Today, a drama series about a newspaper would probably be seen as cynical and manipulative, and about as funny as a tabloid apology. But let us travel through a portal in time to the late 80s - a kinder time in some ways - when hacking was just a type of posh jacket and doorstepping was mainly what that bloke off the Daz adverts did (yes, I know it was Danny Baker too).
Press Gang sprang from the creative loins of Steven Moffat (based on an idea from his dad, Bill), whose name in Elvish translates to 'He who can do no wrong with a pen.' "A paper about youth and by youth," is how editor, Lynda Day (a brilliant performance by Julia Sawalha) - no ab and all fab), describes the Junior Gazette. There is also a love-interest / bickerfest with American rebel, Spike Thomson (Dexter Fletcher before his geezer days).
Although Press Gang was broadcast as a children's drama - unless you were lucky enough to work flexitime or knew how to programme a VCR - Lynda and Spike's relationship was surprisingly adult. They bantered, they battled for the upper hand and they fell in and out of love at the drop of a deadline - although we weren't fooled for a moment. Nor were they, it transpired, because the actors were a couple off the set as well, for a period of time.
Steven Moffat's drama wasn't afraid to take on social issues that most other children's programmes would have run a mile from. Handled sensitively, and without blowing a klaxon while shouting, "See what we're doing here," the show covered topics such as suicide, drug abuse, solvent abuse, an armed siege and, perhaps that most difficult topic of all to portray, child abuse. I know; it all reads like an EastEnders Christmas special.
Although Press Gang wasn't only about the newspaper, they still had plenty to say in that department. Ethical journalism (remember that?), selling papers, challenging story lines, office politics and cutbacks - they all featured without being quickly brushed under the carpet afterwards. In many ways, there was a very human side to the programme; people tried and failed, in relationships and in life, with sometimes devastating consequences. There are those who compare the Lynda and Spike plot arc to Maddie's and David's on Moonlighting, but for my money Press Gang has the edge. For one thing, it's British (even the American guy is British) and for another there's no fourth wall self-knowing, so we're completely drawn into the reality of the characters' world (give or take the odd dream sequence). Sadly, the much anticipated film never came to pass, but the quirky (come on, you knew that word was going to appear at some point) and ambiguous ending gave us some hope that the Junior Gazette still had plenty of life left in it.
Press Gang is a bonafide classic, delivering comedy-drama that has stood the test of time. It also, we now know, led to some impressive descendants, one way and another, including: Joking Apart, Dr Who (tell me Lynda Day isn't related to Sally Sparrow, I dare you!), Sherlock, Absolutely Fabulous, Lark Rise to Candleford, Jonathan Creek, Hotel Babylon, Band of Brothers and Cockneys vs Zombies.
Derek Thompson, who wrote this review of Press Gang writes fiction, non-fiction and comedy. (He made us write the last bit). His creative blog lives at Along The Write Lines
His mini ebook, Man Up!, is available at Amazon.Co.UK
Published on January 21st, 2019. Written by Derek Thompson - 2014 for Television Heaven.