The Norbridge Files

Stephen O’Brien and Jim Sangster on Press Gang

First published February 2000

TV shows go through a number of changes from the original submission to the finished product; Press Gang was no exception. It was originally entitled The Norbridge Files, and when Bill and Steven Moffat were asked to prepare a “treatment” for Sandra Hastie, they imagined that the society and local character of the fictional Norbridge would play a greater role in the series than it ultimately would. The original relationship between the characters was one of greater conflict, with Spike and Frazz the leaders of rival gangs. Though Lynda Day was a central character, this early version was more Spike’s story, as he came to terms with being a teenager in a world that didn’t understand him and that he didn’t understand.

Norbridge is described as a town “ill at ease with the recent mixing of its rural tradition and new industry now already in decline … a place of youthful discontent and unrest”. This would be the setting, focusing on the discord between the town’s original inhabitants and the newcomers. Two rival gangs battle for the upper hand: the Newks led by Spike Thomson, and the Setz led by his rival Frazz. Each gang would play a part in putting across the views of the old and the new, with an understanding of sorts being reached as the series moved on.

Matt Kerr, big-time Fleet Street newsman, arrives mysteriously to edit the small-time Norbridge Gazette and give the local kids a sense of purpose – the Norbridge Junior Gazette. Gradually the series reveals that he has his own reasons for being in Norbridge, and that setting up the Junior Gazette has less to do with helping teenagers and more to do with helping himself. He has a long-term plan and a big story to write – the truth of which only emerges at the end of season one.

Most of the Junior Gazette regulars are mentioned in the treatment: Kenny, Sarah, Colin and Chrissie Stuart. One character, Jingo, the resident clown, would be later incorporated into Spike and Frazz. Mr Sullivan plays no part in this early draft, with the authoritarian approach coming from Inspector Hawkins of the local police and Amanda Swanson, whose role was considerably larger than in the transmitted version. She strongly disapproves of recent changes and of “city-bred interlopers”, and she is often seen as the Gazette’s principle adversary. Her only appearance in the series, in “Photo Finish”, gives us a good idea of how she might have been.

Though Matt devises the formation of the Norbridge Junior Gazette, it is Spike who is the catalyst. In the first episode, “Newks and Setz”, we see Spike meeting Matt for the first time. “You the new sheriff around here?” he asks impudently. “Sure am.” comes the reply. Matt has come to see Spike, as leader of the more troublesome gang, to ask him to get involved with the new junior paper and to write articles about what it is like to be a teenager in today’s society instead of spraying walls with graffiti. But when Spike instead sprays Matt’s car, Kerr is forced to practice what he preaches. In the next episode, “The Penalty”, we learn that, rather than inform the police, Matt has decided to make the offer again, and this time it’s one Spike can’t refuse – he must help set up the junior paper or risk exposure and retribution. Spike now has a problem – how can he set up a newspaper? Enter the resourceful Colin, a mathematical whizzkid, who sees the paper as a moneymaking exercise. Soon Colin has persuaded Frazz and his gang, along with some of the high-fliers from Norbridge High, to join forces with Spike to make the paper a success.

Many of the storylines in the treatment are similar to those in the first season, notably “Photo Finish”, “Both Sides of the Paper”, “Monday, Tuesday” and “One Easy Lesson”, but some of the storylines would not make it to the screen until much later on. “A Matter of Trust” dealt with the issue of child abuse, with Spike brawling with Jimmy Rogers, who is later discovered to be covered in bruises. He blames them on Spike, but through a little detection work Lynda discovers that the boy’s father beats him. There is a younger brother and a baby in the house and she is concerned for their safety. Resorting to the subtle tactics that “Something Terrible” would later show, a special edition of the Junior Gazette helps the boy contact social services to help his father overcome his temper. In “V.I.P.” we find Colin entering Bilko territory as he tries to get a local celebrity to do an exclusive interview. This element would later be incorporated into “Deadline”.

Two episodes were lost altogether. In “Where It Hurts”, the team finds that the news room has been vandalized. Lynda is beside herself with anger, threatening all sorts of retribution. Matt suggests that they use the situation to their advantage – report the incident as part of an investigation into why Norbridge is a national leader in vandalism. The first problem is “whodunit” and why? They suspect it must be one of the gangs, but both Spike, who has left the paper, and Frazz deny all. When Spike rejoins the Gazette, one of his gang-members tells Lynda that wrecking the news room had been Spike’s initiation back into the gang. Lynda uses the revelation to her advantage when she persuades Spike to write her article for her, getting the inside story they will lead with. The episode ends with Spike and Lynda working on the story together.

The last episode, “The Norbridge Files”, reveals the real reason for Matt Kerr’s coming to Norbridge. The Junior Gazette staff embark on a spot of investigative journalism and discover that Matt has been working undercover to research the problematic youth of the town, and, by extension, of youth generally. They have unwittingly been his investigators, providing him with all the information he needs. Will Matt return to Fleet Street? What price now their survival with Amanda Swanson in the wings?

Some days later, a familiar car is seen driving into Norbridge. Matt Kerr is back. A young voice calls out: “You still the sheriff around here?” Matt turns and looks at Spike. “Sure am.” The treatment also sheds some light on ideas for future episodes, including a bank heist where Spike is among the hostages – perhaps the inspiration for “The Last Word” – and plans for the Junior Gazette to become a professional newspaper, something it finally achieved in season three.

This article originally appeared in the superlative Press Gang Programme Guide edited by Jim Sangster. It is reproduced with his permission.

If you want to find out more about the series this definitive tome is available from Leomac Publishing. Get in touch with them via e-mail.