The one 1980s detail The Newsreader gets deliberately wrong09/12/2023
By Karl Quinn
Chum Ehelepola plays newsroom chief of staff Dennis Tibb in The Newsreader. Credit: ABC
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The makers of the ABC TV series The Newsreader pride themselves on having recreated the look and feel of an Australian commercial television newsroom in the 1980s, and some of the big events it might have covered, which in the second season include the 1987 federal election between Bob Hawke and John Howard, a heroin epidemic, and Melbourne’s Hoddle Street shootings.
But on one point at least they’ve got it very wrong, on purpose: the chief of staff is a brown-skinned man, which would have been pretty much inconceivable at the time (and none too common now).
“If we were making a factual documentary, then you’d probably look at that position and go ‘look, that wasn’t the fact’,” says Chum Ehelepola, who plays said chief of staff, Dennis Tibb. “But one of the cool things is that [casting me in the role] allows the show to talk to how backward we were at that time, and the fact that a person [like Dennis] wouldn’t be there, not because he wasn’t skilled, but because of his skin colour.”
Deliberately casting against the historical norm a la Bridgerton creates a kind of cognitive dissonance in the audience, even though Dennis’s skin colour or ethnicity is never directly addressed in The Newsreader.
The News at Six crew (from left): William McInnes as Lindsay, Chum Ehelepola as Dennis, John Leary as Murray, Sam Reid and Dale and Anna Torv as Helen.Credit: ABC
“And that piques people’s interest, to go ‘well, why didn’t we do that in the ’80s’,” says Ehelepola. “And then that begs the bigger question: Are we doing it now? What do our governments look like, what do our boardrooms look like, what do our CEOs look like?”
And to fold all this reflexivity back in on itself, what do the casts of our biggest TV shows look like?
Screen diversity is a topic close to Ehelepola’s heart. He struggled to find work here in his early career, with one big-name agent telling him he would never be cast on McLeod’s Daughters, so there was no point taking him on as a client. But he decided to take a punt on the US. The first year was tough, but in the second he secured one of 16 spots in the ABC network’s annual diversity intake, from 20,000 applicants.
Suddenly, he was landing work in mainstream shows, and having the opportunity to audition for lead roles in which the ethnicity of a character was not the critical factor.
He asked a bigwig at ABC, which is owned by Disney, why they were so committed to social responsibility. “And she looked at me and said, ‘Social responsibility? No, Chum. We’re Disney. We’re here to make money, and diversity is fantastic economics’.”
A show with an all-white cast simply wouldn’t be acceptable in many foreign territories, she explained, let alone to the US’s domestic audience. And international sales are increasingly part of the way TV shows are financed.
“I just had a bit of a lightbulb moment,” he says. “This shouldn’t just be about social do-gooder stuff – it is economics. If I see a show and it’s got a wonderful diverse cast, I’m just naturally gravitating towards it.”
But any honest consideration of screen diversity has to factor in not just the lack of opportunities for non-white performers, but also the factors that might dissuade people from certain migrant backgrounds from even considering the business in the first place.
Though he did most of his growing up in Perth, Ehelepola was born in New Zealand to Sri Lankan migrants who moved back to their homeland just as civil war was breaking out. At an early age, he discovered his love of dancing and acting, and set his sights on a career on the stage. His parents, though, had other ideas.
“They were like, ‘we didn’t leave Sri Lanka so you could be an actor’,” he says. “And you weren’t turning the TV on and seeing people who looked like me, so Mum and Dad didn’t think, ‘well, there’s a career there for him’.”
After much arguing, he agreed to do a degree in civil engineering, a profession his parents considered more serious. “I graduated, but I was so unhappy,” he says. He never worked as an engineer, he says, “because I didn’t want to build anything. People would die, I would be in jail. That’s the one guarantee.”
It was frustration with the lack of opportunities to play interesting characters that led him to flee Australia, but it was COVID that brought him home. Fetching up in Tathra on the southern coast of New South Wales, he feared the worst for his career. But, he says, “I just haven’t stopped working, I’ve gone from show to show to show.
“F— you, McLeod’s Daughters,” he adds, laughing.
Having scored roles in big-budget productions such as Mulan and Nautilus – the made-for-streaming series inspired by Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, which was recently dumped by Disney+ as the parent company sought more than $US5 billion in savings – Ehelepola knows he has had opportunities in his career that he could never have envisaged at the outset.
At the same time, he’s conscious that there’s sometimes an element of box-ticking that goes on in the casting of actors from diverse backgrounds. “And when you’re one of those ‘token’ people you feel like a token., and that’s bad,” he says. “No one wants to feel like a token, you know?”
One day, he hopes, diverse actors will be able to compete for and win any role based purely on their abilities. Getting to play Bert the drunken detective, he jokes, would be a dream come true.
“I don’t think we’re there yet,” he says. “But wouldn’t it be great if our children could grow up and go, ‘Wow thanks, Mum and Dad, lack of diversity in the entertainment industry is not a thing’.
“I’d love to be in a room where whoever is the best actor for that character gets the role,” he adds. “That’s the even playing field that I’d love to see.”
The Newsreader is on ABC, Sundays at 8.30pm
Contact the author at [email protected], follow him on Facebook at karlquinnjournalist and on Twitter @karlkwin, and read more of his work here.
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