Press Gang: Looking back at a TV masterpiece
Brendon Connelly | On 07, May 2020
As the first season of Press Gang arrives on Britbox, finally making it available in the laptoppable, tablet-friendly box set format of today’s “yoof”, there’s a good argument to be made that this venerable classic is already twice as old as its ideal audience.
It has now been 31 years since Steven Moffat’s outrageously assured debut series made its CITV premiere. At the time, this writer was the same age, give or take, as the characters. As much as the show’s appeal remains intact, it’s worth remembering how much value there is in a show that’s both about teenagers and for teenagers, and in which the characters feel just as smart as they are flawed, as principled as they are volatile.
At the centre of Press Gang is Lynda Day, the explosively-tempered but resoundingly decent editor of the student-staffed school newspaper, The Junior Gazette. Alongside her team of preternaturally witty volunteers, Lynda is quickly landed with Spike Thompson, who takes up his role on the Gazette in order to avoid being expelled. It’s in the relationship between Lynda and Spike where Press Gang most brazenly flaunts its roots, ferociously riffing on tropes and tone imported from screwball comedies such as The Front Page and His Girl Friday. Julia Sawalha and Dexter Fletcher give Lynda and Spike real chemistry, some charmingly candid and vulnerable moments, and the benefit of their natural comic timing.
Even with performances like those in the spotlight, the real star of the show is screenwriter Moffat, who absolutely started his TV career as he meant to go on. Scenes twinkle with his smarty-pants dialogue, then transition into one another with cunningly poised beats of suspense and surprise, all the way through to the end of each episode, where his plots dovetail together with grace and, more often than not, a truly satisfying sense of closure. That he later starts pulling multiple episodes together just highlights his resourcefulness, and belief in the audience to not only keep up with but actually desire complex, shifting story compositions.
The sometime Doctor Who showrunner has no literal time travel to play with in Press Gang but episodes such as Monday, Tuesday reveal him firing on all cylinders. The episode hops back and forth through the tragic story of a young character’s death, working the juxtaposition of ‘before’ and ‘after’ scenes to both exploit and illustrate dramatic cause and effect for all its worth – there are jokes, sure, but there is real tragedy, and well-earned, honestly felt trauma.
Lots of Moffat’s writing in Press Gang is neat but also sophisticated and complicated and, for all of its overall polish, the rough, tough edges of the show’s subject matter, big thematic ideas and characters are never smoothed off.
Indeed, before Press Gang was done, Moffat had told stories about child abuse, substance abuse, emotional abuse – even the violent abuse of an armed siege – that never sought to condescend to either the characters or audience. It seems perhaps a little glib to come off of this with a comment on how entertaining, exciting and funny the whole thing is, but the truth of Press Gang is that it’s a genuine masterpiece of TV storytelling, with all the multi-coloured emotional complexity that implies.
There’s a real chance that today’s young audiences are about to find Press Gang for the first time and the show will get to do its real work once again. While it’s not possible to outgrow something with so many enticing and rewarding qualities, this series was not made to be reflected upon nostalgically. Forget any sense of past glory connoted by “instant classic”, because that label also refers to Press Gang’s place in the world today.
Press Gang: Season 1 is available on BritBox, as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription.