem like a barely disguised advertorial feature. Unlabelled advertising can get newspapers into significant amounts of trouble… but only if noticed.

And who has time to notice it when, above that, “contact” has been given an extra T across the top of the paper?

Inside 10

At the very right of the frame here we can see that, by some miracle, Tim Messenger appears to have correctly written “travellers” rather than succumbing to a single L spelling as you might expect of him. Looming a bit more obviously large, though, is a notable corruption of “lovely” with a superfluous E and, above that, an article seems to end mid-sentence with no full stop.

It looks to my local newspaper-reading eye that the subhead of this story might be talking about “basket displays” and that’s certainly a “year” beneath — with an exclamation mark, a certain way of sending some delicate sub-editors into a rage — which, taken together, suggests that the headline is the world’s most cliché local newspaper headline: “Blooming lovely” atop a story about a flower display of some kind or another. Everyone’s used it, everyone’s used to it, it’s almost a crime not to slip it in where possible. To my knowledge, at least, no reader has every complained of its overuse.

In fact, the only thing that’s possibly more reminiscent of a local newspaper would be a picture of people holding a novelty giant cheque after a philanthropist or charity has donated a large sum.

Inside 16
Yes, most of it is cropped off — but that is a novelty “West Counties Bank” cheque you see there

But to return to headlines, if you squint at this rapid, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it front page, we find a pleasantly punny one:

Inside 8Inside 7

George Merchant has bought some scrubland which, apparently, qualifies him to be “George of the Jungle”. I actually quite like that as a headline, but it’s just as well there’s another line beneath it to properly explain the story: you can get away with all sorts of nonsense in the main headline if you’ve got extra space to do it straight as well. It’s not quite so common for newspapers to make puns out of people’s names (well, not the British local press — the nationals, on the other hand, do what they like most days).

So excited must Messenger have been with his reference to a sixties cartoon (or 1997 Brendan Fraser film, who’s to say which?) that he’s forgotten how to write properly — the story at the bottom of the page speaks of “exiting aquarium visit”. There’s a chance that, in fact, Sanford Primary (a bad headline, because what other primary school would the Citizen cover?) has pulled out of a trip, though given the usual calibre of news in Sandford I would suggest it’s meant to be “exciting”.

old edition 2

This front page is even more cavalier, with two exclamation marks. They are, thankfully, not next to each other to denote a double surprise!! There is something about schoolchildren staying quiet and a headline that begins: “Shhhhhhhhhhhhhh!” A 15-character word with no vowels is rare indeed, but not quite as rare as this blatant attempt at filling out a headline space that’s running short by just extending a word. But you could make the case that it’s eye-catching and the kids will love it anyway.

Next to that horror, “Local” crops up once more, this time about a “criket star” getting married — and can you think of any way worse to mess up somebody’s big day than littering a news report on it with spelling mistakes? It makes wrong ages look positively forgiveable.

But if that’s the sort of error that Messenger lets loose upon front pages, is it possible he just accidentally stumbled onto using “discreet” properly in a different edition, when he could have easily cocked it up as “discrete”?

Inside 13

Well, maybe. The missing T from “TRY OU THE” certainly bears a resemblance to Messenger’s style of work, but the whole thing is clearly an advert and, therefore, was probably written by the hearing aid shop or business that placed the ad. They can spell but made a single typo and, true to form, Tim Messenger simply never noticed. He was probably busy putting together the whole paper by himself.

And what a slapdash effort it really is:

Inside 12

As well as the repeated “conttact” problem — how it pains me to see it on so many pages — there’s also a serious mix-up here. It’s the Business and Finance section according to that strap along the top, and the headline itself could fit this, as it looks a lot like “…shares on the up”.

But the body text? “The boy went missing”, “abandoned tricycle”, “…years ago the body of a…” and “Glyndwr Police” all jump out at the reader, suggesting a crime story. Very probably about a dead child and almost certainly in Wales. The only logical conclusion is that Tim Messenger is pasting absolute gibberish into pages that nobody reads or he’s had a monumental mistake.

There are pages he clearly does care about:

Inside 17

Near the bottom of this frame we can see the phrase “The Citizens ‘twitchers'” who have been spotting officials (or, it looks to be, “official looking men with clipboards”). And while there should be an apostrophe in “Citizens” before the S, it’s a nice cheeky reference to the paper itself, and emblematic of a reporter who really cares about getting his (or her) teeth stuck into a story and wrestling it into the light of day.

There is, in that phrase, a camaraderie between writer and reader, a shining example of the relationship a local paper should have with its audience: here’s the reporter, gathering up little bits and pieces and telling you what they mean. It’s exactly what journalism should be, and Tim Messenger — overworked and underfunded and haphazard though he is — is clearly trying to be best the reporter, sub-editor, photographer, writer and editor that he can be. That’s an effort that should be met with the greatest respect, especially when he’s holding down an independent fort as so many local papers are snapped up by huge corporations interested in profit.

You could trace the history of Sandford through his sloppy spelling and questionable editorial judgement, just by visiting the library.

library 2

The only trouble is that then anyone reading can see your mistakes preserved for a very long time. And you can’t control who those readers will be.

And if it’s somebody with a low tolerance for mistakes, you could be in trouble.

Skinner reading

The Neighbourhood Watch Alliance of Sandford noticed them, and were unforgiving. To quote them:

Tim Messenger’s tenure as editor of the Sandford Citizen has been unbearable.

Messenger above

Our once-great paper has become riddled with tabloid journalism.

Messenger pre splat

Not to mention persistent errors.

Messenger mid splat

To be fair to them, I suppose if I ever saw a headline spelling it “bipass” I, too, would be considering the death penalty.

Messenger splat

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