Press Gang’s final episode ‘There are Crocodiles’, written by Steven Moffat and directed by Bob Speirs, first aired on CITV on 21st May 1993. For anyone who doesn’t know, the show followed the staff of the Junior Gazette, a paper made by young people, initially while they wer/e attended their local comprehensive school, and then later on a more commercial basis.
The final series starred Julia Sawalha as the brilliant but brutal editor Lynda Day, alongside Dexter Fletcher as head reporter and romantic sparring partner Spike, Paul Reynolds as the sleazy finance manager Colin, Lucy Benjamin as fun-loving deputy editor Julie Craig, and Mmoloki Chrystie as former delinquent and office dogsbody Frazz.
The superb and haunting ‘There Are Crocodiles’ sees Lynda facing her past as she sits in her own version of hell being interviewed by David Jefford (Alexander Crockatt), a former Junior Gazette staffer who took his own life following a confrontation with her during the first season. This all takes place as she lies unconscious while the newsroom burns around her and she recalls a week during which a member of her team died of a drug overdose, just as magazine journalists arrive to do a profile on the paper. Does Lynda have a death wish? Will she make it out alive? Is it really possible to lose a football match by more than 40 goals? We only find out some of the answers.
Luckily, we got the opportunity to pose the important questions to the writer of the show’s 43 episodes, Steven Moffat, who you might also know from his work on Doctor Who, Coupling and Sherlock.
At what point in season 5 did you realise that the show was coming to an end, and did you feel the need to properly wrap it all up?
I didn’t know it was the last one. Well, not really. I mean, I thought it was about time, and I wasn’t sure where it was all going. I had the feeling, much as I loved it, that enough was enough. And of course – being as pompous as only the young can be – I thought I should be writing proper adult telly (hello Doctor Who!) I burned down the newsroom because I was kind of tired of the set, I think. I had a vague notion that if we came back they’d have a room above that season 5 restaurant, but I’m not sure my heart was still in any of it.
Honestly, the real finale is ‘The Big Finish’, at the end of season 2. The phone ringing, Spike and Lynda being called to an unknown, unguessable future. The bell tolling to summon them out of childhood. I thought, at the time, that was the end and it’s good one. An honest one. Adolescence ends on a cliffhanger – quite right. Then, of course, we carried on for three more seasons. Now we made some great shows, some of my favourites, and at the time I was relieved to get rid of the school setting, but looking back on it now, I’m not so sure. It was still good, often really good, but something went missing. It felt a bit odd that they all spent a whole week getting one newspaper out. And why did Lynda Day stay? All these decades later, I find that unlikely. Out of character. She’d have gone striding away without a backward glance and been presenting Newsnight within five years. That idea is set up in ‘At Last A Dragon’ and politely forgotten later.
Oh, I’m being down on it. As I say, there are a lot of shows in the last three seasons that I loved. But there was a new more fantastical edge to it – more comedy, more dream sequences, madder ideas – that sort of makes me wonder if I still believed any of it.
What were some of your favourite TV finales and did they have any influence?
Television is hard-wired to come back next week – that’s what it does best. So often the finale – notionally the grand climax – is not the strongest part. A TV show is, quite literally, a story that is designed not to end, so ending is often not its best look. You’re fighting the DNA of the thing.
Also a lot of times you don’t actually know if you’re ending – you’re caught on the wrong foot. I suspect Coupling’s real ending was season 3, though season 4’s last episode makes a decent fist of it. Sherlock Holmes is a story that never ends, so we went out with a show that literally said that – and even then we were unsure if we’d be back (still not sure!)
Hmm. Good finales. Breaking Bad has a gorgeous, perfect ending. So does Friends – they all go for a coffee, but this we time we don’t go with them: brilliantly it’s US who are leaving. Cheers ended wonderfully. I loved M*A*S*H back in the day, but the last episode – two hours – just sort of sprawled into nothing. I adore The Prisoner but the last episode belonged to a different show (controversial!). Blake’s 7’s ending is quite unforgettable: a spear to the heart. Too grim for me, maybe, but I can’t forget a frame of it so job done! Star Trek: The Next Generation’s finale was amazingly spot on. Just perfect. Probably their best ever episode, I loved it.
Oh, it’s hard to get it right. I wonder if I ever will.
Of course most of those shows weren’t around when I ended (sort of) Press Gang. I think it’s good, that episode. For a long while it was my favourite. Now that I’m old I prefer the sunnier episodes. Lynda Day, the sixth former, waiting outside Mr. Sullivan’s loo – deadlines versus exams, homework and scoops, first loves and broken hearts. Kids trying to be adults for the very first time.
The football thread is a slightly atypical farce in this very dramatic plot. Was it intentional to mix the genres to bring levity to contrast the darkness?
You’re being kind, I think. It’s a bit clunky, isn’t it? There’s a sort of notional parallel with the main action – Spike playing a different game, Colin switching teams – but it feels a bit improbable, a bit forced.
Was it important to hark back to the show’s past and explore Lynda’s psychology with the return of David Jefford?
Well I think it was a good idea – I don’t know if it was important. I did wonder how she lived with that incident, and whenever I did, the answer was chilling: she’d just move on. Actually, as I type I’m sort of remembering what was driving that episode. Over the years of the show, there were two things that made me cross. No, there were MILLIONS of things that made me cross, but for now let’s pretend there were only two.
One was that there was constant pressure to reveal that Lynda was vulnerable on the inside – like, who isn’t? – and I kept firing back with: “Why do you never ask that about the male characters?” And anyway I sort of nursed the dark suspicion that Lynda, on the inside, was just as tough. So I sent her to hell, faced her with her darkest moment, and let her not apologise. Yeah, Lynda went to hell and refused to say sorry – that’s my girl!
She’s not cruel or dark. She’s just properly strong. And that means you don’t mind what people think of you. She tells the truth as far as she is able and she never seeks approval. She does what she thinks is right, and doesn’t worry how it looks. Controversially, she finds the weakness of others faintly disgusting.
After David’s suicide, Matt Kerr says to her “Be careful what you say to people – it might be the last thing they hear.” Over time, Lynda’s answer is: “Yeah. And?”
She won’t hug you when you’re down – but she’s the one most likely to save your worthless arse (while reminding you it’s worthless).
The other thing that bothered me was the constant pressure to do those wretched “Issue Episodes.” Drugs was the one they wanted. “Just say no!” But I was never comfortable with all that preachy nonsense. Why did television luvvies decide we knew how to save the world, when we mostly don’t know how to get home unless there’s a car outside. So I did the drugs episode. Where Lynda basically say “do what you like, loser.” Ha! I made my point, slammed the door, and stormed off into the night like an angry young man. Or a tosser.
The show looks incredible. How important was Bob Spiers in making it look and feel so cinematic?
Bob was massively important. He was the author of its look. All those tracking shots, the quick-fire, weaving action in the newsroom. Anyone can make cinema out of a desert sunset – it takes a director to find beauty swirling among desks and doors. His storytelling was impeccable, his grasp of humour unmatched. We were very close for a time, Bob and I. Sadly, we lost him quite a few years ago.
The other person who made that happen was the producer, Sandie Hastie. She fought and fought to get the show on film. She even tried for 35mm, back when that meant anything. She wanted a show you could still watch 30 years later, and not cringe at. She was righter than I knew at the time. An unstoppable force, that woman. American – fiery, fast and unrepentant. Haven’t seen her in a while, which is disgraceful.
I think one of the biggest shocks is Colin turning on everyone. He was always amoral but this feels like a real betrayal. Is this something you could only do at the end?
I never actually thought about that. He was always a little shit really. That guy who always sells you out, but you always still like.
It is a proper finale, an end to everything but beautifully ambiguous. Did you want to just blow everything up? Or, since there was an idea of a film Press Gang: Deadline floating around, did you want to keep everything on the table in some form?
Oh, I was leaving everything on the table. Season 6 was a distinct possibility – even an assumption. We were, in fact, axed. I was fine with the end being called, I did sort of think we’d run our course. But I’m not very good at taking that decision for myself, I always try and keep going – just one more day! Season 5 of Coupling was greenlit, and it took the wonderful Sarah Alexander sitting me down and saying “Look, I think we’re done” for me to realise those days were over.
The cast, most notably the two leads, have had incredible careers. Are you surprised at the legacy of the show?
I’m not sure what the legacy is, it’s hard to say from the inside. It was huge in Australia, I know that. Every time I’m interviewed by an Australian, it’s all they talk about. Over here, at the time, it was always overshadowed by Children’s Ward (playing second fiddle to Russell [T Davies], as always – I think I might be his understudy) but it certainly had its fans. Ancient journalists sometimes tell me that they entered the profession because they watched my show as a kid. And I punch them.
I saw Dexter the other day. He’s a world class director now – he came to see my play at the Criterion and he invited me to a screening of his movie Ghosted (which I loved, by the way, exactly my sort of rollercoaster nonsense.) He’s still the most buzzing guy in the room – a force of nature, smart and vital.
Now and then Julia and I have a flurry of emailing, probably when one or other of us is feeling nostalgic. A beautiful, clever, funny actress with such a warm heart. Not at all like Lynda – but, oh, she got her.
I used to hang out with Paul a fair bit, just to get caught up in the utter madness of his life. God, what a funny guy! Again, I haven’t seen him in years. Which is just stupid, really, why do we let these things drift? All those people, those amazing days – I’m tearing up now.
There was once talk of a revival, would you ever want to revisit these characters and find out where they are now?
I’m not sure it’s ever been seriously mooted (except by me when drunk) because I’d have done it. Of course I would, like a shot. Just one more day, right? But would it be the right thing to do? I don’t know.
There’s poetry in just letting characters go. Letting them wave and smile and disappear into the crowd, so you can wonder what became of them. Like the cast of Friends going for a coffee to which we’re not invited. Whenever I watch The Sound Of Music (shut up, I love it), I always wave goodbye to the Von Trapps as they make their way over the mountains, and wonder what happened next. I mean, I could check a history book, but shh!
Maybe we should never know where they all are now. But if someone commissions me I’ll start typing today.
God, 30 years ago. How did that happen? I’ve gone on a bit a ramble here, apologies. It all ended so long ago – and that feels odd and wrenching because it seemed so permanent at the time. As indestructible as summer. The past is a strange thing when it’s that vivid. Feels like it’s still going on – you can hear it in the distance, like laughter at a party a few streets away. If you just turned the right corners and stepped through the right doors you could arrive back there, and everyone would be so pleased to see you and ask you where you’d been. And what the fuck happened to your face.
Thank you very much, Steven Moffat.