Why Press Gang was the best children’s series ever made

“But it’s for children,” my mother said, baffled, when I mentioned I’d been rewatching every episode of Press Gang.

She’s right, of course. Press Gang, an ITV comedy-drama that ran for 43 episodes from 1989–93, was for children.

The characters were all teenagers. The setting was the Junior Gazette, a newspaper by and for young people. It was on at 4.45pm. I was 9 years old when I started watching it the first time around.

But Press Gang stood out from every other children’s TV programme of its time, both personally for me and in the wider context of TV history.

For me, and many others of my generation, Press Gang was simply the best programme for children there was.

The easiest way to explain it is to say that it didn’t talk down to us, but it’s more than that.

It was funny, and the jokes felt like the jokes in proper sitcoms for grown-ups, even though Press Gang wasn’t really a sitcom.

The Junior Gazette tackled serious issues, from child abuse to teen suicide, and when the series went down that road, it felt gritty and unsentimental. It didn’t preach and never pulled its emotional punches.

Basically, it felt like it was made for adults and we were getting away with something by watching it.

We know why, now.

Because we were lucky enough to be watching a children’s show that happened to be the first broadcast work of one of the finest TV writers of his generation.

Steven Moffat was in his late 20s and nobody in particular when he wrote every episode of Press Gang. Now he has Hugos, British Comedy Awards, Emmys and BAFTAs, for Coupling, Sherlock and Doctor Who. He has an OBE for services to drama.

But Press Gang was where it all started for him. Up until his final series of Doctor Who, Press Gang was still the series he’d written the most episodes of. And Press Gang was also the work that won him his first BAFTA.

So that’s why I rewatched it recently, now that all five series are available on Britbox — to see whether it stood up to my childhood affection for it, and to see what I as an adult made of Moffat’s nascent talent.

Let’s get this out of the way: it really does stand up. And while I started watching it through nostalgia, my slightly younger wife had no such fond memories of it. By the end of the first series, we were both watching it out of genuine enjoyment.

Because it turns out it kind of was made for adults. Or at least all the things that make Moffat’s later work for adults (and, in Doctor Who, for all ages) enjoyable are present in Press Gang from the first episode.

Firstly, it is genuinely funny. As an adult, I can recognise that the series’ core humour is pulled straight from classic screwball comedy. It’s rooted in quick-fire wit, wordplay and irony. Whole scenes — whole relationships — happen just through one-liners thrown between characters like a dart.

And then there are the dark bits. The drug abuse. The suicides, plural. The child abuse. The terrorism.

Press Gang has a really neat trick for how it doubles its impact on all of these, without ever sensationalising them: none of these terrible things exist in its world — until they do.

If Press Gang has a dominant tone, it’s oddball, occasional whimsical, workplace teen drama. There isn’t any hint that any of the tough issues it tackles have a place in that world. It isn’t a dark world — it’s not even a very grounded one much of the time.

And then suddenly, something really bad happens, out of the blue, that’s treated with deadly seriousness, apart from newsroom gallows humour.

During our rewatch, the first time Moffat dropped that hammer, my wife, who had been mostly playing with her phone up to that point, looked up in genuine shock and seemed slightly harrowed. Because it’s not that kind of show. It’s not that kind of life. Until it is.

That is a great way to do issue-based drama for children. And it’s done sparingly enough throughout the series that it doesn’t lose its impact up until the final episode.

With its variety of tones, it takes a strong central cast to take you with them on that journey. And if people remember any characters from Press Gang, it’s hard-nosed editor Lynda Day (a 21-year-old Julia Sawalha) and American rebel reporter Spike (a 24-year-old Dexter Fletcher, now better known as a major film director).

Their central will-they-won’t-they relationship starts from a position of mutual loathing and goes on every possible romcom up and down from there. Sawalha and Fletcher have the full periodic table of chemistry and were a real-life couple for some of the series’ run.

But, much as I enjoy Fletcher’s combination of laid-back charm and emotional intensity as Spike, it’s Lynda Day who’s at the centre of Press Gang.

Strong female role model. Smartest person in the room. Possible psychopath. Specialist in having the last word. Poster girl of the ‘gives zero fucks’ movement. Started an underground school magazine called Damn Magazine, on the basis that’s what the teachers would call it anyway. My first crush.

She’s magnetic, complex, horribly flawed and, despite the ongoing romantic plot, not defined by her relationship with men. I love Lynda Day.

About half of the remaining regular cast barely acted again after the series, but mixed in with them is a murderer’s row of future British TV and film talent. Future EastEnders Lee Ross and Julie Benjamin are regulars, as is (for one series only) Gabrielle Anwar. There are meaty one- or two-episode roles for Claire Forlani, Sadie Frost and Jake Wood. And then there’s David Harewood, probably the most famous of the lot of them, who gets about two lines in one scene.

Beyond all of those great qualities — the humour, the darkness, the cast — there are certainly nits you can pick with the series as a whole, coming to it as an adult in 2021.

It takes the young cast a little while to really understand what to do with Moffat’s quick-fire script, so the first few episodes feel rockier than what comes after. Dexter Fletcher, in an otherwise instinctively charismatic performance, never quite gets a grip on Spike’s American accent — even Moffat later admitted it was an error to saddle him with it.

There are a (very) few problematic elements to modern eyes: what diversity there is is largely confined to the extras; there’s a regrettable sequence where a character adopts brownface as a disguise; there’s a scene where Spike and Lynda trade physical slaps that would never be written that way today (it’s played for comedy).

You could also make an argument that the peak of the series is around halfway through it. While there are still great episodes after that, a few things start working against it.

Cast attrition starts to demonstrate that some of the less showy characters and performances were actually doing a sterling job keeping everything around them grounded, and their departure hurts the dynamic.

Shorter series from the third onward mean Moffat, admirably committed to proper series openers, arcs and endings, doesn’t have much room to play around in between, and the big two-parters dry up.

Lack of certainty over series renewals means that some plot elements begin to feel repetitive, particularly around Lynda and Spike’s relationship.

Moffat’s favourite narrative trick, upending your assumptions by giving new information that recontextualises everything that’s gone before, is impressive, usually effective — but probably gets a few too many outings, to the point you start looking for the rug-pull.

And some of the more outlandish scenarios that feel the most like a kids’ show — hypnotists, guardian angel dream sequences — are in the later series.

But the thing that struck me the most as I watched it this time round was how memorable it was.

I could remember the plots of whole episodes, which I had seen once, on live TV, 30 years ago, as a child. They made that deep an impression.

Here’s why I think that is: Moffat has always been fascinated by story, and different ways to tell one.

Press Gang has it all: in media res, flashbacks, episodes told in scenes alternating between today and yesterday, an episode told via a vignette from each day of a week, an episode told through a letter, call-backs, background jokes, bottle episodes, morality plays.

It’s a masterclass in story for pre-teens.

I struggle to think of other series of the time for children that worked like that — series like Grange Hill or Byker Grove were essentially soaps, with episodes all following the same basic template and style. Each episode of Press Gang felt crafted, like it was its own 25-minute film.

And all of those episodes still feel packed: with characters, incident and ideas.

As an example, without spoilers, the final episode is a sort of greatest hits of Press Gang from the point of view of story mechanics. It contains:

· a framing sequence where Lynda narrates the story to a mysterious, unseen interrogator;

· a goofy rule-of-three running gag about the paper’s football team;

· an emotional call-back to a season one episode;

· a newly introduced and resolved external threat to the paper;

· a thoughtful, punchy running debate on whether or not people who overdose on drugs deserve sympathy;

· an earned wedge in the central romantic relationship established and resolved;

· about three twist endings, including the unseen interrogator reveal, and a couple of those dark hammer-blows from nowhere;

· and an ambiguous resolution that either provides a definitive end to the series or leaves the door open for further stories.

It’s 25 minutes long. For children.

Moffat’s writing is extraordinary in its efficiency at times, and in how that efficiency, despite being carefully constructed, rarely feels cold or mechanical.

It feels generous, like nothing is being left in the locker.

Looking back, it taught me at the age of 9 that the bargain entertainment makes with you should be this: I’ll do everything I can to hold your attention, and if you give me it, you’ll be rewarded many times over.

So many series I’ve watched since then — for children or adults — don’t live up to that promise.

Most don’t even try.

And yes, Press Gang was lightning in a bottle. An extremely gifted young writer throwing everything he’d got at the opportunity he’d been given, which happened to be a children’s series.

But its legacy isn’t just being the best children’s series ever, for a certain sub-section of people in their late 30s/early 40s. It’s worth studying for any writer, to look at and think: I should at least try to be operating on this level.

Even if it’s just for children.

Press Gang series 1–5 are streaming on Britbox now



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