Press episode 2 review: the Ben Chaplin and Charlotte Riley drama continues to be implausible fun

There are some out-of-date tropes and hard to swallow behaviour, says former newspaper journalist Ben Dowell, but it's still as zippy and engaging as the best paper in town

WARNING: Embargoed for publication until 00:00:01 on 04/09/2018 - Programme Name: Press - TX: n/a - Episode: n/a (No. n/a) - Picture Shows:  Angie (THALISSA TEIXEIRA), Ed Washburn (PAAPA ESSIEDU) - (C) Lookout Point - Photographer: Hal Shinnie

Media studies students keen to get abreast of the top issues facing the newspaper industry should probably watch Press with a slight pinch of salt.

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Declining print sales and the pressures of getting internet clicks – tick. Crusading journalism versus populist entertainment – tick. Intrusive proprietors and populist editors with the ears of Prime Ministers – sure, if we were living 15 years ago.

The media landscape has changed a bit since phone hacking and Leveson and tighter press regulation. And one of the big problems of Mike Bartlett’s bold drama is that it does rather overstate the importance of newspapers in an online viral age – front pages on dead trees are not what they once were.

But let’s not get bogged down in coursework. Because while stupendously implausible moments continue to creep in, this ballsy drama does at least capably extract some zingy drama from its stew of heavy research – and that really is Bartlett’s main job.

This week, dastardly Post editor Duncan (the brilliant Ben Chaplin, below) nails an uppity union boss on the orders of the mysterious Matthew who keeps texting him – leaving us to discover right at the end that Matthew is in fact the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Ben Chaplin, Press (BBC, EH)

Meanwhile over at the Herald, deputy news editor Holly Evans (Charlotte Riley) gets so frustrated with junior reporter Leona’s lack of nous and commitment that she decides to take on an investigation herself.  She gets the last train to Leicester, interviews staff through the night, manages to leaf through boxes of documents, and by the morning has stood up a massive scandal involving a cover up that has resulted in the deaths of patients.

Before the sun (the ball of fire not the paper) has even had its first cappuccino of the day, she has the chief executive of the hospital trust in her office and resigning.

Impressive. Impressive and utterly implausible of course, especially the bit where she lets Leona have the byline. No self-respecting hack would let that happen. But this is a show where professional reporters need to hold their breath, stifle their indignation and go with it. For the sake of our blood pressure of course – we hacks are very unhealthy beasts as a rule.

The story of poor Post newbie Ed Washburn (Pappa Essiedu) dressing up as a polar bear and attending a society Halloween party where he covertly recorded the angry denunciations of a children’s TV presenter called Belle Hicks had the ring of truth. These things do indeed happen. What seems less likely is that Belle Hicks knew exactly what she was up to, engineering the scandal to boost her profile and get better paid work in grown up television. These sorts of things don’t really happen – not in this way, and certainly not at this speed.

The debate about The Herald’s wraparound ad deal with a nefarious clothing company called Lydale coloured in an interesting and pressing issue quite well. If we ignore the silly name – they may as well have been called Lie-dale – these are the sorts of dilemmas faced by papers and it made for an interesting array of tensions at the liberal paper.

But the whole story was compressed rather swiftly when (with the Herald editor’s blessing) hack James (Al Weaver) quickly turned round his inept investigation into Lydale’s business practices, got them to drop the wraparound ad and showed that good journalism can win through. James’s doorstepping of the chief executive contained some howlingly improbable dialogue too, but I’ll ignore that as well.

Press is sometimes silly, but it chunters along at a tidy lick and things are set up very nicely for episode three.

Ed and Holly have decided to become flatmates, and Holly is being wooed by the Devil Duncan. Will she defect to the world of tabloid papers? In a world so fabulously marooned from reality as this one, anything is possible.

And what will happen with the PM next week when Duncan calls in his favour? I dread to think…

This article was originally published on 13 September 2018

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This article was originally published on 13 September 2018