Press Gang: Steven Moffat and Julia Sawalha on the groundbreaking children's series and the revival that never was
As the first series comes to BritBox, writer/creator Moffat and star Sawalha reflect on the show that launched both their careers.
"I haven't actually watched it in years," Steven Moffat confesses of his debut television series, the children's comedy-drama Press Gang. "I think the last time I saw a frame of it, I was doing DVD commentaries with Julia [Sawalha] – and that was just before I started work on Doctor Who, so that's a long time ago…"
As a result, Moffat admits that he's not certain how a new audience discovering Press Gang as its first series - spanning 12 episodes - arrives on BritBox might react to the show. "I actually can't imagine what a young audience would make of it," he says. "My sons, who are 18 and 20, have rigidly refused to watch it, so I can't make any judgment on that!
"It might seem quite old-fashioned. It will seem quite old-fashioned, let's be honest. It's thirty years old, that's what you have to remember. Y'know, people have got fat and old in the time it's been off the air."
The origins of the idea that would eventually become Press Gang actually came from Moffat's father Bill – a headmaster from Glasgow who had an idea for a children's series about school-kids running a student newspaper. The idea appealed to producer Sandra Hastie and Bill Ward, co-owners of her company Richmond Films and Television, with Bill suggesting that his son, then an English teacher, should write the script.
"What my Dad had come up with really was a sort of education kit about a newspaper in a school, run by kids," Moffat explains. "So I ended up... I mean, I was pretty much solely responsible for its fictional world, I guess you'd say."
Using his father's idea as a springboard, Moffat created Press Gang, which followed the student staff of the Junior Gazette, edited by the no-nonsense Lynda Day (Sawalha) and produced by a cast of characters including American delinquent Spike (Dexter Fletcher), assistant editor Kenny (Lee Ross) and the paper's financial brain Colin (Paul Reynolds).
More like this
Though this was his first television commission, on the day he got "just a sniff of a contract", Moffat quit his teaching job. "I wanted to be a writer, I was absolutely clear on that. I probably had my sights set on the theatre – I think at that time I was really fascinated by being a playwright... I still haven't managed it!
"But I loved television, so of course I was thrilled... and I did not want to be a teacher. Basically my parents said, 'You have to make a living, you can't just lie around the house saying you're a writer' so they made me get a job, but I quit my teaching job well before I signed the actual contract for Press Gang, which was daring! Quite a lot of TV writers carry on doing their day job for a bit, till they're secure enough... but y'know, I was 26, and just thought, 'To hell with that.'"
"I thought Steven was really so much older – nothing to do with looks!" laughs series star Sawalha. "He was just so brilliant, and he held great authority. Looking back on it, I feel a bit bad now because I think we were all a bit in awe of him and he must have felt very separated from us. I wish he’d told me that he was 26!
"He was in his office a lot, on his own, and I used to go and see him and he’d be battering away on the typewriter, and I'd say, 'Oh Steven, this script is just amazing, it’s brilliant, it’s brilliant' – and he’d just say, 'Ah, it’s nothing, get on with it!’."
Press Gang was unlike any other children's series on air at the time. Despite a strict production schedule, with episodes being produced in just five days, it was never lacking in ambition, veering from farce to tragedy and dabbling in dream sequences, flashbacks and fantasies – part of Moffat's desire to ape more "adult" series like Moonlighting and Hill Street Blues.
"Hill Street Blues could be quite mad at times, and St Elsewhere... and Moonlighting which I adored," he recalls. "These were shows where they said, 'It's just television, we can do whatever the hell we like.'"
"I really admired the comedy in it and the actors that could do it," Sawalha says. "I mean, Paul Reynolds as Colin Matthews was just genius and I just thought, 'I don’t know how he does it'. I wasn’t very good at... comedy wasn’t my thing. And so I shied away from it and sort of dreaded the farcical side of Press Gang, because I just thought, 'I’m not going to be able to do it.'"
It was director Bob Spiers - who directed more than half of Press Gang's 43 episodes - who Sawalha credits with helping her find her confidence as a comedic actress. "I adored Bob. He was what I call a lantern person in my life - he lit up a path for me. He taught me so much and what he taught me most of all was, I think, really to respect myself a little bit more, because I didn’t. I’m indebted to him, as many of us are."
Moffat also credits Spiers for helping develop the visual style of the series from its third episode onwards, following an unhappy collaboration with the director hired to helm Press Gang's opening two episodes. "I wasn't very pleased with the first two," Moffat remembers."They'd mucked about with the script quite a lot and I threw a tantrum, as I used to do... I don't do that anymore!
"But when Bob, the notoriously grumpy Bob, came on the show - and he was known to be a firebrand - he knew I'd had a miserable time at the beginning and he sort of took me aside."
Spiers explained the changes he wanted to implement to Moffat, including using tracking shots, with extra dialogue sometimes being written to accommodate the length of the shot. "He was working on a look for the show but working on it in a way that I could understand what he was doing, so I could write to it.
"He evolved the look of the show and the style of the show very strongly after that, and became our go-to director at all times. He would've done all of them if that'd been physically possible. He was quite brilliant, quite brilliant. I loved Bob."
Besides its inventive tone and polished production, Press Gang's subject matter also helped it stand out – with plots exploring issues including child abuse (in series two's 'Something Terrible'), suicide (series one's 'Monday - Tuesday') and drug abuse (in series finale 'There Are Crocodiles').
"It was something that I think parents would have felt happy about their children watching because they were being educated in a very carefully crafted way, so that nobody was hurt by what they were seeing, but their eyes were being opened," Sawalha says.
Moffat, though, felt torn tackling these topics on the series, with part of him eager to write "an adult show" with more mature themes. "I regarded, in those days, doing children's television as in some way a stepping stone to something else, which is absolutely not what I think now.
"I mean, that's a nonsensical way to think, but you know how pompous you are when you're young. I was tremendously pompous about everything, and I wanted to make 'proper adult television'... and I ended up running Doctor Who, so there you go!"
Part of him, though, wanted to avoid "hectoring" a young audience with heavy-handed messages. "Far from pushing back on it, Central Television would always be wanting us to do that and I'd be resisting, saying 'Why does it have to be a bloody sermon?' – I mean, I get insulted when a TV show tries to tell me what I should think about something and it felt at the time, 30 years ago, that children's television was always doing that. 'Now it's a very special episode...' – p**s off, can't you just blow something up and say some jokes?"
Its offbeat storytelling and appealing cast dynamic saw Press Gang receive a rapturous reception from contemporary critics, with the series receiving a Royal Television Society award and a BAFTA in 1991. The show's audience also grew when it was deemed worthy of being repeated in an early evening slot on Sundays on Channel 4 in 1991. "I can always spot a Press Gang fan!" Sawalha insists. "I can spot them a mile off. I can see them coming.
"Just a few months ago actually, someone came up to me in a restaurant and she was quite young, and she said, 'I’ve just got to say how much I love you'. It was so heartfelt, and I thought, ‘Oh, I don’t know what she’s seen, maybe Lark Rise to Candleford or something?’, and she went, ‘Press Gang.’ And I thought, ‘No, no - I mean, you can’t have been born’.
"She had watched it in that later slot with her Dad and then watched it again and again and again. The fact that it still has that effect on people, that’s a really beautiful thing."
"It certainly wasn't the biggest thing in children's television at all, there were many more successful shows, but it might've been the most lauded for a while," Moffat says. "It was hugely respected."
Despite winning plaudits and attracting a broad audience, various factors - including the advancing age of its cast - almost saw Press Gang end after just two series. "I thought it was over," Moffat admits. "I wrote [series two closer] 'The Big Finish' as the last episode, that's exactly what it was, and I thought for some months, maybe as much as a year, that it was over, and then it sort of came back to life."
Central Television eventually opted to green-light a third series, but initially suggested phasing out the original cast and having a new team taking over the Junior Gazette. "That's a perfectly sensible suggestion, but I didn't fancy that at all," says Moffat, who instead tweaked the show's format to have the Gazette become a commercial venture, which Lynda, Spike et al would run as adults.
"They were not unreasonably saying, 'But that's not a kids' show any more' and I was saying, 'Well, yeah, but it's the only one I want to do, so...' and we stopped having to pretend that Dexter and Julia - Dexter in particular - were still at school, which was starting to push it a little bit."
The show ultimately came to an end in 1993 with the typically experimental episode 'There Are Crocodiles', in which Sawalha's Lynda is trapped in a fire in the offices of the Junior Gazette and ends up somewhere that may or may not be purgatory, with her final fate left uncertain.
"By that stage, we'd done so many faintly twisted things, I would imagine people would've been disappointed if we didn't do something like that," Moffat says of the ambiguous ending. "And also, I didn't absolutely know we weren't coming back, though I kind of knew in my gut we weren't.
"I knew that I didn't quite have the impulse to do it again. It took a lot of energy and a lot of time and I was no longer the 26 year old, I was the 32-year-old, and you sort of think it's maybe time to stop writing about teenagers! But at the same time, I loved it so much that I didn't want to stop."
"Even to this day, I don’t know whether Lynda Day died or not," admits Sawalha, though Moffat now says that the answer is there if you look hard enough.
"She has to be alive – because when she turns up in what might be Spike's dream [in the series' final scene], she has information that Spike couldn't know... if you examine it carefully enough, it's obvious. But it doesn't matter what you do – people still say we didn't explain how Sherlock survived the fall, despite actually shooting the scene with the big blue cushion! So what can you do?"
In the three decades since Press Gang's enigmatic swansong, there have occasionally been rumours of a revival, with Moffat even drunkenly pitching the idea to the BBC's then-Head of Drama John Yorke at the wrap party for Jekyll.
"I think I actually wrote something... and I think it was awful," Moffat reveals. "I remember writing something that went wildly off-piste. It was rubbish. But there was something... and I think there might have been a time when I decided to destroy all copies, because I did not think it was good! It was nuts, and it was too silly."
Still, if the circumstances were right, both he and Sawalha say they'd be interested in revisiting Press Gang. "I would always be up for doing it, because it'd be Steven writing it," Sawalha says. "It would be really interesting to see how they’ve all ended up, 25 years or 30 years or whatever it is down the line. "
"For something to come back 30 years later - which is way longer than Doctor Who was off the air - it would be tough," Moffat adds. "It's a tough ask of an audience to care about picking up those characters again. But, y'know, if someone phoned me up and said, 'Look, we actually do want to do it', I would probably say yes.
"We all loved doing it, you've got to understand. It was a strange experience for us all, because Bob was experienced, and Sandra was experienced, but me as a writer and that cast, we hadn't a bloody clue what we were doing.
"We were just suddenly making a TV show and it was getting amazing reviews and we got a BAFTA and all that... and we just thought this was what being in television was like, and then we scattered separately into the world and discovered that it's not always like that. That was special. But we were just too young and too stupid to realise it!"