It wasn’t a particularly thrilling opening, but Press Episode 1 suggested that the BBC’s new newsroom drama might be going somewhere.
There’s a fair bit to like about writer Mike Bartlett’s new drama about journalism and journalists, which debuted tonight on BBC One – and in a prime time slot, no less. But there’s also a lot to laugh at. Press Episode 1 drew the battle lines between The Herald and The Post, two thinly-disguised analogues for the left- and right-wing tabloid press with reporters who buy coffee from the same truck and offices right across the street from each other.
Duncan Allen (Ben Chaplin) is the editor at The Post; a smarmy manipulator hunting, shark-like, for any “entertaining” story that’ll sell papers. He has a couple of interesting quirks – a wife and kids he neglects so that he can shack up all night with a lanky blonde, and what seems to be a legitimate reverence for the craft of honest, old-fashioned journalism, but in Press Episode 1 he’s not much more than a caricature, albeit a very charismatic one.
Priyanga Burford plays Allen’s professional opposite at The Herald, which is, predictably, a less ruthless and subsequently failing paper, but the focus of Press Episode 1 is on his moral and ethical opposite, news editor Holly Evans (Charlotte Riley). The contrast is a bit overdone, but the show teases a potential working relationship between the two; the likely intention of Allen to headhunt Holly for The Post, and Holly’s last-act heel-turn in order to get to the bottom of her flatmate’s death.
That death is what’s promising about Press, along with a couple of other developing subplots that give the show some needed intrigue. Holly’s buddy was an MI5 informant who was run over by a police car that didn’t bother to stop, and both the Security Service and the coppers are trying to keep it under wraps. It isn’t particularly believable – especially not when Allen gives her the grainy, incriminating CCTV footage that The Post had already acquired, which in his position he would never do in a million years – but it’s certainly entertaining. And that’s what an audience wants, isn’t it?
I also like the story of the well-intentioned rookie reporter (Paapa Essiedu) learning the hard way about how unpleasant so much of journalism is, when he’s forced – on his first day – to interview the grieving parents of a closeted gay footballer who took his own life. That sub-plot takes a grim turn that feels all too true to the real business of news reporting. And Press Episode 1 takes the time to include well-observed little details about internal newsroom politics, such as having Wendy Holt (Susannah Wise), a rival from The Post, berate poor Holly about her thankless role at the paper – in the no-man’s-land between proper boots-on-the-ground journalism and management. Holly doesn’t take it well, which is a good indication that it’s true.
Elsewhere, David Suchet plays The Post’s owner George Emmerson as a convincing Murdochian cliché, and there’s a bit of a scandal involving a prominent liberal politician that plays very much like a cautionary tale for the progressive left. I imagine some will take issue with that, and how it justifies the impulsive and unethical behaviour of slimy editors like Duncan Allen, who isn’t entirely dissimilar from several I’ve met. It didn’t bother me personally, but I can’t say Press Episode 1 moved me much in either direction. It’s hardly a front-page affair, but there’s some meat to the story. I’ll look out for the follow-ups.
Jonathon is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has been Senior Editor and Chief Critic of the outlet since 2017.