Another essay on inspirations for my novella Girl Reporter. This one is about Press Gang, an essential TV show from my childhood, about teenagers running a newspaper.
KENNY: 8:30, I was trying to tell you.
LYNDA: Have we done three hours already? (Stands up for announcement) All right everyone, pack up and get out. It’s 8:30. Time for school.
I recently risked the wrath of the suck fairy by starting a rewatch of Press Gang along with my kids. I adored this show as a teenager. I imprinted on it like a baby duckling. I loved the banter, the friendship, the snark, the romance, and most of all, the work ethic.
Press Gang (1989-1993) written by then-newcomer Steven Moffat, is a show about teenagers given the chance to be treated like adults: to run their own newspaper, with the distant support and safety net of adult mentors. I was a thirteen year old writing novels in my bedroom: like Lynda and Sarah, I was getting a head start on the career that I wanted.
Lynda Day was my hero. She wasn’t nice to people (which to a teenage girl is a power fantasy and a half). She gave 150% and expected the same of everyone around her. She was smart, sharp-edged and sarcastic. She was a goddamned professional.
She was also heart-breakingly vulnerable and real — the same “dragon” who rages through the newsroom, breaking hearts and crushing souls, is also the sixteen-year-old girl who admits her insecurities to Chrissy, one of their mentors. “What do I know about editing a newspaper?”
By the end of Season 2, Lynda and her team had not only lost their training wheels, they had set fire to them — the cliffhanger to that season was not her will-they-won’t-they relationship with Spike, it was whether or not the Junior Gazette would get the go-ahead to reinvent itself as a “real” newspaper instead of an educational program with an expiry date.
Along the way they learned hard lessons about journalistic ethics, financial pressure, and how to juggle the commitments of a full time job on top of schoolwork and exams. They fought for social justice issues, they fell in love, they solved mysteries and they dealt with overwhelming grief.
They didn’t always win.
And let’s talk about Spike/Lynda, the first fictional couple that made me actually miserable when they were apart. Lynda Day and Spike Thomson represent the ultimate extremes of the kids selected for the Junior Gazette: Lynda, like Sarah and Kenny, is a high achiever desperately in need of a real challenge. Spike, like Frazz and probably Colin, is an underachiever and bad seed on his very last chance before expulsion.
Spike chooses to make an effort with the “kiddie newspaper” because of his crush on Lynda, and his romantic interest in her pretty much drives most of his actions for the entire series. But while the newspaper always takes second place to Lynda in his heart (just as he always takes second place to the newspaper in hers), it also gives him a community of friends and for the first time in his life, a chance to be good at something.
He embraces the role of reporter because it annoys Lynda that he’s good at it… but he is genuinely good at it. Spike’s talent for pranks, shenanigans and talking people into dumb stuff, not to mention his almost entire absence of shame, makes him the perfect dogged reporter, digging out stories because he is prepared to ask questions no matter what.
Spike even steps into a leadership position when it’s needed – in the epic two-parter, How To Make A Killing, he reluctantly takes over Kenny’s Assistant Editor position when Lynda’s best friend goes AWOL. Spike excels at running the street team as their newspaper devotes itself to a massive sting operation on the shops in town willing to sell illegal solvents to teenagers. He is relieved to be fired from the position of responsibility, but he hs proven that he is capable of working at Lynda’s level; he is far more than his school report suggests.
We’re shown later in the series how Spike often tries to distance himself from Lynda and the Junior Gazette for the sake of his sanity and sense of identity, but we’re never told what he does when he’s not there, working for the woman he adores. Does he pick up work on other newspapers? Does he develop other skills? His family life is a strange yawning void of contradiction — he only exists as a character when Lynda is in the room.
(For those who are more familiar with Moffat’s writing from his Doctor Who years, Spike is totally Lynda’s River Song)
I recently wrote a different Girl Reporter essay on classic romantic comedy His Girl Friday, and realised how closely this movie maps on to the main characters of Press Gang: Cary Grant’s newspaper-obsessed editor Walter has a lot in common with Rosalind Russell’s equally dedicated (but trying to find a life outside the job) Hildy Johnson. I would not be shocked to learn that these parallels are deliberate; Moffat’s writing often feels heavily influenced by old fashioned screwball comedies, and his writing of romance in particular.
Spike Thomson is a supporting character in the Lynda Day Story, and for the most part (except when tension is needed, usually at the beginning and end of each season) he’s okay with that. Season 3, in which the team are running the Junior Gazette “for real” having left school and set up business for themselves, is at its most blatant in framing Lynda as a modern Walter to Spike’s Hildy. Over the first few episodes of this season, Lynda pulls out all the stops to seduce her estranged ex-boyfriend back to the newspaper, up to and including stealing his passport.
This is a new, more grown up Lynda who knows that she wants the man as well as the newspaper; Spike has grown up too, and is not sure that he is willing to continue as a romantic sidekick. Lynda’s plotting often falls flat purely because Spike is not Hildy Johnson: he likes being a reporter, but he loves Lynda, and newspapers don’t actually keep you warm at night.
Zoe, Spike’s “Bruce,” is like all the women Spike dates — pretty and uncomplicated, with very little character development to worry about. Like Bruce with Walter/Hildy, she is collateral damage in the Spike/Lynda relationship — she “wins” the romantic battle simply by not having screwed Spike over as often as Lynda has, only to “lose” the war when Lynda sabotages their relationship via cassette tape, with the undeniable proof that Spike loves her best even when he doesn’t choose to be with her.
KENNY: For the last 12 years I’ve been walking behind this woman picking shrapnel out of people.
Lynda’s other friendships in the show, with Kenny and Sarah in particular, follow the same pattern as her relationship with Spike: they support her even as they snark at her, keeping her human and grounded while she soars and excels. But they both have episodes in which they face consequences to saying ‘no’ to Lynda, and risk their friendship with her by choosing a path that conflicts with her Newspaper Comes First attitude. (Both also have episodes where Lynda pushes them to be better, to excel and to fly on their own; when they need her, she is right there in their corner, fighting at their side)
Colin, at times an antagonist and liability to Lynda’s newspaper, is the person in her life who understands her best. His obsession with money and business matches her own obsession with being a newspaper editor, and they both sympathise with each other’s occasional inability to human.
One of the most powerful episodes in the show, Something Terrible, deals with Colin’s discovery that a young girl is being abused by her father. When he has a crisis how to help in this situation, it’s Lynda who steps up to be his support person in turn, the only person who takes him seriously. As with How to Make A Killing, or Both Sides of The Paper (where they address exam pressure by reinventing the newspaper as a study tool), Lynda and the Junior Gazette crew utilise the social power of a newspaper to do something positive.
Lynda Day was a role model to me in going for what you want, and working hard, even if people assume you’re too young to get started. She was also a cautionary tale: if you treat people like stepping stones, sooner or later they will move away just when you need someone to hold you up. I learned a lot from watching Lynda juggle her professional drive and commitment and job with being a good person and a good friend — something the later seasons lost track of as she was given fewer opportunities to show her fierce loyalty to people as well as newspapers.
There are costs to being a goddamn professional. There are costs to being the boss. We saw that with Lynda Day: being in charge often put her in an uncomfortable power dynamic with her friends and boyfriend, who all worked for her. She worked tirelessly to prove herself, not only as a woman but as a very young woman in a very male-dominated industry (something only ever hinted at in the show; hers was a world largely lacking in overt sexism which made it a joyous place to visit as well as a vaguely unsatisfying Alt Universe). Lynda was the A-student who actually gets to work in her dream job, but has to make personal sacrifices to get there — and is lucky enough, mostly, to still have people who love her.
Watching the show with my kids, I wasn’t sure Press Gang would have the same appeal for them. They watched dutifully, half an eye on Minecraft all the time, nodding patiently as I pointed out the old school technology to them (Tippex, landlines, telephone boxes, computers you have to leave switched on).
Then it arrived. The same episode that won my heart all those years ago — the first one I ever saw. “A Night In” is a near-perfect 25 minute scripts that feels like a play and a bottle episode all rolled into one.
It’s not actually about newspapers, though it is very much about being a goddamn professional.
In A Night IN, Spike is annoyed at being given one of Lynda’s dread yellow tickets — basically a demand to spend your Saturday night working late at the newsroom. He almost quits over the resulting fight he has with Lynda (in which she is being especially harsh) only to turn up on his best behaviour after he finds out she was dumped by her boyfriend.
Tiddler takes Sarah’s yellow in order to secretly work on a play for school based on the Spike and Lynda Show, which ramps up dramatically in a fantastic scene where Spike cooks for the team, Lynda refuses to admit she can’t use chopsticks, and the two of them end up in a competitive eating stare-off.
The angst and antagonism is punctuated by three pitch-perfect appearances from Colin, starring in his own Shakespearian tragedy in a pink rabbit suit, who narrates a series of monologues about his misadventures outside the newsroom: trying to get to an important life-changing meeting to boost his career, only to be thwarted by fate and that pink rabbit suit, over and over again.
My post-Millennial kids were captured by this piece of 30 year old television, fascinated by Colin’s deadpan delivery and Lynda’s wounded pride. Truly, a fantastic piece of drama masquerading as a children’s sitcom.
But the part I liked best was the very end, where Lynda switched on the lights, shook off the nonsense and told them it was time to get to work.
That’s why I wanted to be her when I grew up.
Some more tie-in essays I have written for this book: