Lewis Nicholson stepped into an unprecedented situation last month, producing two of the first videos to be made when lockdown restrictions on filming began to be eased.
Behind TV Priest's 'Press Gang' video with Joe Wheatley and Charlie Drinkwater - "Our idea of journalists is still shaped by the 70s"
Director Joe Wheatley and TV Priest frontman Charlie Drinkwater explain the video for Press Gang, a tragi-comic depiction of a grimy past that resonates in the filthy present. It's got legs!
In December, director Joe Wheatley and British post-punk outfit TV Priest shot their second music video together, occupying the cavernous Printworks in South London to shoot an impressionistic period piece about macho culture, bullying bosses, and old-school media for Press Gang, the lead-up single to the release of the band's debut album Uppers, released today (Feb 5th).
In the Press Gang video, frontman Charlie Drinkwater is both the swaggering boss who becomes the victim of press harrassment, and a TV director barking orders in a vintage TV control room. He gives a bravura performance, swinging between drama and tragi-comedy in the manner of seasoned British character actor, supported by bandmates Alex Sprogis, Nic Bueth, and Ed Kelland as his sharpsuited, 70s-coiffed sidekicks. This occurs within a sensibility of grim post-war Britain, realised by Wheatley in collaboration with the tangibly gritty camerawork of DoP Rik Burnell.
We spoke to Wheatley (winner of an UKMVA last year for his Willie J Healey video for True Stereo; and recently signed to Agile Films), and Drinkwater (also a creative director on music campaigns for artists as wide-ranging as Sigrid and Lianna De Havas to Sports Team and Fontaines DC) about their collaboration which began with the video for Decoration, the band's previous release, last summer.
The lyrics deal with a post-truth world and the media's role in current events. But this is set in a 20th century timeline rather than the present day. Where did the inspiration for the video concept come from?
CD: The song is informed by my grandad’s time working as a photographer in Fleet Street during the heyday of British daily newspapers [see some of photojournalist Terry Fincher's remarkable work here, and appearance on TV show This Is Your Life below - ed] and uses a personal history as a kind of ‘jump off point’ to explore our relationship with news, truth and information now. It’s quite an ‘uneasy’ song in that it doesn’t really provide any solutions or really seek to condemn or celebrate. So I think it was a tough nut for Joe to crack!
JW: Charlie sent over some background on his grandfather’s past and I’d recently watched All The President’s Men. Visually I was really attracted to that period of the media, and I wanted the challenge of attempting to recreate a time period, but with stuff a little off-kilter.
A personal history serves as a jump-off point to explore our relationship with news, truth and information now.
How has it developed from that initial idea to what we see on screen? And how did you find the era-appropriate locations and props?
CD: I sent a brief explanation of the meaning to Joe, but really wanted to see where he’d take it and explore his vision so had no real visual clues to share. Joe took it and ran with it, building a kind of alternate historical reality that dumped us in a mid century setting that felt really appropriate for the message of the song.
JW: I wrote a bunch of setups that were mostly vignettes for performance. From there it grew and we spoke about a sinister conflict placing Charlie in a position of power but is brought down by his own empire. I actually just watched ‘Every Day Is Like Sunday’ by Adam Curtis, which follows the rise and fall of press baron Cecil King, and wished I’d watched it a couple of months ago.Above: Pages from Joe Wheatley's video treatment for TV Priest 'Press Gang'
CD: Somehow I think our visual idea of journalists is still shaped by this era, and those classic 70s films that kind of celebrated them as ’truth seekers’ and mavericks. So it felt apt to play and kind of ‘bend' that.
JW: In terms of locations I knew of a fully functioning 1960s-70s outside broadcast truck which I’d been wanting to shoot in for some time - so this immediately came to mind. Then Alex of the band also serendipitously threw in an ‘Oh, I think I might be able to get us Printworks’ - as he works there. I’d never considered it, for budgetary reasons, but it was just so appropriate - a huge decommissioned newspaper print works in London.
For props I worked with the amazing Phoebe Shakespeare and her also amazing assistant Georgia Currell. Cassie Walker nailed the costume and Sophie Rechtberger (fresh off of Chewbacca) did some GOAT stuff with the wigs.
I wanted the challenge of attempting to recreate a time period, but with stuff a little off-kilter.
There's a studio photo shoot sequence, which provides a colourful contrast to the cinematic griminess. What was the thinking behind that?
JW: Initially it was just a pure visual thing, looking for opportunities of ‘people with cameras’ and I unashamedly referenced PTA's The Master for this with some great work from my DP Rik Burnell. We then figured it was a good way of allowing the veil to fall on the characters by using the pose vs their natural self, particularly in Charlie’s case of being a company man douchebag. There’s also the bonus of just showing the whole band in all their costume, hair and makeup.
As you've suggested the other bandmembers are wearing wigs, but not Charlie. Why no additional Seventies-style hair for the frontman?
JW: I heard people were bald back then too.
CD: I’m a bald man, and let's face it, I’ve gotta own that. Planning on going full Liberace for album 2 though.
You've mentioned this vintage OB truck. What else can you tell us about it?
JW: I made a music video a few years ago with friends and we hired a bunch of 3-tube broadcast cameras from a guy who specialises in vintage TV gear. His operation is a kind of anxiety-inducing Scrapheap Challenge-cum-Aladdin's Cave cum-nightmare. But he has some interesting stuff. ’The 90s is too modern’ he proclaims. Anyhow he has the original camera that shot the Queen’s coronation, amongst loads of other esoteric shit including three fully functioning outside broadcast trucks that he uses for shows and hires out for film and TV.
With our budget we had to go to him rather than him to us, so it was a bit of a schlep into rural Lincolnshire to shoot there for a few hours. But I think any art department would have a huge undertaking on their hands to recreate such a beast.
With our budget we had to go to the guy with the OB truck in Lincolnshire, rather than him to us.
The TV studio sequence also includes a (modern) band performance on the vintage monitors, which looks in-camera. How did you pull that off?
JW: We had to take Covid tests pre-shoot, so we met at the band’s studio for tests and then carried out the costume and wig fittings. Whilst one member was getting fitted out we shot the others on a mini-DV cam. My editor cut it together as a mini-performance video the day before the OB truck shoot, and we just provided a feed and it sent out to the monitor stacks nicely.
You previously worked together on the TV Priest video for Decoration. How did that experience inform the making of this one? Is there a sense of continuity with that video?
JW: Both films rely on vignettes and zooms to reveal story/content so they share a style for sure.
CD: I think Decoration was such a liberating experience for us as a new band working with someone who’s work we loved. We’re pretty DIY and make most of the visual world ourselves, so there was an element of relinquishing a sense of ‘control’ that you have to get used to.
There was an element of relinquishing a sense of ‘control’.... but then you’re looking for people who can bring themselves to the work.
But I think we all passionately believe that when you collaborate with a filmmaker or any other creative you’re always looking for people who can bring themselves to the work and just let them have the creative space and freedom to interpret the music and do what they want.
Hopefully that way you make something greater than the sum of its parts!
JW: I think for me I learned a lot on the first one in terms of how to work with the band, and it turns out they’re just super easygoing and let you do your thing. We have developed trust. Charlie’s CV as an art director on paper could be a shitstorm situation for a director, but that couldn’t be any more wrong.
CD: I think this spirit of working together was the main continuity from Decoration. I can't wait to keep making videos with Joe to see where our shared visual language ends up.Above: Joe Wheatley (left) and Rik Burnell on set of TV Priest's Press Gang video
How did Covid limitations inform the production of the video?
CD: Luckily we shot this just before the current lockdown, so restrictions we’re not quite as stringent as shooting now. It was lots of social distancing, hand sanitiser and face masks (and it helped we shot in Printworks which is cavernous)!
JW: We all had to have yet another swab test but aside from that Printworks is pretty cavernous so it’s difficult to not social distance!
I’d rather the visual world capture the spirit and ethos of the music than present us as some ‘last gang in town’ nonsense.
The band has been mates and playing music since school days, then had a long break, and then got back together and TV Priest all fell into place. Has the fact this process has happened later than normal influenced the band's approach to making videos?
I think it certainly has. I don’t think we’re particularly interested in looking ‘cool’ or mysterious in the videos. I actually told Joe that I should look pretty disgusting in the Decoration video. I’d rather the visual world capture the spirit and ethos of the music than present us as some ‘last gang in town’ nonsense that still seems to pervade contemporary ‘rock’ music 50+ years after the invention of the ’teenager’ as a cultural force.
• Joe Wheatley is represented by Agile Films; TV Priest's debut album Uppers is out today (Feb 5th)
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