On October 30, 1938, Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre famously performed an adaptation of The War Of The Worlds that scared some members of their radio audience into packing up to leave town. The reason for the panic? Instead of performing the story as written, Welles played the drama as an emergency news broadcast, consciously evoking Herbert Morrison’s emotional live commentary on the Hindenburg disaster the year before. However preposterous the idea of Martians invading might have sounded, Welles got away with it for a reason. Analyzing the reactions, social scientist Dr. Hadley Cantril writes of a common thread among those who were fooled by the broadcast: “The confidence they had in radio and their expectation that it would be used for such important announcements.” The fictional newscast worked because it sounded like the real thing.
Credibility is key to riffing on format, from Welles’ fake newscast to Rob Reiner’s fake documentary, This Is Spinal Tap. So when BBC Radio producer Armando Iannucci came up with the idea to run a news radio spoof, naturally he approached Greater London Radio DJ Chris Morris. Morris had run fake news stories on his own show that Iannucci enjoyed, so he’d know exactly how to make it sound real.
One reason some audience members missed the pre-show announcement that The War Of The Worlds was that night’s radio play, Cantril found, is that people tune out the same-old same-old. Everyone knows the boilerplate. They wait until something new catches their ears. So a listener could be forgiven for skipping the On The Hour intro, which sounds like every other newscast (“It’s 11:20, and this is On The Hour”) except the clips are a little off (“What you mustn’t do in politics is listen to people”), and then pricking up just in time to hear a story:
And Weekend P.M. Special tonight comes live from the besieged home of a maintenance man who will be speculatively blamed in a few hours’ time, reduced to a gibbering wreck by six months of press harassment, and found extremely responsible for everything in about a year from now, so that everyone else can carry on as if nothing had happened.
That’s the entirety of a report in the first episode and a good example of On The Hour’s sense of humor. It’s both complete nonsense and a direct hit. Look no further than the Ebola sensationalism. On The Hour doesn’t make fun of real news stories and the slants and gaps in coverage like The Daily Show and its ilk. It pulls back the skin to reveal the skeleton of the news cycle. The form is the content.
Iannucci knew exactly what he wanted On The Hour to look like from his first pitch: vox populi, clips out of context, absurdist special reports, and the like. Unlike other fake newscasts like I’m Sorry, I’ll Read That Again and Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update, there was no studio laughter to signal that On The Hour was comedy.
Everything filters through Chris Morris’ anchor, a very serious man just short of perturbed (and sometimes well past it, as when he finishes a segue and shouts at his producer, “Who in sodomy wrote that?”). While Morris tended to focus on his own material, recording and editing alone in his GLR studio at nights, Iannucci tended to coordinate the rest of their team of writers, many of whom played characters, like Rebecca Front’s environmental reporter Rosy May and Steve Coogan’s insecure sportscaster Alan Partridge. There was plenty of room to improvise and an exacting editing process, and the result was a hit. On The Hour even won a British Comedy Award for Best Radio Comedy in 1991.
In 1994, after two series, Iannucci and Morris brought the show to television. Almost everything translated to BBC2 intact. Morris anchored. Coogan and Front made the transition, although Rosy’s Green Desk was now called Enviromation to poke fun at the words TV news makes up to sound important. In fact, only Stewart Lee and his writing partner Richard Herring left. They were replaced by the team of Graham Linehan and Arthur Mathews, who would go on to create Father Ted. All roads lead to The Day Today.
The show itself featured most of the same segments: Man-on-the-street interviews focused on making people say or do silly things, like using a rubber band to demonstrate how much tighter the law needs to be; out-of-context video clips, like when Morris reads the headline, “[Conservative MP Michael] Heseltine Fading Fast” over a clip of an old woman; special reports, like a story about police using tigers to combat noise as we watch a man walk a tiger into a rowdy house, shut the door behind it, and then check his watch; and updates from the beat reporters like Patrick Marber’s half-assed business correspondent Peter O’Hanraha-Hanrahan.
On that note, if nothing else The Day Today deserves to be remembered as a masterclass in funny names—Jennifer Gompertz, Louisa Smams, and Colin Poppshed on gay news—and it doesn’t end with people. The final match in Alan Partridge’s report on the week’s soccer scores: “The Scottish Division One game between Taste Of Dunfermline and Strathcarnage cannot be stopped.”
There was less room for improv on The Day Today, but the bigger question was whether these radio satirists could translate their skills to TV. Iannucci and Morris knew radio, but television news has an extra dimension of pomposity.
Any doubts dry up before the first intro is done. First, there’s the graphics package, a succession of Earths with a giant Great Britain (one planet’s blue and green, one spore-like, one a soccer ball) flying at the audience amid the endless bombastic score until the title card finally appears. Then we zoom from a wide shot of the newsroom to an extreme close-up on Morris’ face as he commands: “Welcome!” The Day Today knows TV.
Morris’ style recalls two Weekend Update anchors most of all, Dan Aykroyd for his anchorman demeanor and contemporary Kevin Nealon for his goofy wordplay, but Morris’ conscious influences were real newscasters. In his self-seriousness Morris aimed for Peter Sissons, in his gravitas he aimed for Michael Buerk, and in his truculence he aimed for Jeremy Paxman. The resemblance is unmistakable, but it’s not about these people as individuals. “They may not self-importantly get a cake out of fridge at tea-time,” says Morris, “but on-screen they have to project a self-importance.” What Morris and Iannucci are after is what that self-importance means for the news: “Here’s a stupid idea… now let’s use the language of news to substantiate it.”
Hence the show’s M.O., treating surreal stories—like the 30 life-sized duplicate Japans scheduled to activate—with complete credulity. Reporters would investigate exactly what those Japans entail and show us on a map where they are. The writers had a knack for turning double entendres into freaky stories: “You’ll have heard earlier on on the news about the motorway pile-up this afternoon. The M6, the M58, the M61, and the M56 all collided, so, safer to avoid that altogether.” The Day Today responded to the media by exaggerating both the stories and the reporting until they were nonsense. For example:
It’s been revealed that the junior Treasury Minister Michael Portillo carries a sawn-off shotgun to constituency meetings, corners children in parks and chews their cheeks, and has frequent sexual intercourse with stray animals, claiming, ‘As long as it’s got a backbone, I’ll do it.’ That story we reported last week and have since discovered it to be untrue.
The news was swelling with hot air, and The Day Today couldn’t resist popping it.
That’s the attitude behind all the characters: Alan Partridge doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Neither does Peter O’Hanraha-Hanrahan, and Morris routinely shames him for his incompetence. David Schneider’s weatherman is a cartoon with some disturbing analogies (“It should be dull and drizzly in the morning, a bit like waking up next to a corpse”). Business reporter Collaterlie Sisters (Doon Mackichan) spouts gibberish. There’s a sharper edge to that one: Morris saw a soothing, New Age power in the abbreviations and numbers of the finance page. Divorced from any human meaning, they’re a diverting time-passer for a certain set. So the writers took all the meaning out of the financial updates, and Mackichan plays them like they make sense. “And there was a big whoop of dismay in the city today, Chris, when Troublefinch-Dusky Holdings chopped off an eighth at 2.4 after a disappointing gutter-surge tomorrow.” At one point the scrolling stock bar just has a bunch of fours with no context (“4 = 4 = 4 = 4 4&4 $44444.44”).
The Day Today is also full of useless graphics. One bar chart meant to prop up a case against the police shows units of undefined “evidence” increasing over the years. Describing NHS cuts using a life-sized model of the human body, reporter Pheeona Haahlahm (Doon Mackichan) reaches into its stomach and pulls out pound (sterling) signs made out Jell-O, as if the visual aid actually aids in understanding. That extends to physical aids, too. Alan Partridge got beaten up in a self-defense demonstration years before it became a correspondent ritual to demonstrate water-boarding or to stand outside in hurricanes. He also gets tangled in his convoluted model meant to explain the World Cup group system, although that one’s more forgivable.
The Day Today satirized other formats within its six episodes, including a BBC soap opera replacing the 9 o’clock news called The Bureau and the Italian Talking Dead analogue it spawns, but it was most perceptive about the news. The weekly report from American correspondent Barbara Wintergreen (Rebecca Front) is a masterful homage to local American news. Barbara smolders at the camera, she slowly walks for no reason, her prose is drowning in obnoxious puns, and she has that universal anchor tone down pat. There’s some bite to the content of Barbara’s reporting, too. All but one of her updates on America chronicle an execution, and the manner is always unusual, if not cruel.
That’s nothing compared to the show’s treatment of the British government, best encapsulated in a story about Prime Minister John Major punching the queen. Morris asks his crisis correspondent, “Spartacus, this is huge history happening, isn’t it?”
“It’s bigger than that, Chris. It’s large.” The story’s absurd, the reporters are gasbags, and the presentation sheds no light. All that matters is that the powerful are vicious. In Morris’ reporting, the queen is one of the most ruthless figures in the world. Over a clip of her greeting an assembled crowd of people, he describes how she’s meeting the extraneous staff members who are about to be culled (in the population control sense). “It’s not known who conducted the killings but Princess Margaret is believed to have been involved.”
Sensationalism is the target of all those absurdist stories and silly visuals. With each election day, The Day Today feels more timeless. Over the years, Iannucci, Morris, and their colleagues, together and apart, would make mincemeat of the media (Brass Eye), government (The Thick Of It), the rush to war (In The Loop), terrorism (Four Lions), and politics (Veep). The Day Today would spin off a number of series about Alan Partridge. Alumni would go on to create cult comedies like Jam and popular sitcoms like The IT Crowd. And it all started with On The Hour and The Day Today.
Wonder, weirdo, or wannabe: Wonder