Press Gang: How Steven Moffat’s First Show Shaped a Generation

The Sherlock and Doctor Who writer remembers the teenage journalists who changed the world

Press Gang
Photo: ITV/Richmond Films and TV

“A voice for today’s youth” runs the strap line to the Junior Gazette, the fictional newspaper at the heart of Press Gang, a kids’ show first broadcast on ITV in 1989 which followed a team of school children turned budding journalists. The fact is, Steven Moffat was something of a youth himself at 25 years old when he landed his very first television writing gig. Press Gang was an idea his father Bill Moffat, a headmaster, had pitched to a producer who was visiting his school while filming an episode of Highway, and when a script was requested, Bill suggested Steven write it. 

The show was a game changer. It won multiple awards, launched the career of its lead Julia Sawalha, turned Dexter Fletcher – now an extremely accomplished director – into a teenage heartthrob and gave Moffat the space to flex his writing muscles beginning a career which would see him create numerous iconic sitcoms, reinvent Sherlock and Dracula and guide Doctor Who though a modern glory age.

“We were all very young,” Moffat reflects, chatting via Zoom on lockdown from a room lined with bookshelves. “And with the exception of Dexter really, we were all doing our first big jobs. We thought everything we ever did would be like this. You’d always win a BAFTA. You’d always make a great show, you’d always have fantastic reviews, you’d always get to do what the hell you like, and people would applaud you. We all thought that. We thought it was our entitlement the way the young do.”

Now more than 30 years after the first episode aired, season one of Press Gang has arrived on BritBox – it’s a jewel from a different era but revisiting it now, rather than dated, it seems incredibly progressive.

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“I was emailing back and forth with Julia [Sawalha] when BritBox started just saying, ‘God if we’d known!’” he laughs. “Well, she said she did know. I didn’t know. I just thought ‘Why am I still stuck in children’s television? I should be doing something really grown up’…like, as it turns out, Doctor Who

The thing about Press Gang is that it always was incredibly grown up in a way that was instantly recognisable to youngsters. For many members of a certain generation Press Gang was a landmark, even if we didn’t know it at the time. 

When the first episode of Press Gang aired it was exactly one week after my 11th birthday. The show introduced me to the thrill of a newsroom run by people like me, it showed me an environment where all the senior members of staff on the paper – the editor, the lead designer, the head writer, and even the intern – were girls and no one even mentioned it, and it told me that actually, working really hard can be fun. For me there’s never been a clearer example of ‘if you can see it, you can be it,’ though at the time I just thought it was a really cool show.

It was Moffat’s experience as a teacher that helped give him that focused understanding of what kids wanted to watch.

“This is true of children, always:” Moffat begins, with absolute clarity. “The thing that children are most interested in is how to be an adult. They’re not really interested in how to be a child and they’re very irritated if that’s the way you treat them. They want to be adults. That’s literally how they’re wired – to become one. So I always called Press Gang the adventures of some young people who are being adults for the very first time in their lives. It’s the first time they fell in love, the first time they got something wrong and had to apologise, the first success they ever had that was all their own, all those things, those are the things that a 12-year-old craves.” 

Likened to American shows like Hill Street Blues and Moonlighting, shot on 16mm film rather than video tape and boasting high concept episodes and two part story arcs with big consequences, the show felt more like event TV than throwaway children’s entertainment, thanks in no small part, to the writing. At the heart of the show was the on-again off-again romance between the paper’s editor Lynda Day (Sawalha) and the American bad boy foisted onto her editorial team Spike (Fletcher) – it was the snappy back and forth dialogue between the two, coupled with great performances from both that kept things funny and fresh even during some of the more serious episodes. 

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“I think when we first started seeing a lot of people for Lynda, a lot of them were really quite bad,” Moffat laughs. “What everybody did was come in and play Lynda in a very hard way. Very hard and very, very shouty. Lynda isn’t saying things that she thinks she needs to shout, she thinks that what she says is self-evidently true. She’s not behaving this way because she’s lost her temper. She thinks she’s perfectly reasonable and other people should be more like her. Julia came in with her sweet little voice, and she’s very pretty, and she just said all these dreadful lines that Lynda had with the voice of sweet reason.”

Spike and Lynda were cast pretty concurrently with the audition using dialogue from the first episode (“If this was the olden days, like, hundreds and hundreds of years ago? I’d kill a dragon for you” etc).

Moffat says the chemistry between Sawalha and Fletcher was “very evident”. He says this with a knowing laugh, hinting perhaps at the subtext that the two dated during the show. Though they were playing school kids the cast were older than that in real life – Julia in her early-twenties and Dexter in his mid-twenties. Though Moffat himself was only in his mid-twenties when he began working on the show, he says the cast assumed he was much older. 

“They were all party animals, that cast,” he remembers. “I’d have been a party animal if anyone had wanted to have a party with me! But I was in this very odd position where the cast thought I was about 40 and the production team thought I was about 12 so nobody wanted to see me!”

That energy off screen might have been another reason why the show felt so incredibly important and aspirational to an 11-year-old with a love of writing growing up in a small village in Kent. Press Gang showed young people being taken seriously and getting important things done – actually making a difference. 

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More than 30 years later and certain episodes are lodged immovably in my head. Foremost is the two parter from series one called ‘How To Make A Killing’, where lovely assistant editor Kenny (Lee Ross) delves into why a girl from a nearby school (an early role for Sadie Frost) draws the outline of a body outside a block of flats once a month. The key to the mystery is local shops selling solvents to glue-sniffing kids and the Junior Gazette team organise a sting operation to catch the vendors in the act, publishing an expose in the paper. It was thrilling. So thrilling that my friends and I were momentarily inspired to carry out a sting operation of our own. We would see which shops in the local town would sell cigarettes to a bunch of 11-year-olds. I’m happy to say we never did carry out our undercover operation – though as an adult journalist working for Which? magazine I did go undercover to expose nanny agencies hiring live-in nannies without doing any kind of background or identity check, so I did eventually get to scratch that itch. 

Moffat says that though he had a policy that there could never be “imitable bad behaviour” (how could he have predicted a bunch of precocious pre-teens thinking they’re Woodward and Bernstein?) back then he hated doing issues episodes.

“I thought it was patronising,” he says. “We’re not doing that in adult television. So why are we doing it for kids? Who the hell qualified us as a bunch of media wastrels to inform people how they should think or live? We’re here to tell stories.”

So when he was persuaded to do episodes about child abuse, or indeed glue sniffing, he consciously tried to find a way that would make them more interesting.

“They were always at me to do one about drugs. And I was thinking why? What do I know about it? Can’t we just tell some jokes and have some flirty scenes with Spike and Lynda?”

He did eventually do his own take on a drugs storyline, in the very last ever episode of the show, ‘There Are Crocodiles’. But Moffat did it his way.

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“My answer to [doing a drugs episode] was always ‘what are any of my characters gonna say?’ Colin will sell you them. Spike will buy them from you. And Lynda will say ‘I don’t give a fuck. It’s probably a bad idea, but it’s your choice.’” he says.  “So of course at the end, I did that. I had Lynda not care. I had her go to hell and refuse to apologise!”

That’s so very Lynda. To say that Lynda was my idol doesn’t scratch the surface. She was the role model I never knew I had. Only watching the show now, 30-odd years after my first go round, did I notice that I even dressed like Lynda as a teenager a few years later – though I don’t remember that ever being a conscious choice. Ask me who my fictional character spirit animal is and I’ll tell you it’s Amy Archer from The Hudsucker Proxy, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, another journalist and a self-described “fast talking career gal who thought she was one of the boys.” But who is Amy but a slightly older Lynda transported to 1950s America?

When we talk about the very positive femaleness of the show and how meaningful that was to me as a pre-teen, Moffat explains it was more about his worldview than a conscious political statement.

“If you’ve got a bunch of teenagers and you’ve got a job and you want something responsible done, done well, you’re not going to choose the blokes. You’re not!” he laughs. “Of course the editor is going to be a woman! It just would be the case.”

His experience of teaching girls clearly had a big influence on the show and he notes how back then while the girls were usually ahead of the boys at a pre-teen age, by around 14 and 15 the boys seemed to creep ahead for reasons he couldn’t pinpoint.

“I did think back then that there was an obligation on girls to be nice,” he says. “‘Nice’ doesn’t fit terribly well with ‘competitive’. The main thing I thought as a very young school teacher 32, 33 years ago, of my female students was ‘you don’t always have to be so nice. If you were a bit less nice now and then maybe you’d get a bit more done!’”

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In hindsight, Moffat notes, “The better reply might have been ‘no, YOU could try being a bit MORE nice!’” but he says this is where Lynda grew from.  

“Lynda’s great strength, particularly as a journalist, is that she was only interested in the truth because she didn’t care what people thought about her. Sometimes a little bit, but for the most part, she just didn’t give a monkey’s. She was just fine. I think I thought my female students 35 years ago, should have been more like that.”

Watching aged 11, gender politics didn’t cross my mind, and it sounds like it wasn’t an especially conscious thought for Moffat either. “I never lived in a time when there weren’t loads of women in authority. Press Gang was run by a woman,” he explains, referring to producer Sandra C. Hastie. Though he does recall getting notes asking him to soften Lynda as a character.

“[They said] ‘You’ve got to show that she’s vulnerable on the inside’ to which I always replied, ‘everybody’s vulnerable on the inside. That’s not a revelation. She’s not a particularly vulnerable person. And why aren’t you saying that about any other character in this show?’”

Lynda does have a heart but being good at her job is more important to her than being liked. Watching back as an adult journalist and I can see shades of Lynda in female editors I have worked for and deeply respect, though I am more of a Sarah type these days – Kelda Holmes’ character, the constantly stressed writer struggling with deadlines who does actually want to be liked. And as for Spike, he’s no longer the bad boy dream boat, but a liability who would be an incredibly annoying and disruptive presence in any newsroom. Though Kenny I’d hire in a heartbeat. 

Moffat says that he was making up the details of the newsroom but from an entertainment magazine journalist perspective he’s got the dynamic pretty spot on. We joke it could be less that he guessed correctly and more that many journalists in senior editorial roles grew up on Press Gang and brought what we learned from the show to our jobs.

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“You’ve all got an ‘operations board’ now,” Moffat teases.

If he created a show that influenced a generation it was a massive learning experience for him too as his first TV show and an opportunity he grasped with both hands. 

“I was trying to do every kind of television you could do in the same series. You do a heartbreaking tragedy one week you do a huge full scale farce the next week. You do a lot of rom-com. I did a lot of rom-com in that show,” he explains. “When I looked back on it a while back I thought I maybe got too carried away as the years went on with the high concept episodes. That maybe we should have had a few more of just life in the newsroom episodes, but it would literally just be it’s time to do a big sad one. It’s time to do a heartbreaker or a gritty one and then it’s time to do a big lung-busting comedy. I was very excited when I realised I could write comedy!”

Episodes of the show include movie parodies, bottle episodes, dream sequences and flights of fantasy as well as several deaths and at least one big disaster plot line. There’s a lot going on here and if you watch closely you’ll spot glimmers of themes Moffat would play with in his later work, including the faintest echoes of Lynda in Sherlock. 

Press Gang was born in a strange inbetweenland where mobile phones and computers sat beside typewriters and public call boxes. “We’ve got the internet from the first series and I didn’t really get how it worked, I had to ask someone what the internet was,” laughs Moffat. 

It was an era where technology as we now know it was moving from infancy into adulthood, just beginning to stretch its legs and see what it could do. It was a time before Harry Potter and The Hunger Games where YA didn’t consciously exist as a genre, yet Press Gang was truly a show for young adults, whether that was an 11-year-old wannabe journalist, a 20-year-old actress just starting out or a 25-year-old writer embarking on his first show who would go on to change TV as we know it.

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From providing a voice for youth of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s and inspiring a generation, to reaching kids and adults alike with his later shows, it’s possible Press Gang might connect with an entirely new set of young people who now have access to the show. Whether it looks too dated to speak to the youth of today remains to be seen (though anecdotally I spoke to a smart 12-year-old girl who watched and enjoyed the first few episodes and said that the show makes being a journalist look cool).

“I’m curious to see if it does any business on Britbox at all. It might be the wrong kind of dated,” reflects Moffat. “I remember a time when the original Star Trek was too dated to watch and then it became beautiful, it became a relic from another time and its vibrancy and its colour leapt out at you. Press Gang is a relic from a bygone era but maybe not bygone enough.”

Relic or not, Press Gang is a show that was both absolutely of its time and unconsciously ahead of it. For those of us who grew up with Lynda and the team at the Junior Gazette, it’s a moment now set in amber that will always be perfect.