Mike Bartlett’s Press is going to drive journalists wild

Bartlett’s chops as a playwright can be felt everywhere in this drama for BBC One.

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What most people will make of Mike Bartlett’s newspaper drama Press (BBC One, 9pm, 6 September) I cannot predict. But it’s going to drive journalists wild. Naturally, I began by picking holes in it. The drinking, the mess, the venality… I mean, let’s not get carried away, Mike old boy (she said, quickly swallowing a couple of Nurofen while looking desperately beneath a pile of papers for a book she was supposed to review yesterday).

Such doubts, however, lasted all of ten minutes. I watched Ben Chaplin, who plays Duncan Allen – the witty, clever, snake-like editor of an ailing tabloid called the Post – carefully explain to some sanctimonious politician with a hard line on drugs that, yes, he was going to use a picture of her snorting coke as his splash, and I was lost. My God, Chaplin’s performance is brilliant: Shakespearean, you might say.

Even as his character repulses, he attracts, which is just as it should be. Nothing is clear-cut here. Morality is a thicket through which every character must hack with no idea at all of what lies ahead – save for the fact that at some point in the very near future the paper will be off stone (ie about to print).

Bartlett hasn’t gone native (he enjoyed various away-days in newspaper offices while researching the series). But he’s too good a writer to dish up easy certainties. Just as Allen isn’t only a rat, so Amina Chaudury (Priyanga Burford), the editor of the Guardian-like Herald, has a hoity-toity streak as wide as the press hall itself. Shuttling between them – the offices of the Post and the Herald are conveniently close – is Holly Evans (Charlotte Riley), the Herald’s over-burdened deputy news editor, who is investigating a hit-and-run involving her flatmate. The scene in which she chased after Allen and demanded he hand over some pertinent CCTV footage was perfect.

Though he remembered, word for word, a mean profile she’d done of him years before, his grudge was gilded with admiration. Contrary to popular belief most hacks can dish it out and take it – with the possible exception of Piers Morgan, who has never shown any sign of admiring all the perspicacious things I’ve written about him.

Bartlett’s chops as a playwright (Bull, King Charles III) can be felt everywhere in his script. His minor characters are so deftly drawn: Ed Washburn (Paapa Essiedu) is a tyro Post reporter learning to keep his conscience in a box in the boot of his car; George Emmerson (David Suchet) is a press baron whose cultivation somehow does not disdain the composing of a grabby front page.

Most of all, I’m impressed by Bartlett’s ear for lingo. I don’t mean newspaper jargon, for all that he now knows about gutters and standfirsts. Rather, it’s in the way people speak. Here is naturalism, adorned with the ribbons and bells beloved of reporter types: jokes, wordplay, casual rudeness, wild exaggerations, stubborn understatements. It is, as Allen would say, tree-ee-mendous: at the mere thought of episode two, I feel like a pig in muck – or, a diarist at a particularly naughty and throbbing party.

Wanderlust (BBC One, 9pm, 4 September) in which another playwright, Nick Payne, explores what happens when a couple stops fancying one other, has been the subject of several panting h-h-headlines itself, wild claims having been made by its star, Toni Collette, that she is the first woman to have an orgasm on the BBC. I can’t comment on the accuracy of this; nor am I terribly keen on Collette’s (somewhat goofy) performance as Joy, a Manchester psychotherapist who is in possession of a particularly drippy, and possibly quite floppy, husband called Alan (Steven Mackintosh). Nevertheless, it is nothing but great that this series has been made.

How strange it is that the question of desire – where it comes from, and where it goes – is so little discussed; how baffling that we continue to subscribe to the same old lies and half-truths when it comes to long-term relationships. Above all, how infuriating it is that women who are older than 40 are considered to be, if not undesirable, then certainly desire-less. I say: let your sap rise, Joy. Let it rise on behalf of us all.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 05 September 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The hard man of the Left