In certain circles, Press Gang creator Steven Moffat is a god. The sole writer of the show’s 43 episodes, he recently admitted that even 12 years after its demise, he is still showered with praise for what was his first gig writing for TV. “When I’m talking to someone about the right age,” Moffat told BBC1 in December, “and they ask what I’ve written, and I mention Press Gang, suddenly I’m a hero.”
What is it about Press Gang that, to this day, elicits such fawning? Imagine a teenage version of Moonlighting (1985) by way of All the President’s Men (1976), with a hint of The Hardy Boys (1977), and you’re halfway towards describing this award-winning series about a motley bunch of students running a youth newspaper. Considered ground-breaking in its day for tackling issues such as teen suicide, sexual abuse, adultery, and drug addiction over the course of its five-year run, the show is renowned in its native U.K. for doing something kid television at the time didn’t do (and, arguably, still doesn’t): it refused to treat its audience like children.
When the big-cheese daily in the fictional London suburb of Norbridge decides to test a spin-off paper for kids, the school’s headmaster decides to use the paper as a dumping ground for some of the his worst discipline cases. Before they know it, super student and new editor Lynda Day (Julia Sawalha), her assistant and long-time friend Kenny Phillips (Lee Ross), and her best friend and head writer Sarah Jackson (Kelda Homes) are wandering around the newsroom amid what they call “KDs”—knuckle-draggers.
This annoyance is short-lived, however. For, where KDs go, trouble follows and with trouble comes news. Not such a bad thing for a group of kids with adult investors to impress. And there are none more troublesome than the sharp-tongued, leather-jacket-wearing American, Spike Thomson (Dexter Fletcher, adopting quite a convincing accent). Introduced as the charismatic bad boy of the piece, Spike is soon brought to his knees by his take-no-prisoners editor. He makes no secret of his infatuation with Lynda, but she refuses even to entertain the idea of going out with him. He is the guy, after all, who “you knowed” at the school dance (we never find out exactly what Spike did, making for some clever banter in episode one). Nonetheless, he’s given a place on Lynda’s news team alongside fellow rejects Frazz (Mmoloki Chrystie) and Colin (Paul Reynolds).
This gathering together of opposites—the KDs versus the serious junior reporters—would seem the show’s foundation, yet it’s rarely a focus after the premiere episode. Instead, their friendship is quickly established as they become dedicated to their work at the paper. Towards the end of the season, Press Gang becomes focused on relationships, young people relating to young people on a deeper level than who’s dating whom or wearing what. While the show does include storylines concerning mysteries in need of solving (Who is sending stories to the newsroom via computer? Who is drawing a chalk outline outside a block of flats every month?), but none showcases the series’ subtle genius like shared looks between characters, or the self-awareness they reveal in few words.
Though this first season does tend to fall back on easy jokes (Colin’s outlandish moneymaking schemes, for example, like selling half ping-pong balls as jewelry and crockery), for the most part, it not your average teen drama. Rather, the humor is often ironic and based in word play, rarely obvious or forced: when the gang’s illegally hooked up telephone rings during a visit from an adult, Lynda shrugs the jingle off as a doorbell, only to be reminded that the newsroom doesn’t have a doorbell. “Oh,” she says, “they must have knocked, then.”
Beyond such offbeat moments, the young journalists are granted emotional shadings. During a heated discussion with a student, Lynda tells him, “You’re not nice to know.” When he shoots himself as a seeming result, her own self-respect takes a nosedive, and depression forces her to abandon her beloved paper. Spike finds her in the changing room of a dress shop, at which point she goes over her reasons for running away:
Remember on the first edition when we almost crashed the paper with the supermarket story? I felt so bad, thought I’d totally screwed up, that I was a complete failure. I went down High Street and tried on every dress I could find in my size. I just wanted to see myself looking different, better, taller.
Her self-understanding is so witty and intelligent that it’s easy to forget she’s only 16.
Whereas other shows of its time—Canada’s Degrassi High (1986) is a prime example—sent more overt and proactive “messages” to teens about sex, drugs, and suicide, Press Gang allows its kids to make mistakes without adding the obligatory moral coda. Press Gang‘s genius lies in its ability to say what needs to be said without getting bogged down in its own politics. The DVD release of season one provides an opportunity to revisit (or see for the first time) the admirable heroics performed by Moffat and his young actors.