Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Press Gang - first thoughts

I've recently started watching Press Gang, the first television series written by Steven Moffat, which ran on ITV between 1989 and 1993. As I've written elsewhere, when the first series began the location was too close to home, as I'd just spent a year as one of the editors of a school newspaper initially affiliated with a local weekly. I would have loved the staffing levels and the collective enthusiasm displayed by Lynda Day's team.

Press Gang has a format built on shifting sands at the frontiers of the plausible, but which is kept alive by the cutting wit of Steven Moffat's writing and the energetic belief of the cast in what they are doing. Matt Kerr, an important character seen only occasionally, is a well-known journalist who has made the unexpected career move of moving to a local paper, where he spins off a weekly Junior Gazette produced by students from the local secondary school. The Junior Gazette's staff are initially extracted from the school's cleverest and most motivated pupils, but by the time the first edition approaches Matt Kerr is complaining that all the problem kids have been thrust in his direction too, such as Spike, American and therefore uninhibited by British reserve and also the perpetrator of an unmentionable act at the school disco. Dexter Fletcher's Spike becomes the romantic interest for Julia Sawalha's Lynda, however much she refuses to acknowledge it. The large workspace used by the Junior Gazette looked, plausibly, like an abandoned compositor's room; while early episodes of the first series look back to classic early twentieth-century depictions of the newsroom, where even the telephone is exotic (the Junior Gazette shouldn't have one, by agreement with Matt Kerr - an odd prohibition but the absence of the phone helps an episode or two along) later ones acknowledge the arrival of networked computers, as used by tetraplegic contributor Billy Homer.
Discovering Press Gang now is to look into as vanished a world as my long-ago late-1980s sixth form. ITV original children's production has long disappeared, and it's difficult to imagine the demographic-strangled CBBC commissioning this now. Too quirky for a Five commission, its entrenchment in the heightened reality of children's television makes Press Gang unlikely Channel Four material, post-Hollyoaks. The large cast alone dates it. There is an absence of toilet humour, but a sprinkling of cheery sexual innuendo every so often which marks Press Gang's attitude to growing up as an experience where enjoyment can be found amidst the anguish; unlike the by-the-numbers earnestness in what I've seen of Tracy Beaker or the hand-holding of The Sarah Jane Adventures, there is little need to heavily signpost the lessons learned by the characters.

As well as providing invaluable support for a young writer and a young cast to show how good they were, Press Gang is about teenagers coming to grips with adult responsibilities, and how the road to self-knowledge is a dangerous one, sometimes fatal. At eighteen or nineteen, I saw Lynda as repellently self-assured; two decades on, she seems very vulnerable. The self-assurance is a veneer, used for comic effect - as in her repeated insistence that she has no particular interest, romantic or otherwise, in Spike - and for tragic, such as her failure to realise how serious David Jefford's alienation actually is, prompting the harangue which leads to David's suicide in Monday-Tuesday. Lynda sustains it by her capacity for self-protecting tunnel vision, which propels the narrative of Breakfast at Czar's as she ignores the evidence which would confirm that the Junior Gazette has been misled by head of the council planning committee. How far her decision to shut the team in the office all night, so they can produce a new edition in a few hours, is consciously motivated by the fact it prevents Spike going on a date with the 'obvious' Charlotte is something Lynda could not and would not answer.

Lynda stands for integrity; opposite her is Colin, the Junior Gazette's head of sales and briefly (in Shouldn't I Be Taller?) her successor as editor. Colin's principal role is comedic - he is the class clown, his outfits get louder, and his schemes more grandiose across the season and a half. Where Lynda stresses the Junior Gazette as a responsible, campaigning 'Voice of Today's Youth', Colin learns the lessons of the red-tops and for one horrible issue has the team produce the sensationalist Gaz. A later episode has Colin build up his stooge Fraz into a chess prodigy so he can stage a chess match against local chess phenomenon Suzi Newton, played by Abigail Docherty whose general physical resemblance to teenage mathematician Ruth Lawrence, a semi-regular fixture in the media in the mid- to late-1980s, is exploited by her performance and her costuming.

The regular cast of Press Gang were all on cusps of careers at this point. Some had become established television faces as children, but would move away from regular exposure after Press Gang, like Mmoloki Christie or Kelda Holmes. Lee Ross and Charlie Creed-Miles are among those who have established solid working careers; Lucy Benjamin was in EastEnders for a while, Dexter Fletcher is rarely without period costume these days, and Gabrielle Anwar has emerged from Hollywood startletdom into leading roles on American television. Julia Sawalha is rarely off British television screens.

I'm currently a few episodes in to season two, and so have yet to see the Junior Gazette cut its ties with school and become a fully commercial enterprise in the later seasons. More when I have done so.

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