The Newsreader, review: a fun wallow in 1980s nostalgia

Anna Torv stars in The Newsreader - BBC
Anna Torv stars in The Newsreader - BBC

Forget Neighbours. The high point of Australian television was Return to Eden, a mini-series screened in the UK in 1983 in which a frumpy heiress had her face chewed off by a crocodile after her gold-digging tennis-pro husband pushed her into a swamp, only to be rescued by a hermit who nursed her back to health, at which point she had secret reconstructive surgery which transformed her into a supermodel, then returned to high society with a new identity to exact revenge on the husband and his new fancy woman. How’s that for a plot?

Sadly, no Australian show has hit these heights in the years since, and The Newsreader (BBC Two) is definitely not going to break that duck. It’s set in 1986, in the newsroom of a TV network and initially seems to go out of its way to be dreary, not helped by a colour palette in shades of beige and brown. If you make it past the first episode, though, it improves. The two main characters are Helen Norville (Anna Torv, who sometimes bears an uncanny resemblance to Cate Blanchett), the spiky star newsreader, and Dale Jennings (Sam Reid), an inexperienced producer and reporter.

The pair are asked to work together, much to Helen’s disgust, but soon develop a bond – Dale may be ambitious but he’s a good egg. Supporting characters include a keen, capable but overlooked female researcher, and a gruff editor who wears braces and yells a lot. Real events from 1986 are used as a backdrop – the first episode features the Challenger disaster, complete with that awful, unforgettable footage of the astronauts’ families watching the shuttle explode.

Later, the six episodes include the Lindy Chamberlain case and Chernobyl. But it’s otherwise a straightforward soap opera taking us behind-the-scenes in a TV newsroom, with its rivalries, office politics, pre-MeToo attitudes and – inevitably – a romantic relationship between the two leads. Stick with it and you may find yourself becoming quite invested in these characters – Robert Taylor is particularly good as the ageing newscaster Geoff Walters, who can see the writing on the wall but is doing everything he can to avoid being pushed into retirement.

Plus, the 1980s setting can’t help but make you wallow in nostalgia. There are VHS tapes on the shelves and Mr Mister on the radio. And the series begins with archive footage of Crocodile Dundee’s Paul Hogan in an ad for the national tourist board. Truly a great decade for Australia.