23 June 2014

Press Gang - I Vole It!

 Who ARE these people?!

Who were Lynda Day and Spike Thomson? What was Press Gang? Having received several e-mails over the years requesting that '80s Actual devoted a blog post to them, I became aware that they were 1) and 2) fictional characters and 3) a TV series which featured them. A teenage interest TV series which featured them. This series went into production in 1988 and first appeared on-screen in January 1989. Another series was produced in 1989 and screened in early 1990. Another three series (with fewer episodes) followed.

It all passed me by at the time. Not that I wasn't into '80s kids' TV (although I wasn't a kid at the time) - Murphy's Mob, Dangermouse, Super Gran, Gilbert's Fridge, Duckula, Henry's Cat, Number 73 and many other kiddywink shows captivated me back then (I left school early in the decade and dropped Grange Hill - I didn't want to be reminded of school). But a show about teenagers running a newspaper called the Junior Gazette (A Voice For Today's Youth) somehow did not register on my radar at all.

And yet it's brilliant. It's innovative. It's quirky. It's witty. It's fast moving. It's surreal. It's dramatic. It's nail biting. It's sad. In fact, it's all of these things and probably more.

Encouraged by the enthusiastic e-mails I've been receiving, all saying that Press Gang was the best thing since sliced bread, I've caught up.

My first reaction, as the e-mails requesting a blog mention for the show trickled in, was: "Oh Gawd! A series with teenage interest? Oh! YAWN!" Then, finally: "Well, s'pose I'd better take a look at it..."

But I quickly found I couldn't put it down. I laughed. I cried. It changed me.

The main characters in the show are all teenagers who work on a youth newspaper called the Junior Gazette. Of course, I wasn't a teenager in the late 1980s. No, no, my teenage era was a little earlier (Oh, Alannah Currie of the Thompson Twins, be still my fluttering heart!) and things were a little different, but the series still reminded me quite powerfully of the fun - and the pain - of my own teenage years. There's truth there. And, true to life again, the show doesn't neatly tie up all the story-line loose ends either. What led up to a suicide in series one? It seems there was a lot more to it than met the eye, but, just as in life, we don't discover all the answers to everything. There are lessons in living to be learned, but the show is never preachy. And some topical issues of the time are included, without being shoe-horned in. I'm still recovering from the tragic tale of the boy who flew - until he hit the ground. No spoilers, I promise!

Remember the '80s Sunday teatime "treat" Highway, starring Harry Secombe? Well, thoroughly unlikely though it seems, there's a link between this show and Press GangIn 1984, Bill Moffat, headmaster of Thorn Primary School in Johnstone, Renfrewshire, Scotland, was working on an environmental studies kit he called The Norbridge Files, centred on a children's newspaper - the purpose of the kit was to motivate students to participate in projects concerned with health-related issues. Bill Moffat showed his kit to Highway's executive producer Bill Ward when the school was visited to film the choir, and they discussed the idea of it being developed as an idea for a children's TV series.  

American TV producer Sandra C Hastie had relocated to England from America in 1984 and was in partnership with Bill Ward. Bill discussed the Norbridge Files with her and they looked at Bill Moffat's original brochure, but other things got in the way and the Norbridge Files was filed away on a shelf. 

In 1986, Sandra was considering returning to America, but, after dusting off the Norbridge Files, she became interested in developing it into a TV series again.

With Lewis Rudd of Central Television also interested in the concept, Sandra revisited Bill Moffat, who suggested that his son, Steven, a teacher, should write a pilot script. Sandra was rather dubious, but Steven submitted a script, which Sandra later described as 'the best half-hour script I have ever read'. Much work needed to be done, many changes would be made to the original concept, but Steven was on board and became the sole writer.

The Norbridge Files was commissioned in 1987. The title was quickly changed to Press Gang. Filming of series one took place in 1988, ready for broadcast in early 1989. Series two was filmed in the summer of 1989, ready for broadcast in early 1990.

And, as they say (well, we do, anyway!) the rest is history.

The Junior Gazette team hard at work - series one.

Back to the story, and the Junior Gazette is a brainwave of former Fleet Street newspaper editor Matt Kerr (Clive Wood) going back to his roots after the bright lights to edit a local rag - the Norbridge Gazette. The Junior Gazette is conceived as an outlet for the creative talents of kids at Norbridge High School, a large comprehensive, somewhere in England.

The kids are given very basic equipment to do the job - manual typewriters, not fancy electric gizmos, though they do manage to win a computer in a competition. But it wasn't a competition really. In fact, it was... but no, no, no - I won't drop a spoiler in here. Buy the DVDs and find out. The Junior Gazette kids are not even allowed a phone, but manage to acquire a lovely red oh-so-1980s-typical-of-the-time model, but keep it secret from Matt Kerr, although his newspaper is footing the bill, until... oops, no spoilers!

Spiky, shaggy permed English girl Lynda Day (Julia Sawahla), editor of the Junior Gazette, apparently vehemently dislikes slick and sassy "I wear my sunglasses at night" American boy James "Spike" Thomson (played by an English guy called Dexter Fletcher). Spike's a rebel who did something unspeakable at a school disco, and is press-ganged into joining the team in the newsroom. Lynda doesn't dislike him really. Perhaps she "voles" him?

When Spike goes missing, it seems that he may have been caught in a gas explosion at a local record store where he'd gone to buy a replacement after his personal stereo had eaten a friend's cassette. Lynda is worried, but then we see Spike and he seems fine - chatting up the ladies and apparently having a great time... but is that the reality of that moment?

By the way, Spike definitely "voles" Lynda. But perhaps it's not to be?

Underneath Lynda's spikiness there is vulnerability. But was it really an encounter with her that caused a schoolboy to put a shotgun in his mouth, pull the trigger and end his life  in 1989?

Kenny Phillips (Lee Ross) is Lynda's friend - and has been since childhood. He's Lynda's rock and has spent a lot of time picking shrapnel out of people who have got in her way over the years, and she's suffered for him, too. She sprained her arm whilst trying to push him out of a window in the early 1980s (according to the show's pre-story references).

Colin Mathews (Paul Reynolds) looks after the Junior Gazette's finances. He's a thoroughly Thatcherite young geezer, used to bring much comic relief to the series, but is he totally selfish?

Sarah Jackson (Kelda Holmes) is a good friend to all and tends to be stepped on by Lynda. She's a great reporter. But will she ever find a long-term boyfriend? Can she ever escape from Lynda? Lynda will use every trick in the book (and some that aren't) to stop her.

Billy Homer is a tetraplegic and a whizz with computers. This recurring character was played by Andy Crowe, a real life tetraplegic. 

And then there was school teacher Mr Sullivan (Nick Stringer) - was he really Lynda's guardian angel? And what about the sewage in his front garden?

There are other characters. But I could go on all night.

Bill Moffat, father of series writer Steven, and originator of the "Norbridge Files" - the concept that led to "Press Gang" - wrote the novels based on the series. "Exposed!"  - book two in the series - was published in 1989.

The series runs story-lines very quickly, the humour comes thick and fast, but, just when you think it's all a bit superficial, a character or scenario from many episodes before turns up, remembered in perfect detail by the writer, and it all seems very real. Or things suddenly take a turn to the dramatic. Or sad. Or odd.

The series ran from 1989 to 1993, with twenty-five of a total of forty-three episodes being recorded (twelve broadcast) in 1988 and 1989.

So, it deserves a place on '80s Actual.

Below, we have some snippets from an article published in Look-In magazine in March 1989, which tells some behind the scenes facts about the filming of the first series in 1988, courtesy of Julia Sawahla and Dexter Flexter, AKA star crossed lovers Lynda Day and Spike Thomson...

 How long did it take to make the series?

Dexter: "About thirteen weeks. We had twelve episodes to shoot, and it started out that we would do one a week. But things got more and more complicated, and it started to mean that time was running out. So, we went from doing a five-day working week to six days. We had to be at work each day from from 6.30am to 6.30pm. You were up nice and early, and home nice and late! I'd go to bed, wake up, and before I knew it I'd be back at work again."

Did that cause any problems?

Dexter: Well, you had to make sure you learned all your lines fairly quickly, because we had to film more quickly. What that meant was that we had to film several scenes all in one lump, to be used in different episodes. So we were jumping from episode twelve to episode five to episode nine. Things got really confusing and you didn't know where you were!"

Julia: "They were long days, but we did get an hour for our lunch break! But we had to have breakfast and tea on set, and just find a spot wherever we could to eat it. Mind you, after a while I'd lost my appetite as I was on pain killers."

What happened?

Well, I thought I had a really painful wisdom tooth so I  went to the dentist, because I had a big swelling on my face. He took the tooth out because he reckoned it had become infected. That was pretty painful. But what was even worse was when I later found out that the tooth hadn't been infected at all, and there was no need to have it out. So I've got a perfectly good wisdom tooth lying at home that shouldn't really be there."

Did anything go wrong?

Dexter: "I think the main problem everyone had with the cast was finding us! You see, when we got bored with waiting around we tended to wander off. So they were pulling their hair out, running around looking for us. The best example of that was when Charlie Creed Miles, who plays Danny, was wanted for a scene. They were all searching for him for about fifteen minutes and the guy was asleep under a desk! They were looking everywhere for him. That's the thing about Charlie; he's always asleep somewhere he shouldn't be."

Julia: "Lots of things went wrong! In particular, I can remember doing one shot which had me walking up towards a door, and the camera happened to be following me. It was mounted on wheels, and as it moved it just crashed into the wall. All the people who had been clinging to it fell off! On another day we hired about fifty pigeons to appear in an episode, and we had real fun and games with them. They would just crash into your head as you were doing a scene, and the director kept saying 'carry on, act naturally.' Of course, you couldn't; it just put you off. You don't expect to be dive-bombed by pigeons when you're making a TV series."

Did you get on well with each other?

Dexter: "Oh, definitely. As a group we all got on very well and we did spend a lot of time together socially. Paul Reynolds, who plays Colin, and I had some great laughs together."

Julia: "There are nine principal actors in the series, along with all the others and the extras, and we were very lucky because we all got on really well together. There was never any bad feeling."

 Have either of you ever wanted to be a reporter?

Julia: "No, I never have, but I don't think that makes any difference to the way I play Lynda. I certainly think I know enough about deadlines now through working on 'Press Gang'. My biggest problem was finding the time to learn my lines. I had to do that at home, and that was the most difficult thing about making the series."

Dexter: "Like Julia, I didn't do any real research into what it's like being a reporter, mainly because the character of Spike doesn't really call for it. He's a real rebel without a cause, and all he does is sit about with his feet up throwing rubbish into the wastepaper bin while everyone else is rushing about like an idiot. He just sits there and says, 'Hey, man, relax! Where's the problem?' That's the kind of reporter I'd like to be..."

Now that '80s Actual has finally discovered Press Gang (and been bowled over by it) you can expect  more  on the show very soon!

20 June 2014


"Can I have a 'P' please, Bob?"

Sorry, I couldn't resist it!

The original US version of Blockbusters debuted on 27 October, 1980, the brainchild of TV game show purveyor extraordinaire Mark Goodson. The American version was open to adult contestants of all ages. Our version, made by the Midlands ITV regional service Central, began on 29 August, 1983 - and quickly became a hit. 

After the American version of the show had been spotted, Central TV produced a pilot for a UK version in 1982. The pilot followed the American format and the 16-18 rule regarding the age of contestants did not apply. It was some months before the student age group was decided on and the decision was made to go ahead with a series of the show. The UK version went into production in 1983.

The show was very hi-tec by the standards of the day, and pitted two contestants against one.

Some people questioned this system, and Bob Holness, the UK show's presenter, said in 1986:

"People often ask me about this, and I say that it's to see if two heads are better than one and, anyway, the single player has less questions to answer than the team of two. I usually find that the single player wins because they've got one mind. Very often you can see team players delay before pushing the buzzer, because they've got to work together."

The contestants making their way across the board and taking the hotspot for the Gold Runs in the UK version were, as we said earlier, sixth formers, but the show attracted many and varied viewers: my seventy-something gran watched, as did my fifty-something postman, and my nine-year-old sister. Everybody, it seemed, was fascinated by Blockbusters.

Blue against white... are two heads better than one?

Bob Holness was terrific, whether introducing the contestants, their mascots, or asking the questions. And do you remember the Blockbusters hand jive which often took place as the end credits rolled? 

Despite Blockbusters being a show centred on teenagers, Bob himself was not a trendy young thing. He was a middle aged man, well mannered and groomed, who is remembered fondly as a caring host by many of the show's contestants. In those days, most quiz show hosts weren't trendy, but it mattered not with Bob. I always felt his genuine warmth and charm - and his reassuring manner, no doubt born of his maturity - made him ideal to present Blockbusters.

On how he got the job, Bob commented in 1988:

"When Central TV were looking for someone to host Blockbusters I was thought of. It was remembered that I'd done TV programmes of much the same sort, such as Junior Criss Cross Quiz which I compered in the 1960s and which was also a question and answer show. One led to the other."

The difference being that Bob achieved far greater fame through Blockbusters. It was simply a great show with an ideal host. 

Bob later said: 
Blockbusters, which began in the Eighties, was my favourite time in television. Its success was such a huge and pleasant shock because no-one ever predicted it. In fact everyone scoffed at the show when it first was mooted and for the first few screenings.

“They had to fight even to get it a teatime slot but in the event that was ideal. Its appeal was to all ages, from older children who’d just got in from school to parents and grandparents. I think that’s what caused its success – it really was true family entertainment.”

A snippet from the TV Times, August 1985. "Blockbusters" was going from strength-to-strength. Bob had just recorded eighty editions in one month, and another forty were lined up for November! I was a big fan of Mr Holness and the show and collected the series of quiz books which accompanied the series. They really proved their worth on long train journeys!
There were quite a number of these "Blockbusters Quiz Books" - I still have about eight of them. 

A signed "Gold Run" book. 

Bob gained  his own mascot on the show at Christmas 1983 - Harold the Hedgehog, a present from his wife.

 Interviewed in 1986, Bob explained his attitude to the contestants:

"I never call them kids. I call them youngsters. I think 'kids' is patronising. And I encourage them to be individualistic. Over the years, they've come to realise how far they can go. They can be a bit cheeky and they don't get knocked down."

Bob felt that he got on very well with young people in general: "I used to be one myself!"

During the 1986 interview, he also chatted about some of the memorable mascots that had appeared on the show:

"We've had jars of piccalilli, seaweed, a half-eaten apple, and even a three-foot high doll of me, with a suit and everything!"

As the '80s went on, the show saw several changes. One of the fondest remembered innovations was this highly distinctive opening sequence, in which we left planet Earth and took off for a futuristic alien city, where the shows apparently took place. The model city, evocative of the 1982 film Blade Runner, was designed by senior graphic designer Graham Garside and materials used in the construction work included foam board and perspex, covered with metallic foils.

Other fondly remembered visual features of Blockbusters were the figureheads hung around the studio, which, over the '80s years, included Zeus, Toyah Wilcox, John Wayne, Marilyn Monroe and Charlie Chaplin. These were designed by Derek Howarth and made of polystyrene, cut with hot wires and shaped with rasps and files. 

Here's a question:

What 'E' composed the theme tune to the UK version of Blockbusters?

The answer is Ed Welch and the theme tune was called Quiz Wizard.

The British Association of Toy Retailers 1986 Game of the Year - a boxed version of "Blockbusters". Bliss - now we could all have a 'P' at home. Sorry.

Oh those glory days of 1980s computers! You could play "Blockbusters" on them, of course! The pictured version of the "Blockbusters" computer game is for the Commodore 64.

Two 1980s contestants on "Blockbusters". The young gent with the mullet and the young lady with the pink bunny mascot tell Bob all about themselves.

 The letter  'C' is flashing - let's play "Blockbusters"!

 In the late 1980s, Bob spoke about how the show had changed since its debut in 1983: "I'm much more relaxed than I used to be. Blockbusters today features contestants who actually know 'the name of the game'. They know what's expected of them and they know how far they can go in their talks with me. At the beginning it was an unknown quantity, the young people then had no yardstick. But today they can come out with things like, 'Can I have a 'P' please, Bob?' "

From the "TV Times", April 1987 - Bob makes a spectacle of himself! The "Blockbusters Abroad" special followed several Gold Run winners on their prize holidays.

Bob goes trendy - he looks ready to challenge snooker ace Dennis Taylor in those glasses! 

In 1988, Bob was asked: "Is it true you have a jar of mints on the set?" He replied: "How did you hear about that?! The mints started right at the beginning of the show and they're now a feature of the programme - though they're never seen. I put a mint out for each contestant at the start of a show, just to make them feel at ease. Once they held them up to the camera - sending me up a little!"

The one and only "Blockbusters" annual, on shop shelves in late 1988 ready for 1989. In his introduction, Bob wrote:

... let me just say that I have enjoyed presenting 'Blockbusters' more than any other television or radio programme I've done...

Bob with the famous hexagonal board in 1989. Probably the strangest question asked on "Blockbusters" in the 1980s, and perhaps ever, was: "What 'C' has 4 stiff-standers; 4 dilly danders; 2 lookers; 2 crockers and a wig-wag?" The answer, which, not surprisingly, stumped the contestants on the night is "Cow" (4 legs; 4 teats; 2 eyes; 2 horns and a tail!).

A new question for you:
"What 'T' was a 1980s pop group with a link to Bob Holness?"

Find out here.

UPDATED 20/6/2014

10 June 2014

Rik Mayall

He really was one of the pioneers of the 1980s alternative comedy scene. The young Mayall and Ade Edmundson started performing at the Comedy Store in mid-1980. Nigel Planer and Peter Richardson joined at the same time. They all went on to found the Comic Strip in October '80, with Comedy Store compere Alexei Sayle. An advertisement for female performers was answered by Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders. When Channel 4 debuted in November 1982, the Comic Strip team hit the TV screens, and in the run-up to the launch of Channel 4 the BBC was prompted to start preparing something alternative itself - The Young Ones.

Magical times.

RIP, Rik.