The print media isn’t often a subject that TV drama touches, with journalists being characters who are utilised when required or are presented as part of a bigger ensemble. However, this week, Doctor Foster scribe Mike Bartlett brings us Press which focuses on staff from two different papers and looks at how their jobs impact their lives. The two papers in question are tabloid The Post and broadsheet The Herald and are represented by the former’s sleazy editor Duncan Allen (Ben Chaplin) and the latter’s plucky deputy news editor Holly Evans (Charlotte Riley); both flawed characters who approach their jobs in very different ways.
The first episode is entitled death knock; a reference to the practice whereby journalists arrive at a household after a loved one has passed away and ask for an interview. This is what Oxford-educated Ed Washburn (Paapa Essiedu) is forced to do on his first week at The Post, as he approaches the parents of a beloved premiership footballer who has recently committed suicide. Whilst the naive Ed pitches this interview as a tribute, Duncan sees it differently when he discovers that the deceased was secretly gay he sends Ed back out to conduct a follow-up chat with the parents. This storyline sees Ed go from idealist to cynical journalist in the course of a day as he is forced to abandon his morals to hold onto his job.
Meanwhile, at The Herald, Holly is focused on uncovering the truth surrounding the death of a young woman named Andrea Reed; who was killed following a hit and run involving a police car. Although this is our first exposure to Holly, her colleagues are quick to realise that something is not right with her. She’s also unwilling to reveal that most of the episode takes place on her birthday with colleague James (Al Weaver) being the only to give her a present. Holly’s other role throughout the episode is to give right-wing author Wendy Bolt (Susannah Wise) a tour of The Herald’s office, in a subplot whose pay-off I saw coming almost instantly. However, the conclusion to the Andrea Reed storyline was more unexpected and was met with an audible gasp from some members of the audience at the press screening that I attended.
The biggest story of the week, however, is the revelation that respected government minister Carla Mason (Lorna Brown) was the subject of some candid topless photos during her student days. Whilst The Herald runs the photos on their website, the main story in the paper is how the uncovering of these pictures represents the misogynistic nature of the media. However, Duncan wants more from the minister and tries to get her to be part of his new ‘check me out’ campaign which she completely denies. Unfortunately, this story has a twist in the tale as The Post discovers the original source of the pictures and is able to remove even more skeletons from Carla’s closet. Although far-fetched at times, this story does demonstrate how quickly the mainstream press can ruin a prominent political career just to sell papers.
Alongside these weekly stories, there are larger arcs that I assume will play out over the remaining five episodes of the series. The first explores the attempts to regulate the press by focusing on a faux Leveson inquiry where the mother of a murdered teenager speaks about the media’s intrusion into every aspect of her life following her daughter’s death. Furthermore, there’s the look at the very real subject of the printed media being on the decline as we learn The Post is losing money and The Herald is suffering from declining sales. The Post’s fortunes are documented in a scene between Duncan and his boss; media magnate George Emmerson (David Suchet), who detests the entertainment-heavy nature of his paper and encourages the editor to hire more proper journalists.
This is where I think that Holly and Duncan’s worlds will intertwine as the series progresses, with their first interaction resulting in the latter letting the former have the footage of Andrea’s hit and run that The Post had already acquired. Although their outlooks on how they do their jobs are very different, Bartlett presents Holly and Duncan in very similar ways. Both seemingly put their jobs over any other aspect of their lives and the need to deliver big stories for their papers is their sole focus. This is demonstrated by the empty nature of Holly’s life and the fact that Duncan would rather spend time at his bachelor pad then go home to his wife and son.
I really enjoyed Press and felt it was a drama that felt incredibly relevant with Bartlett building a believable world in this opener. At the screening, Bartlett mentioned that he’d always wanted to write a drama about journalists and it appears that he’s definitely done his research. Bartlett’s script is witty, punchy and well-paced with the characters obviously being drawn from real journalists the writer encountered whilst doing his research. Indeed, at the screening, many journalists commented that they saw elements of people they’d encountered during their careers with most of them saying they’d met a Duncan at some stage. There’s also a rhythm to the dialogue that I appreciated and there was a hectic energy to the first two-thirds of the drama which built up to that day’s editions of The Post and The Herald going to press.
Press also benefited from a fine ensemble cast all of whom were believable in their respective roles. Ben Chaplin layers on the smarm as Duncan and makes him more than just the villain of the piece but rather somebody who genuinely believes that he’s doing the right thing. Chaplin is great at displaying Duncan’s confidence as well as his vulnerability as we see him journey to his empty flat to spend time away from the son he clearly cares for. Meanwhile, Charlotte Riley is great as the determined Holly and is believable as once-passionate journalist who has become more jaded as she’s progressed in the business. However, my favourite performance came from Paapa Essiedu as the naive Ed as his arc in this episode felt the most believable and his scenes with Holly at the end of the episode added a new dimension to the character. Furthermore, I believe that Essiedu has demonstrated how versatile an actor he can be after giving very different performances in The Miniaturist and Kiri over the last year.
Ultimately, Press is a drama that I can see BBC One sticking with as it focuses on a profession that can generate all manner of stories. If Press performs consistently well in the ratings over the next six weeks, then I can see it being recommissioned and I genuinely hope it finds an audience. Although it wasn’t perfect, Press delivered an impressive debut episode full of wit and drama with believable characters and it’s a series that I can see improving as it continues for the next five Thursday nights.
Press Continues Thursday at 9.00pm on BBC One