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Press Gang

There is an odd thrill in discovering that a particular artist or creator that you admire presently has also created things in the past that you also really liked, especially when you can learn more about that persons process simply by rewatching or re-reading their old stuff. A recent example for me was rewatching all of Press Gang1

For those not lucky enough to be British teenagers in the 80’s, Press Gang was a kid’s tv show that told the tale of a newspaper ran by school children. It isn’t a school newspaper, the premise is that it’s a local paper targeted at the youth audience2. This Junior Gazette is ran by the tyrannical Lynda Day (played by Julia Sawalha (who would go on to be the straight woman in Absolutely Fabulous), and she is supported by a cast of misfits including a chap called Spike3, who spends most of the series trying to pursue Lynda romantically.

Oh so eighties

Oh so eighties

At its heart, it’s a drama about truth and beauty, and yes, I know how that sounds, but hear me out. The beauty in this case isn’t the constant struggle for romance and happiness (though that is part of it), but the burning desire for unobtainable perfection. Lynda wants the paper to be perfect, Spike strives to be desired by all, the marketing manager Colin wishes to own all the money in the world and so on. The cold light of truth shines on all of these desires and is represented by the newspaper itself, which every episode must carry on no matter what. This allows the show to be silly and serious at the same time; one part of romantic comedy farce and the other part serious teen drama.

This is the framework for some rather dazzling stories that still work to this day. I thought that the more melodramatic scenes that involved themes such as teenage suicide, abuse and the death of the young would have less of impact on me now that I’m a more world weary type of chap, but the show still packs an incredible punch and this is all due to the incredibly well rendered characters and the wit and wisdom that seems to be burnt into almost all of the dialogue.

It certainly isn’t perfect; it suffers a little bit from the ‘moral of the week’ formula all too common in Eighties dramas, and is hampered by that decades unwillingness to be blunt about what it’s trying to say4. The performances are superb, and when it is good it is very, very good. Some of the ideas and scenes are clearly a first draft for more memorable moments of Moffat’s later shows; the slapstick of Coupling can be seen in some of Press Gang’s sillier moments (usually featuring the hapless gobshite Colin), and the relationship between Lynda and her best friend Kenny has echoes with Holmes and Watson in Sherlock.

The old show is well worth a re-watch, but be warned; you will find yourself rewriting the last episode in your head for weeks, if not years, to come.


1: Of course I’d known for years that Moffat was behind Press Gang and Coupling but the thrill only becomes obvious when you take the time to experience the earlier works again.
2: The 80’s were obsessed with capturing ‘youth audiences’ as if young people were this new and strange alien culture that had recently come to Earth. Looking back on it all, I cynically wonder if the 40-something commissioning editors weren’t merely trying to recapture their own youth.
3: Played by South London’s own Dexter Fletcher with a not-as-good-as-you-remember American accent, He went on to be in a wide range of British movies, typically as ‘slightly crazy cockney geezer’. We try not to talk about his stint as the presenter of kids show Games Master.
4: Back in the 70’s and 80’s, TV programming made the mistake of taking idiots with too much time on their hands too seriously. This severely hampered what could talked about on telly, especially children’s drama. Proto-trolls such as Mary Whitehouse and her ilk deserve their own blog post however, so I’ll talk about them some other time.

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Categories: TV
  1. February 25, 2013 at 3:09 pm

    Was it Moffat or RTD who was also behind Children’s Ward which I remember quite vividly involved a few plotlines involving Diabetes at a time when I really needed plotlines about Diabetes…

    I do remember Press Gang fondly and still like seeing the cast in other things. The bloke who played Colin turned up in a Hollywood film as a London gangster in the 40s and Spike still appears and is charmingly American at people in various things (not that I can be arsed to look up the references for this at the moment, it is now well past my ‘making a cup of tea’ time…)

    • February 25, 2013 at 3:41 pm

      Davie’s produced and wrote for Childrens Ward. Moffat was responsible and had a lot more creative control and input, and it’s very obvious. Lesson of the week was a common thing in kids dramas at the time.

      • February 28, 2013 at 3:57 pm

        Yeah, I think we caught that from the Americans and were less obvious about it in some ways (I remember He Man turning to the ‘camera’ at the end of an episode and doing the ‘remember kids…’ speech of the week. Just in case anyone had failed to get the point during the episode…).

        I knew it was one of them responsible for Children’s Ward. I think there must have been an industry situation where it was easier to get a writing job in Children’s TV than adult – maybe it was easier to pitch kids TV?

        Of course there was also Dark Seasons which was Davies going ‘BBC look! Pick me to do Doctor Who! I can do it, see, see how I can do it! Please give me the chance!’

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