Press review: Mike Bartlett’s tale of two papers is likely to cause a splash

Charlotte Riley and Ben Chaplin are perfectly cast in the Doctor Foster writer’s new BBC1 newspaper drama

Press cast (BBC, EH)

They say there’s no such thing as bad publicity, but Mike Bartlett’s newspaper drama Press is unlikely to do much for the sometimes unfavourable image of reporters – at British tabloids, at least. Bartlett himself admitted this in an interview about Press last summer: “I’d love to say it’s going to restore journalists’ reputations but I’m not convinced it will,” he remarked drily. 

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Press, from the writer of Doctor Foster, is set in the offices of two competing publications: a broadsheet newspaper, The Herald, and a tabloid, The Post. News rooms are, of course, ripe territory for drama, and we follow the journalists at each as they juggle their deteriorating personal lives with the uncertainty of an ever-changing industry and the demands of relentless, rolling deadlines.

Ben Chaplin, who was wonderfully wolfish in Apple Tree Yard, is back in full, lupine attack-mode as the editor of The Post in Press. “Splish, splash,” he murmurs, eyebrows raised, when warning a politician of the career-ending damage a story about her on his front page could do. This quick-witted, bullying hack purrs when he’s happy, growls when he’s not, jokes about things like “getting a semi” and wonders aloud why on earth closeted footballers “don’t just come out?”. There’s a glimmer, albeit a small one, of David Brent.

Charlotte Riley, meanwhile, is at once dishevelled, distracted and intense as the news editor of The Herald and the resulting effect is captivating. The Peaky Blinders actress is utterly convincing as a very, very sad ball of tension and the reason for her angst is masterfully delivered in a first episode twist.

Charlotte Riley, Press (BBC, EH)
Charlotte Riley, Press (BBC)

For research, Bartlett spent days in the newsrooms of the Evening Standard, The Independent, The Guardian, The Sun and The Mirror. For this reason, in lots of ways, Press feels real. The Herald and The Post are essentially modelled on The Guardian and The Sun, respectively. Chaplin was quick to point this out. “I can say this because it’s thinly disguised to the point of the font being the same,” he said. “The papers are basically The Sun and The Guardian.”

The drama is punctuated with realistic nods to the moral obstacles the news industry faces every day: the question of public interest, exposure and shaming, holding power to account and “death knocks”.

The death knock is a symptom of the dark side of journalism, and refers to the practice of a reporter knocking on the front door of a bereaved person in order to gain information and an emotional reaction to a death. It’s the very first thing that happens in Press, when Paapa Essiedu’s morally conflicted Post reporter doorsteps the parents of a footballer who killed himself.

Paapa Essiedu, Press (BBC, EH)
Paapa Essiedu, Press (BBC)

The issue is further delved into later in episode one, when we hear a mother speaking about receiving death knocks mere hours after her child was murdered. “My daughter had been killed, that was hell,” she said. “But the newspapers were the ones making the flames hot.” So no, the show is not exactly a ringing endorsement for the ethics of tabloid journalism.

While Press does mostly feel like an authentic depiction of the British media, at points it veers into caricature. We’re slightly spoon-fed the idea that Chaplin’s Duncan Allen is the editor of a tabloid therefore he is sleazy therefore he pays for sex. And there’s one moment when David Suchet’s media mogul rolls up in a blacked-out car, opera oozing from the speakers, and the door mysteriously opens so that Allen can discreetly slide in.

Meanwhile The Herald’s editor, played by Priyanga Burford, looks at the front-page layout on her computer screen and sighs: “It’s not good enough. Sales are down. Carry on like this, we won’t survive. It’s fine, but we need to take some risks.” Does anybody actually speak like that?

However Press is, after all, a drama. It’s not a documentary, it’s here to entertain – that’s what Bartlett is good at and he absolutely delivers on that front. Besides, Chaplin won’t be reading any reviews anyway, having told me: “Obviously I don’t like critics. They just annoy me… What kind of person thinks their opinion is so awesome that they think it should be printed and be right?”

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This article was originally published on 6 September 2018