INLIBTD's Ten Greatest TV Shows
Number Eight - Press Gang
I didn’t watch Press Gang for ages. I knew it was on but it just sounded so crap – a bunch of disparate children all pull together to run a young people’s newspaper. Oh lordy. I bet it had lots of group hugs and cheesy America style "I love you guys" moments. Then I happened to see it one day. Don’t ask me why it happened like this but it did. I heard the Children’s ITV continuity announcer (it might have been Tommy Boyd) say that Press Gang was up next. I had a moment of mental ineptitude. My immediate reaction was that this would be a programme about pirates. I don’t even like pirates. I guess that is the subtle but slightly bizarre hand of the powers that be.
For those that don’t know (and there can be few who know me who have avoided one of my lectures on the subject) Press Gang was the first big hit from the pen of Steven Moffat. Mr Moffat may have very sinister hair and I’m not sure I like the idea that he stormed out of the first writers meeting when Big Finish told him they didn’t have Paul McGann but he’s still the best writer on telly in my humble opinion. Unless publishing your personal top ten telly programmes debars you from using the word humble. Mr Moffat has written Joking Apart, Chalk and Coupling and for that he deserves the comedy equivalent of a knighthood. Although I think that was an appearance on the Morecambe and Wise show so it doesn’t look as if he’ll get his honour until the next life.
At its heart, Press Gang is a love story between two people who are polar opposites. Spike Thompson is American, loud, confident, lazy, arrogant and anti-establishment. Linda Day is clever, sensible, bossy, anti-social and a control freak. But they are drawn together by a force that is stronger than mere romance. Stronger even than sexuality. I’m fairly sure they used this line in the series (if not then it must’ve been a Moffatism from elsewhere), they were together because they each had to have the last word. Spike and Linda’s love-hate relationship was reminiscent of Bruce Willis and Cybil Shepard in Moonlighting but without the personal hatred and network/ratings pressures. Dexter Fletcher and Julia Sawalah were a couple in real life (though I don’t know whether they met on set or came as an item). In a later series we saw a flashback to Spike’s parents and in the present day we met Spike’s English mother. Naturally Spike’s mother was the Linda Day of the 1970s. In the hands of a lesser writer it would’ve been cheesy but Moffat makes it funny. Two Linda’s would drive anyone insane, anyone normal that is.
The support cast fits into two categories. You have Kenny and Sarah who are Linda’s sensible and normal straight (wo)men. Kenny has been her best friend since they were at primary school and helps smooth her way in the real world. He cleans up her messes while getting treated like dirt the whole time.
Linda: "Kenny – I need your opinion about something."
Linda: "I haven’t asked you yet."
Kenny: "That’s usually the opinion you want."
On the other side of the fence you have Colin. Colin Matthews (of Colin Matthews Enterprises) was a fantastic character. This was the 1980s and Colin was the poster boy for Thatcherism. He would do anything for money. His wheeler dealing started out clichéd but became ever more inspired. Who can forget the talking briefcases? Or the time his curiosity led him to become handcuffed to a psychopath? Or the quest for a banknote which killed three of Julie’s pets in under five minutes? But Colin’s skills also kept the Junior Gazette afloat. The paper had to pay its own way. That was made clear from the start. So when Spike and Linda became fleeting television stars, Colin made all the capital (and dolls) he could out of it. If Linda’s dream is to be believed, he will one day sell Britain to an oil sheikh.
What made Press Gang so good was that it could be deadly serious one week and brilliantly funny the next. They had one hilarious episode where Colin is trapped in the flat of a major celebrity who has just announced he will sue any paper that breaches his privacy. Colin escapes in the end but not before he’s driven the celeb insane and renewed his acquaintance with now genuine Hollywood actress Claire Forlani. By contrast, when a teenage addict dies of an overdose in the toilets at the Junior Gazette, it gives the show a chance to address the issue of drugs. It doesn’t preach. Linda tells a story in a voice over which makes the point more starkly than any lecture would. There is, she says, a tribe which has one piece of wisdom that it passes to all its kind…
"If you happen to meet a crocodile, don't stick your head in its mouth. Every now and then, and who knows the reason, people ignore this advice, which is sad because they die, but very stupid because they were warned. They had a choice. The moral of the story is this - you can't afford to be stupid. There are crocodiles."
Press Gang has finally started to come out on DVD. Season One seems a little basic when compared with later series. So if you buy it, don’t judge the whole show by its debut run. There are some good episodes but the classics are yet to come. Season Three’s two part story "The Last Word" is an absolute masterpiece. There is a siege at the Junior Gazette and, by moving back and forward in time, we see that someone dies. As the candidates are gradually whittled down its nail biting to see who won’t make it. As the Guinness Book of Classic British Television says in singling this episode out for praise, "to give away the ending would be a crime".
That same book says Press Gang is "probably the best television programme in the world" and although I wouldn’t quite go that far, it’s still incredible. Far better than it has any right to be. Steven Moffat’s name will be familiar to some of you only for his sit coms and his recently announced addition to the Doctor Who writing team. Having seen what he was capable of fifteen years ago, I’ve a lot of confidence that he’ll write some sparkling Who.
6th April 2004