New BBC One mini-series Press, following the lives of journalists at two competing fictional daily newspapers, promises to deliver the best modern British newsroom drama seen on TV since – well, ever.
That’s because it’s a struggle to think of any show of its type that isn’t set in a time prior to the digital revolution still reshaping the industry. State of Play came out in 2003, a full four years before the first iPhone.
(Edit: Press Gang, if we’re counting it, is even older.)
Our counterparts in the US have been basking in Hollywood’s glow of late, with the excellent Spotlight and The Post (though both are still mainly analogue), but the hard-working UK hack has been left untended to.
Here to change that is Doctor Foster writer Mike Bartlett with six hour-long episodes of primetime telly about newspaper journalists (hooray!).
Press Gazette caught a preview this week ahead of the show’s first episode airing tomorrow at 9pm on BBC One – and on first viewing, it looks great.
While there are still a few clichés from Bartlett, partly in service to drama – editor of the tabloid Post newspaper Duncan Allen (Ben Chaplin – pictured) is a Machiavellian figure who exhibits some of the worst traits of a red top editor – no doubt there is some truth in every tale.
Unlike the dislikeable shits who usually pop up as on-screen journalists, Allen isn’t 2D. While his tone might be a constant sneer and his approach often seedy, he seems to have more to him than a morality deficit.
The first episode is titled Death Knock – a term that will be immediately familiar to many journalists. Sure enough, we follow new Post reporter Ed Washburn (Paapa Essiedu) as he attempts to speak with a grieving family on their doorstep.
Meanwhile Allen is conniving a deal with a high-profile MP over some racy photos of her taken decades earlier that have suddenly re-emerged. She hopes to keep them from the front page, but is she prepared to support the paper’s “Check Me Out!” breast cancer awareness campaign to do so?
Over at rival The Herald, deputy news editor Holly Evans (Charlotte Riley) cuts a worn-out figure, battling her own sorrows, working on her birthday, but driven to find the truth about a hit-and-run death.
The Herald is unmistakably a proxy for the Guardian, while the Post seems to be an amalgam of the Mirror and Sun newspapers, although Bartlett has insisted the show’s world is entirely fictional.
Where it excels is in showing the dilemma that faces journalists on a daily basis – that tightrope walk between pursuing a story for the noble cause of informing the public and acting in a way that is reprehensible to anyone outside the industry to bring it in ahead of deadline.
Evans puts words to this in episode one when she effectively reassures a fellow journalist that it’s only when you don’t feel bad about the more unsavoury aspects of the job that you should start to worry.
In another scene, a Herald investigative reporter’s response to a nervous source in a car park, who gives him a single word and asks if he can “take the hint and run with it”, will delight anyone who has been told similar.
Influences from real-world events, such as the phone-hacking scandal, are clearly present in Press. Bartlett said changes facing the industry were written into the story – though we only get a hint of this in the first episode.
The writer told Press Gazette he “was always interested in writing about journalists right now” rather than mining the nostalgia seen in plays such as the excellent Ink about the formation of Rupert Murdoch’s Sun.
Press looks set to be the TV show that finally delivers exciting drama grounded in the reality of modern newsroom life. If it achieves that, it will be a hit with journalists and the public alike.
Press airs Thursday 6 September at 9pm on BBC One.
Picture: Colin Hutton/BBC