A Chronological History of the Hill Valley Telegraph — Part I

In addition to being a fun adventure, Oedipal psychosexual nightmare and blockbuster trilogy, the Back to the Future films are a parable about newspapers. Over the course of two of cinema’s greatest films and that one about cowboys, we are presented with an ode to local journalism, championing its community spirit and strict focus.

It is a story told out of chronological order. Until now…


splash 1 no text

We start with the third film, which is only appropriate for time travel. When our plucky protagonist Marty McFly arrives in 1885 in an improbable cowboy outfit, it’s not long before he’s sauntering through Hill Valley.

It’s a newly-established town and they haven’t even built the clock tower yet. We are treated, though, to some familiar sights: Statler, the car dealer brand of the future, is selling horses. There’s a company that transports manure. Notably absent is Goldie Wilson, so leave your Django to the Future dreams at the door.

Marty has rocked up in the nineteenth century because he found Doc Brown’s tombstone in 1955, which bore bad news as only a comically verbose and expository tombstone can.

It’s entirely plausible that Doc deliberately had this tombstone made so Marty would spot it, go back in time, and save him. If we stretch the definition of the word “plausible”.

Marty and Doc, having seen this news in 1955, decide to visit the library and see if their archived copies of the Hill Valley Telegraph from 1885 have anything to say on the matter of Buford Tannen shooting a man over $80. While that may sound trivial to modern ears, there are people who have been shot in the USA over far less and it’s about $1,900 these days when you adjust for inflation.

Hill Valley’s library is a dutiful steward of local history and has copies of the Telegraph from 1885, providing the duo a few clues as to what went down. They find reference to Buford Tannen and it’s made immediately clear that he is an absolute bastard. A record about his deadliness as a gunslinger is apparently unverifiable, given that “Tannen shot a newspaper editor after printing an unfavorable story about him in 1884”. That’s how important newspapers are in the world of Back to the Future: if you disrespect their mission to report the truth, you’re also the type of guy who would kill the beloved Doc.

We only get a brief glimpse of an edition of the Telegraph in the library, and although it is undated we know it must be from around 1885, because our heroes have no reason to look up any other era.

From the year they decided H.V. was a cooler name

The masthead is very plain and simple, but the headline is in a beautifully ornate typeface that I can’t for the life of me identify. It makes a change from the usual style of a newspaper, anyway, where the title of the paper is in gothic blackletter and the headlines are in bold, blocky sans serif types. That “complete” under the logo is absolutely bonkers and I can’t get enough of it. The Hill Valley Telegraph has already established a unique style.

It says this is a copy from Volume XVII, No. 32. It would make sense to assume that the Telegraph sorts its volumes by calendar year, meaning that it has been around for seventeen years by the time this edition is printed. We don’t know if it’s weekly or daily at this point in its history, so it’s either from around August (if 32 is the week number) or around February (if it’s a day number). I’m assuming here that it is regularly printed, which is not necessarily a given, but certainly makes things easier to work with.

Given that Doc travelled to September 1, 1885 this could very well be the preceding week’s Telegraph, an obvious starting point to look for clues about Buford Tannen. If that’s the case – and it’s a very sketchy guess – we can establish the Hill Valley Telegraph was first established in 1867. The headline seems to suggest that Hill Valley is celebrating a 20th anniversary, possibly of its founding – meaning the Telegraph has been around almost since the town’s very beginning.

Under the heading of “News In The Mail”, this Telegraph edition has some column-filling text rather than anything specific to Back to the Future Part III. However, it is at least in English and is deliberately generic so that it could refer to any event somewhat vaguely.

“Many persons feel at this stage that some legal action is forthcoming, but it now becomes common knowledge that there is pressure from the inside which will materially change the [something] of the case.”

And on it goes, fleetingly. There is a potential explanation: the journalists who work there aren’t very good. It’s been going since 1867 but they must have hired a new recruit who is the dreariest writer imaginable.

A perfectly ordinary photograph to take

As Marty finds Doc posing with the town’s new clock in a photograph from 1885, we can see on the desk behind him a newspaper clipping about a town square. This doesn’t resemble the headline typeface we’ve already seen on the Hill Valley Telegraph, although it could possibly be the one from the masthead. But it’s the Old West: it’s not hard to imagine that style could have been a very fluid thing.

We see that photo of Doc being taken later on, only now Marty has joined the picture. That is one of the primary rules of Back to the Future’s time travel: time can change. This is usually visually conveyed with a photograph; where once it was just Doc it is now Doc and Marty, because the latter has now ventured back in time. The same thing happens in the first film, when Marty’s siblings fade away from a photograph.

When the picture is being taken they’re at a ceremony to mark the erection of the clock tower, where Ye Olde ZZ Toppe are playing for the locals. We’re also treated to the invention of the Frisbee (in real life, the work of university students playing with pie tins) and a brief shot of the Hill Valley Telegraph’s office.

BTTF3 (1)

It’s a bit blurry but it seems obvious that the paper has switched from its plain masthead with small caps and has embraced the blackletter style of which so many newspapers are fond.

Prestigious

So the paper is certainly well-established enough to have an office in the centre of town, and now it has adopted a very definite look. Even if your style is shifting a bit you have to be committed to a logo to have it emblazoned above your office door.

It seems, then, that the Hill Valley Telegraph is here to stay beyond 1885.

Fire up that flux capacitor and journey all the way to 1955 for Part II.

Advertisements

20,000 leagues of nonsensical news

It’s Marvel’s Avengers blockbuster team-up crossed with Penny Dreadful, but made ten years before either of those – yes, would could it be but The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen? “Based” on a comic book by Alan Moore, it’s a film that is almost universally reviled (“What a mess.” – Roger Ebert) and the experience of it drove Sean Connery to quit acting.

But we’re not here to dissect the flaws of a 2003 blockbuster, including the marketing department’s decision to market it as the catchy “LXG”, we’re here to talk newspapers. And there’s three of them, sort of, and they’re only there to function as a quick burst of exposition after a tank smashes into the Bank of London in 1899.

"Tanks for the memories"

It’s just that sort of film, you see.

Then we’re treated to what I suppose is supposed to be an update of the passé form of spinning newspapers. Instead of whizzing round, the front pages now shoot through a black void looking like flat 2D graphics. The effect is notably cheap and the sort of the thing that even Windows Movie Maker would have deemed excessive.

Whoosh!

First up is The London Post, which sounds real enough and is here 100 years after the real newspaper the London Evening Post closed. It looks distinctly like a 21st century newspaper.

There’s a big picture on the front (an artist’s impression of the tank), a large headline stretching the length of the page, smaller headings and a few columns. It looks irritatingly clean, both in its slickly efficient design and in how crisp everything looks. The sweat and grime of printing presses has not touched this.

An effort has been made to make this look like an actual piece of paper, though, with some creases here and there. The text, as far as I can make out from my DVD copy (two disc special edition!), seems to be written to fit with the headlines it appears under. It’s a nice touch and it doesn’t read as particularly modern or antiquated.

Not just yet, it isn't

Then it’s The Morning Leader (not that one) sweeping into view, unknowingly fulfilling rule number one of reading a newspaper: if the headline poses a question, the answer is almost certainly NO.

The design of the Leader is basically identical to that of the Post, and still it all looks sleek and mocked-up-on-InDesign-in-your-lunch-break. The sub-editors need a good kicking, too, for including two questions with the word “Germany” in them. It’s a bland and repetitive page, although their in-house artist has added a man to the tank. Dramatic!

NICHT UNS

And this is frankly the most laughable front page you’ll ever see in a movie. The Globe & Traveler – not real – has firstly used those godawful opening quote marks that are mirror images of closing quotes. I hate those things with a passion, but that’s just me.

What’s actually indefensibly awful here is that headline. It is a wholly tabloid way of writing a headline, especially with the exclamation mark. Globe & Traveler are clearly pioneers of cutting down issues to four words and it’s that ruthless efficiency we should blame for the way it seems like Germany is making diplomatic announcements with all the dignity of a four-year-old.

It’s so thunderingly anachronistic and stands out as such even in a film where Tom Sawyer drives a car around the streets of Venice. In fact, I only wrote this post after The Remake podcast noticed the stupidity of the headline and realised no newspaper criticism blog would be complete without it.

I shouldn’t even need to point out that as well as a modern sensibility of headlines, Globe & Traveler has a strikingly familiar design. Familiar to the other newspapers in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and none that exist in the real world. Just for reference’s sake, here’s a newspaper published in 1881, eighteen years before this film is set.

Obtained from Wikipedia
Obtained from Wikipedia

It’s wall-to-wall tiny writing and it’s all adverts and paid announcements. This was a very common practice in the era of Victorian newspapers and drove a lot of the revenue of the press earned. You’ll notice how the newspapers breaking the news of German tanks in 1899 are apparently funded by millionaires who see no need to blight their newspapers with grubby adverts. If you’d like to learn more about the industry of newspapers when they began then Judith Flanders’ excellent The Invention of Murder touches upon how the zeal for news about killings helped the papers flourish.

Still, while The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen has newspapers no more improbable and ridiculous than the rest of the film, there is one thing I really love about the film. I’m a sucker for when films use the studio logos at the start in an interesting way, and here the 20th Century Fox logo fades into… a rusty metal sign atop a London building for 20th Century Fox!

“Charlie Chaplin is ten, shall we sign him up?”

We can only imagine what this company might be producing, but I like the idea that some enterprising cockney decided to make his business sound futuristic in 1899 by alluding to the incoming hundred years.