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Looking Back At PRESS GANG

Of all the newsrooms in all the world, Tony had to walk into theirs…
Looking back from the perspective of the 21st century, the idea that Press Gang could have been an utter failure seems absurd to the highest degree.

For a start, it strode into the ground that Grange Hill had proved could be fertile for drama shows with a touch of humour: a drama show for kids…about ordinary kids.

In fact, coming as it did after Grange Hill’s phenomenal, dramatic and character-rich first decade, there are some senses in which it could be seen as the Children’s ITV ANSWER to Grange Hill.

But where the original gritty school show stayed true to its brief and covered more or less the whole of a school year, focusing on individual pupils and teachers as their stories grew to be interesting, Press Gang focused very specifically on a particular group of pupils, and gave them a focus – they were together to produce the school newspaper, the ever-so-slightly patronisingly-titled Junior Gazette.

So – it had a ready-made audience, and it arrived on the scene more or less as the first wave of Grange Hill’s greatness was peaking, so the Grange Hill audience was hungry for new people. Result, right?

Oh, there’s SO much more.

Secondly, it was written by Steven Moffatt.

Yes, THAT Steven Moffatt. Doctor Who, Sherlock, Coupling Steven Moffatt.

So, there’s that, too.

And then there’s the cast.
The headlines there are Julia Sawalha as Editor, Lynda Day – Saffy from Absolutely Fabulous, Lydia Bennet from the DEFINITIVE Pride And Prejudice, Ginger in Chicken Run Julia Sawalha. The writing and performance of Lynda was a gamble, because she often comes across as hard, single-minded and not especially sympathetic. But really, that’s just Steven Moffatt toying with you. Don’t believe us? Wait and see.

Matching her move for move was Dexter Fletcher as James Thomson. No, you probably won’t remember him that way – he was known by everybody as Spike. Spike doesn’t initially want to be on the Junior Gazette team. He’s an American with no sense of purpose when he walks in the door, it’s this or being kicked out of school. But his experience on the paper helps him find direction, focus – and a certainty about what he wants out of life.

So what are we talking about? Great format, great timing, a writer who would go on to win Royal Television Society awards, BAFTAs and be awarded an OBE, an obviously talented female lead and a male lead who would go on to have a film career and then switch to directing blockbuster biopics like Eddie The Eagle, Bohemian Rhapsody, and Rocket Man. How is that EVER going to fail?

Well, the story behind Press Gang is a little more complicated than it seems from the headlines.

First of all, the initial idea wasn’t born in Steven Moffatt’s head.

It was born in his FATHER, Bill Moffatt’s, head. He had an idea for a show, and talked about it to – of all people – the producer of Harry Secombe’s Sunday night religious show, Highway.

Through a complex chain of people showing it to other people, a full script was requested from Bill.

Bill, in what you have to admit was a ballsy move, said he thought any script should be written by his 25-year-old son, Steven. Because he’d been a teacher.

And that, ladies, gentlemen, groovers all, is how the man behind some seriously clever comedy series, the Matt Smith and Peter Capaldi eras of Doctor Who, and at least half of the phenomenon that is the Benedict Cumberbatch Sherlock series, got his big break in television. An idea of his dad’s and Harry Secombe’s Highway.

That anyone agreed to commission a series based on a script written by an unknown, untested 25-year-old is frankly miiiiind-boggling.

But then of course, this was not just any 25-year-old. This was Steven Moffatt, already with some life experience behind him – he’d been a teacher, he’d been married, and he’d been divorced. And as the critical reception to the first series of Press Gang showed, he was something pretty darned special when it came to writing believable characters, writing teenagers as though they were real human beings, not children or story-ciphers, and delivering sometimes complex plotting mechanisms to achieve an ultimately satisfying emotional result.
And while we’re at it, Julia Sawalha too was pretty new to TV at the time, with just a BBC miniseries (Fame Is the Spur) and a small role in an episode of Inspector Morse preceding her casting. Taking the role as Lynda showed her off to a much wider audience, and both dramatic and comedic roles followed.

So the idea that Press Gang could have failed is not as entirely ridiculous as it looks in hindsight. But the fact that it succeeded spectacularly paved the way for the careers of many of the people involved with it.

Like Grange Hill, Press Gang decided its remit included lots of big issues of the day, including glue-sniffing, drugs, big explosions, and even a siege at gunpoint. But unlike the BBC show, there were often more grown-up takes given to the characters by the writing – as was right for young people striving to be as much like journalists as possible in the Nineties, when to be fair, journalism as a profession was relatively unchecked, and moral dimensions were frequently absent from its practice by design.

The big central character arc that knotted all the weekly themes and stories together, of course revolved around Lynda, (written deliberately as a teenage Ice Queen with a job to do and a point to prove, but with softer sides locked away inside where only she decided who could see them), and Spike, (the previously lazy king of one-liners).

Spike fell for Lynda pretty much the moment he walked into the Junior Gazette office, but the course of their relationship – professional and otherwise – would seldom run smoothly across the five series of Press Gang. Lynda initially bit the heads of live reporters if they so much as hinted she might like the suave American, As time went on though, the truth became impossible to ignore – if also, impossible to come right out and say.

But while the ‘old Hollywood movie’ chemistry between these two kept us riveted to our seats through series after series of scoops both likely and frankly, joyously absurd – never let it be said that Steven Moffatt was ever a writer who could ignore a joke if there was one to be had – the teenage Bogart and Bacall in what was essentially Casablanca For Kids were only the MAIN reason we tuned in.

Honestly, if you mention Press Gang to people on the streets… well, firstly, you might want to work on your impulse control, but secondly, most of what they remember is Lynda and Spike. And while, as we say, that’s understandable to a degree, it does a disserve to both Moffatt’s writing and some other actors of serious note.

Step forward in particular, Paul Reynolds, Lucy Benjamin, and Lee Ross.
Reynolds – who looked set for serious film roles after taking the nominal lead as Christopher Craig in Let Him Have It – ironically also starring Christopher Eccleston in his first major film role – had probably the most to do in Press Gang aside from the teen Brit version of Bogart and Bacall. He played Colin Matthews, an unashamed, unreconstructed Thatcherite in a time when at least some of the country thought that was nothing to be ashamed of.

Despite selling half-shells of ping pong balls under the name “Pings” and flogging dodgy soft drinks that stained your face green, Lynda, in a mark of pure journalistic pragmatism, allowed Colin to keep his role as the Junior Gazette’s financial officer. In fact, over time, in a general softening of her character once the Junior Gazette went from being a school newspaper to being a real, self-funding youth paper, she even became quite protective of Colin the scheming git.

If, from our point of view in the 21st century, this seems like an unlikely state of affairs, don’t forget that Britain has a long history of rooting for such less-than-strictly-legal con artists in both its politics and its comedy. What is Arthur Daley but a smiling dodgy dealer? What is Private Walker in Dad’s Army but a black marketeer? What come to that, is Del Boy Trotter, once voted Britain’s favourite sit-com character, but an archetypal street trader, all flannel and catchphases, like a walking version of Wish.com. Face it – Britain loves characters that fleece others for their own benefit, which is why audiences loved Colin.

Reynolds gave him warmth, nuance, and a thousand-watt grin, for all that he was mostly written by Steven Moffatt as a comic cautionary tale – his schemes frequently went wrong, giving the audience the pantomime pleasure of seeing sharp practice get its comeuppance – but we still tuned in next week to see what his next mad money-making scheme would be.
Lucy Benjamin, who like several of the Grange Hill alumni graduated from teen soap to adult soap in Eastenders, played Julie Craig, head of graphics at the Gazette. She was due to have a bigger role in series 2, but Benjamin had committed to some sitcom work, so she left the show for a while, storming back later in the run and eventually becoming Deputy Editor. One of the few people able to tell Lynda the truth even when she didn’t want to hear it, Benjamin gave Julie a modern, Nineties energy that wasn’t tied down to any romantic narrative.

Lee Ross gave us a crucial element as Kenny Philips, the original Deputy Editor, and one of Lynda’s real friends. He acts as a calming influence, and without ever necessarily getting into hardcore conflict with her, he is able to prove the immoveable object from time to time when her hunger for a story threatens to push her over acceptable moral lines.

Kelda Jones deserves a mention too, as Lead Writer at the Gazette, Sarah Jackson. A highly competent creative, she gets nervous in stressful situations, and so misses out on the chance to become editor. She and Lynda have history in the school publication game, but it’s notable that Lynda stops her leaving to pursue a writing course because she needs her skills where she is. Eventually leaving to go to university, Sarah is a true-ish portrait of plenty of would-be journalists early in their career – happy to write, happy to do the job, but as yet uncomfortable with the hard calls of editorial command.

This gang, and a handful of others, gave us a bedrock of Other Stuff to watch while Spike and Lynda continually snail’s-paced their relationship to its not-by-any-means-inevitable conclusion.

They were a brilliantly written, believably played group of real-feeling people – something Grange Hill achieved in sections, dealing with the particular students that were giving it its drama that series. By keeping the main action tightly focused on the staff of the Junior Gazette, Press Gang baked in that ability to treat its characters as real, believable human beings right from the start.

It was absolutely a British teen soap. The point was that it was – and remains on rewatch after rewatch – a BRILLIANT British teen soap. And at the heart of it all, there’s Bogey and Bacall, Ilsa and Rick – the heart-hiding, opinionated uptight girl with a plan for her future, and the loose-swinging, wisecracking American boy who’d slay any dragon she wants, just to see her smile.

Press Gang was all things to all people, and three decades on, you can still watch it today and get lost in the stories, the arc, the whole, glorious shebang.

PRESS GANG A TIMELESS CLASSIC – there’s your headline. Maybe add a slammer just for pop!

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Tony lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk

1 comment:

  1. Nice article - I was a fan of Press Gang when it aired, and it still stood up when I rewatched it some years later. One minor correction you may want to note - I believe Sarah was played by Kelda Holmes rather than Jones.


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