Press Gang was great. Great writing, great storylines and great acting all contributed to this, as did the fact that there was really nothing else like it on television at that time (it went out between 1989 and 1993). Whilst Grange Hill was a fairly credible portrayal of children being children at a comprehensive school, Press Gang was a programme about children undertaking roles usually filled by adults. Whilst not glamourising the setting of the Junior Gazette (a newspaper run by pupils from a local school) it used a mix of comedy and drama to portray an exciting realism of deadlines, breaking stories and run-ins with interfering grown-ups as well as tackling serious issues without patronising its teen audience.
The cast obviously brought the scripts to life (and more of them later) but a lot of its success had to be credited to the crew behind the show. It was written by Steven Moffat (who later went on to devise Coupling, as well as write and produce Doctor Who and co-create Sherlock) whose father had devised the original concept for the programme (now, nobody is to mention nepotism here…), and Bob Spiers (Fawlty Towers, French and Saunders, A Bit of Fry and Laurie) directed over half of the episodes.
Fleet Street journalist Matt Kerr (Clive Wood) is responsible for the creation of the Junior Gazette. After taking over editorship of the Norbridge local paper he sets up a smaller version for the pupils to produce; using their own time outside their school day. The junior team must defer to him on certain decisions, but in general the paper is their own.
The Junior Gazette is edited by Lynda Day (the Absolutely Fabulous Julia Sawalha); a forthright and strong leader who says what she thinks and has no problem with intimidating her staff to get the result she wants. Her tough veneer is just that however; a veneer. She’s passionate about the paper and will do what it takes to keep it going, but her fierce leadership style is often a cover-up to hide her vulnerability in other situations.
The only person who gets to poke holes in Lynda’s outer shell is cheeky chappie James ‘Spike’ Thomson (the disappointingly English Dexter Fletcher); an American student who is given the chance to avoid expulsion from school by agreeing to work on the paper. Laidback, wise-cracking and happy to stand up to Lynda (the sparks are apparent between them from the beginning) he proves useful to the team by bringing them their first lead story. Lynda gets fed up of Spike’s constant joking but it’s obvious that there are occasions when his lighter tone helps her through difficult situations. Throughout the show’s run of five series, their relationship develops; although it’s off as many times as it is on due to their inability to spend time together without squabbling.
Assistant Editor Kenny Phillips (played by Lee Ross, who would go on to appear in The Catherine Tate Show and EastEnders amongst other things) is often a calming influence between the sparring Lynda and Spike. He’s rational, thoughtful and kind, which is often to his detriment in his pursuit of a relationship; he was dumped by one girlfriend because he was ‘too understanding’.
If Colin Mathews was going to appear on another television show, he’d be the contestant that left the Dragon’s open-mouthed in their Den with the stupidity of his business plan. Colin (Paul Reynolds - who has starred with Christopher Eccleston in the film Let Him Have it as well as performing many other television and theatre roles) is the paper’s money man, but he’d sell his granny several times over in order to increase his own bank balance. Known for shirts so loud that even Magnum P.I. would pass them over, his ridiculous schemes to fleece somebody of their cash rarely paid off but it was impossible not to get swept up in his enthusiasm.
Sarah Jackson (Kelda Holmes) is the Junior Gazette’s top writer. A friend of Lynda’s from the school, the two share a tempestuous relationship, with Lynda often trying to manipulate the former’s future on the paper. Sarah tries to leave on many occasions to attend university, but Lynda manages to stop her, until she finally gets away in series five.
Other young actors, including Lucy Benjamin, Gabrielle Anwar and Mmoloki Christie were all part of the team on the paper at various points during its run, and all had their fair share of hard-hitting storylines. Press Gang didn’t shy away from hard-hitting topics; solvent abuse, guns and child abuse were all covered sensitively throughout its time; bringing it plaudits from critics for the quality of its writing. It was pitched perfectly, with the script kept sharp and witty without resorting to the slapstick approach that many programmes adopted when aiming at an audience of children. The plots were intricate and realistic, and interwoven storylines and themes delivered real pay-offs for people who followed them from start to finish. A variety of filming techniques were also used, including flashbacks and dream sequences; meaning its overall look was much more polished and visually interesting than other children’s programmes.
The programme was rightly rewarded for its brilliance; in 1991 it received both a BAFTA for Best Children’s Programme (Entertainment/Drama) as well as a Royal Television Society award for Best Children’s Programme – Drama and Light Entertainment. Julia Sawalha also won a RTS award for Best Actor – Female in 1993.
Rumours of a television revival of Press Gang float to the surface every now and again; the general feeling seems to be that whilst Moffat and Sawalha are genuinely interested in reuniting the cast for a grown-up reunion, the busy careers of all involved are currently preventing it. Which is a shame, as the quality of the reporting and writing on the Junior Gazette would still be vastly better than most of the tabloids around today.