The fiction: London Spy, 2015 television drama. Director: Jakob Verbruggen. Props master: Jim Grindley/Ewan Robertson.
The newspapers: Daily Express, The Independent Times
Where once a conspiracy thriller’s hero would be a tenacious reporter, or an ordinary man who would approach a reporter to blow the lid off the grand deception, anybody with a USB stick and a laptop can get onto WikiLeaks. So what role is left for newspapers in the BBC’s latest such thriller, London Spy? Well, to menace the hero in a way that would make Lord Leveson tremble.
The ordinary man at the heart of London Spy is Danny (played by the rather extraordinary Ben Whishaw). Over the course of episode one he falls in love with Alex. If you’re after a sweet modern romance, stop watching after half an hour. Keep watching and, by the end of the episode, Alex is dead. Locked in a trunk in his attic and dead, no less.
Turns out he was a spy — well, a government employee who worked with data and numbers and that sort of thing, but if this was a headline we’d be calling him a spy.
It all begins to recall the death of Gareth Williams, who worked for the British secret service. In August 2010, police visited Williams’ flat and discovered his naked body inside a sports bag, padlocked from the outside, in his bath. There was much speculation over the case, especially by the press, and lots of it revolved around claims of bondage or a sexual pleasure in confinement. Because what does the press love more than a bizarre death? Only a sexy bizarre death.
In London Spy, Danny is quite sure that his spy lover Alex was not into any bizarre sexual kinks and reckons he was murdered — rather than locking himself in a trunk voluntarily and dying as a result. So, in the tradition of a conspiracy thriller, he actually does go to a newspaper to tell his story.
But his story is full of holes, so when the papers hit the streets in the morning it’s not quite the result he wanted.
First he spies The Independent Times. It’s not a real newspaper, but blends the titles of two British broadsheets into a plausible name (one that, incongruously, has been picked for an over-60s lifestyle magazine), though its shape and style more closely resembles The Irish Times.
The bizarre death of a spy has not made the front page, not above the fold anyway, and the paper has instead splashed on a princess graduating “with Distinction once again”.
That capital D does not belong there and that two-deck subhead is both unwieldy and so long that the sub-editor has had to use “yesterday” in the text just to get it to fit. Although it’s still a fresh story, it does begin to date the incident.
But Danny’s not concerned with that, because he’s busy combing the pages for any mention of his lover’s death.
When that turns up nothing, he moves on to another a paper. This all suggests Danny isn’t sure about to whom he gave an interview, but eventually he spots plenty of coverage in the Daily Express.
This is a very accurate representation of the Daily Express front page, with all the typefaces and layout recreated so well that I half-expect an Express sub-editor may have given the production team a helping hand, or at least just sent them a copy of an InDesign template and a couple of fonts.
That black puff in the top-right even looks a health alert over statins — a topic much-loved by the Express:
The Express has chosen to name Danny in their subhead (“Daniel Holt tells all”), which suggests that he has been mentioned in a few news reports since Alex’s death first came to light. People aren’t normally named in headlines unless they are generally known.
So with all this attention around and coming Danny’s way it’s probably fair to say that some members of the public aren’t being kind to him. As an ex-lover he’s a natural suspect, as the police also believe, so it’s really no wonder that Danny would desperate to find a paper to print his story.
He could have chosen a better newspaper for it, and the newspaper could have chosen a better headline than “ATTIC SPY SEX PARTNER SECRETS”.
While it ticks off some general search engine optimisation keywords, it’s just gibberish, even by the fairly loose grammatical standards of British headline writing. No good headline is ever made up entirely of nouns and they can be torturous to understand.
@hrtbps recently highlighted an incomprehensible howler from BBC News:
Pensioner death police response probe http://t.co/t4khWcOdHg
— BBC News (UK) (@BBCNews) September 30, 2015
And it’s not the only one in the world:
— Fiona Campbell-Howes (@patroclus) August 3, 2011
A colleague once told me he had always wanted to see a ‘five noun’ headline. It’s really rare. By golly, here it is: http://t.co/RuZR4HCb
— richard fisher (@rifish) October 21, 2011
Language Log calls it a “noun pile” while discussing this Metro Herald gobbledygook:
They’re never a good idea, and London Spy‘s Daily Express could probably have found something more fitting. It’s done no harm to their sales, mind, as we see when Danny’s manager fires him over the paper’s allegations and tastefully leaves it draped on his desk while doing so:
So what revelations were so troubling inside?
Well, for regular readers, it seems like the Express has wildly changed its design. The mid-market tabloid’s interior pages are usually very modular, but that’s been scrapped for the Danny tell-all.
The blocky sans serif header typefaces are unlike the Express, there’s a wealth of visual elements (circular photos, cut-outs, labelled diagrams) and plenty more, with even a strapline along the top to tie this together: “INSIDE THE ATTIC”.
Apart from having a bit more white-space than you’d like, it more closely resembles a double page spread you’d see in a red top tabloid such as The Sun. Here’s a recent example, from the England/France friendly football match shortly after the Parisian terrorist attacks of October:
Maybe the sub-editors are just feeling very creative. My only gripe is that you don’t need quote marks after somebody’s name to establish it’s a quote, as that’s what the colon does. And very few newspapers, if any, use double quotes in headlines — single quotes are narrower, so you can get more in.
Those maverick sub-editors clearly have rules of their own, though, judging by several elements on this page. “Shadowy double life” appears in the subhead and the first line of the story, where most sub-editors would pinch the good phrase and rewrite the intro so there’s no duplication.
Beyond that, there’s an orphan word at the top of the third column, which is readable but looks ugly enough to be worth fixing.
And have you seen those outrageous indents? Paragraphs seem to begin a good inch from their column, creating a serious white space issue between paragraphs two and three. It’s a visual abomination only bested (worsted?) by the final paragraph, blurry in that screengrab, which has been aligned to the right of column with a ragged left edge. This does allow for a smoother fit around the circular picture, but no self-respecting newspaper would ever put body text right-aligned. (They may, however, do it for printing addresses on the letters page.)
When the Daily Express actually reported Gareth Williams’ demise in a two-page spread, they stuck with their usual design and kept things very modular, serif-based and simple, as well as still being printing their images in black-and-white:
By episode five, Danny has gathered up some documents revealing what Alex was working on (in the tradition of conspiracy thrillers, it’s silly and implausible). He plans to send them off to major world newspapers. That’s the same trick Edward Snowden tried in 2013, and Julian Assange in 2010. Danny picks The New York Times (as both Snowden and Assange did) and Le Monde (which Assange also picked).
The information never makes it to the editors, because MI6 is so powerful that they can intercept the post.
And maybe that explains why the Daily Express departed so radically from their usual style, ditching templates and throwing a noun pile on the front page.
Isn’t it obvious?
As Danny had very little to give the reporters — certainly not enough for a “tell all” even with outrageous hyperbole — they must have phoned up MI6. Quick to react and control the media angle, MI6 drove over to the Express offices and had one of their agents whip up at the last minute a double-page spread that told a version of the story that suited their aims. It discredits Danny and Alex’s relationship as a loving one, presenting the whole death as a sex game gone sour, and drops any suspicion from the dead spy’s employers.
But the spymasters forgot to make sure they were making it look like the right sort of pages for the paper! It’s a big blunder for the secret service, but hopefully not the last time the power of the press triumphs over MI6’s conspiratorial cover-ups.