Doctor Who’s debt to Press Gang, Spike, Linda … and Harry Secombe?

THE new Doctor Who series ticks ever closer but if you are a certain age – like me – you will first have experienced Steven Moffat‘s sublime writing skills in Press Gang. (And owe Harry Secombe a debt of gratitude for that and everything since, more of which later)

Running from 1989 to 1993, Press Gang was 43 episodes of fantastic television which had a major bearing  on me – and I suspect loads of other people – becoming a journalist.

Here’s the opening titles.

If you never watched it, Press Gang was about a junior edition  of a newspaper produced by children from a local school outside of lessons, that rapidly became compulsive viewing in the Macdonald household.

By turns dramatic and funny, it had a fantastic cast playing well drawn characters who obviously relished Moffat’s scripts, which were full of vim, heart and snappy one-liners. Despite it being his first series, Moffat’s writing shifted easily from side-splitting jokes to painful emotional intensity thanks to his intelligence and sure touch.

Press Gang also had ongoing story arcs and themes, as well as recurring minor characters to build a detailed and believable universe, all facets of Who which the Moff first got a chance to polish here.

At the centre of the show were the key duo of Linda, the paper’s driven but vulnerable editor, and Spike, a cocky American who worked at the paper to avoid being expelled from school. I didn’t realise until much later that Dexter Fletcher, who played Spike, was actually English as his accent was so spot on.

A classic love-hate couple, they sniped back and forth at each other in the best tradition, with the Doctor and Amy said to show alot of the same bantering in the new series.

One final point – it was only while I was reading up on Press Gang that I found what an incredible debt all Doctor Who fans owe to Steven’s dad Bill and, bizarrely, Harry Secombe.

According to Wikipedia, Bill was the headteacher at a school in Glasgow when religious programme Highway (hosted by Secombe) came to film. Bill mentioned his idea for a children’s programme to one of the show’s producers, who liked it.

When she requested a script, Bill agreed on the proviso that his son Steven – then a 25-year-old English teacher – write it. Producer Sandra Hastie said it was the best first script she had ever read.

That seems like serendipity in action to me, as the cosmic tumblers click into place in just the right way, leading us inexorably to 6.25pm on Saturday April 3, when I will be raising a glass to Spike and Linda, and to Bill and Harry.

Care to join me?

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