You can tell Holly Evans is a serious journalist on a left-leaning newspaper by the jumper she wears. It’s a knitted red number, proving she’s a no-frills kinda gal. Same goes for her colleagues on The Herald, who are all dressed in jumpers, buttoned-up shirts, and worn leather jackets. So serious! So ethical!
Across the road lies The Post, helmed by reptilian editor Duncan Allen. He wears a suit and sits in an office with a glass desk and black leather chairs. He loves to wield his influence over politicians and thinks his job is more about delivering entertainment to his readers than the facts.
Ben Chaplin plays the oily tabloid editor of The Post in Press.
And so we have the scene set for Press, an entertaining BBC drama that will either confirm all of your worst suspicions about the tabloid newspaper industry or have you fist-pumping for the poor ol’ quality paper that’s doing the right thing but struggling with cutbacks and other financial issues. (Sound familiar? I couldn't say …)
Basically, it's the good guys versus the bad guys, or greenie scum versus for-the-people capitalists, depending on what side of the political spectrum you sit on.
I won’t lie – a show like this, for me, is essentially selling ice to eskimos. Long before I became a journalist, I was obsessed with Press Gang, the British teen drama about a high school newspaper. It had drama, intrigue, a love story and Julia Sawalha and Dexter Fletcher – it was crack for the under-16 set and I couldn’t get enough of it.
As a profession, we’ve been well represented on screen – Frontline, State of Play, The Wire, and Lowdown are all favourites – but the reality of the job isn’t always the most thrilling thing to put on screen. Watching someone send emails, painstakingly transcribe interviews and field phone calls from pesky PRs does not an hour of television make.
Ben Chaplin oozes as The Post’s editor Duncan Allen, Laura Jane Matthewson is his PA Lucy Redford in Press.
Press doesn’t bother with these details – interviews are obtained at the drop of a hat, a politician's career is decimated in an afternoon, incriminating footage magically appears – and it’s all the better for it.
Much like Call the Midwife dispenses with the hours-long build-up to labour and any one of the zillions of police shows speeds through the boring evidence-gathering portion of any investigation (for example, here’s a body, here’s a suspect, here’s some complicating factor in the detective’s personal life, here’s some CCTV footage – bingo! – here’s an arrest), Press gets to the meat fairly swiftly and leaves the gristle behind.
In parts it’s as subtle as a sledgehammer – the journalists’ jumpers and shabby chic surroundings of The Herald are meant to show straight away they’re the good guys toiling under low-fashion and low-lit conditions, while The Post is all shiny surfaces and suits – but it also covers knotty ethical issues around standard journalistic practices such as death knocks and what constitutes public interest in the life of a public figure.
The cast are solid – Charlotte Riley as Holly is all frown with a no-nonsense ponytail; while Ben Chaplin is well-oiled as dodgy editor Duncan Allan. Australia’s own (trademark pending) Brendan Cowell gets the nod as the obligatory Australian in a London newsroom, playing The Herald’s deputy editor Peter Langly.
In a time when the future of newspapers is still in doubt and their relevance is questioned in an online world, it’s good to see the modern nuts and bolts of print production given a bit of air time. Let’s just hope it doesn’t serve as an obituary.
Press premieres on ABC, Thursday, May 23, 8.30pm
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