It’s 30 years since the BBC2 debut of Chris Morris and Armando Iannucci’s The Day Today, the surrealist, scathing satire that delivered “news from telly to belly”.
Hosted by Morris, its crazed graphics, dramatic news-sounds, and masterfully crafted nonsense were a precursor to his more notorious Brass Eye, while the dense wordplay and sharp political commentary laid the groundwork for Iannucci’s career.
It also launched the television careers of the Nineties’ most significant troupe of comedy talent, among them Rebecca Front, Doon Mackichan, David Schneider, Peter Baynham, Patrick Marber, plucky young sports reporter Alan Partridge (well, Steve Coogan), and writers Graham Linehan and Arthur Mathews.
First broadcast on January 19 1994, The Day Today is perhaps best remembered for its documentary The Pool (“In 1980, someone died”), Alan Partridge’s sports punditry (“That was a goal!”), and Eldorado-like soap opera The Bureau (“This is supposed to be a high class bureau de change!”). In newsier items, thieves steal the pound, train commuters turn savage, and the cavity-ridden public turn to illegal backstreet dentists.
“Now we expect our news to be served up as entertainment,” says Patrick Marber. “But then it was a cry of outrage from Armando, Chris, and all of us about, ‘Is this really the way we’re heading?’ A lot of it was to do with Sky News. They came along and had an explosive impact in terms of graphic, noise, and music, presenting news as a branch entertainment. We thought it would all calm down, but of course it got worse...”
It’s impossible to imagine the show working in 2024. Not just because of how much the media and media consumption has changed, but because of how close-to-bone, daring, and craftily explicit its ideas were. “I don’t think anyone was in it for the shock,” says Marber, “they were just doing what made them laugh.”
In this more sensitive age of political correctness and fast offence – snowflakes on one side, blustery alt-righters on the other, all looking for something to get upset over – The Day Today would never make it past cautious TV bosses now.
Here’s a look at 10 sketches they wouldn’t get away with now. Because fact into doubt won’t go. Whatever that means.
Part of BBC 2’s Attitudes Night, which demonstrated changing attitudes in Britain with spoof historical TV shows, Kiddystare showed “naked two-year-olds romping for the pleasure of adults”.
“‘Attitudes Night’ is very edgy,” says David Schneider. “It had Kiddystare, a televised hanging, and a guy getting fellated for the first time… but we got away with it because it was so well executed and authentic. Attitudes Night gave a framework because the point is that attitudes have changed. It was a clever way to get away with something.
“It’s nothing compared to the Brass Eye paedophile special, but there was some slightly weird Channel 4 show called Minipops [which featured children dressing up as pop stars performing inappropriate songs ] that Kiddystare was taking the p___ out of. It wasn’t just about let’s shock people, there was a satirical point to it.”
2. The Chapman Baxter Executions
Are sketches about convicted serial killers on death row funny? In 1994 they definitely were. Patrick Marber plays the same killer in three different sketches, each time about to be electrocuted in a different way – first on an electrified toilet in tribute to Elvis, secondly on his-and-hers electric chairs with his new bride, and lastly having the flip switched by the reanimated corpse of his final victim.
“I remember doing these sketches at the time and thinking ‘Oh, this is a bit unpleasant,’” says Patrick Marber. “I could see how people would think it was funny and get upset about it. I was just a kid myself so it didn’t bother me. But I loved playing Chapman Baxter.
“And there’s the hanging sketch I’m in [as seen in Attitudes Night]. I’m presenting the last hanging televised in Britain. I didn’t even remember making that. I saw it on Twitter and thought, ‘Who’s that…? Oh my god, it’s me in a wig!’ I had no memory of it whatsoever.”
3. Uzi Lover
Chris Morris plays controversial rapper Fur Q, who boasts about killing people while publicising his latest record, the expletive-filled Uzi Lover. “You got to kill people to have respect for people,” he says. (Though sampling Easy Lover by Phil Collins is arguably his greatest crime of all.)
“I’d never seen anything like it,” says Patrick Marber. “I mean, he basically blacked up. But at the time it was all part of the wonderful world of Chris Morris. I don’t think I would have done that if I’d have been asked… it’s very funny though. And dare I say it was dangerous at the time.
“The thing about Armando and Chris is that they were so obsessive about detail. Every moment had to count. They were just totally dedicated to it. I think that’s one of the reasons there was never a second series, because making the first was so damn exhausting for them. The level of commitment required was enormous.”
4. Bomb dogs
An alarmingly prescient feature about weaponised dogs carrying out bombings, prompting the police to shoot dead stray or unattended pooches in the street. Afterwards, a Sinn Fein spokesmen (Steve Coogan) is interviewed but has to suck on helium to disguise his voice.
“You only realise now how edgy it was,” says David Schneider. “That IRA guy who could only speak on helium… this was before the Good Friday Agreement. It was beautiful piece of satire – and I can say that because I wasn’t involved in this particular bit. It has a go at the restrictions we had about the IRA being voiced by actors on TV. This stuff that was pretty edgy. There’s edginess out there now, just a little bit more careful.”
“Steve didn’t even have to think once he had the voice,” says Patrick Marber. “I already knew that Steve was going to be a star but the stuff that’s on the cutting room floor that no one’s ever seen is as funny as a lot of the stuff that’s in the show. He was just always in form. Part of great pleasure of being in was being around these funny people and watching Steve. I was a fan of the show while we were making the show.”
5. The Queen v John Major
In a sketch that would be a gender politics nightmare in 2024, the nation is plunged into constitutional crisis after John Major and The Queen have a fight. A hilariously patriotic video about “Britain At Its Best” is broadcast – businessmen skipping, policemen smoking joints, fights stopped by a quick wave of the Union Jack…
“It was probably just one of those quirky things where a writer comes up with something and we workshopped it in improv,” says David Schneider. “I tweet out that video about Britain coming together now and again. That whole sequence is strangely topical – and bizarrely topical. It’s where we’re at now. The sort of nonsense we were coming up with had caught up in reality.”
6. Prosthetic Pregnancies
US correspondent Barbara Wintergreen (Rebecca Front) reports on “Natus”, a plastic disc that expands in the womb to simulate pregnancy for Americans who are “too busy to breed”. A thick-headed campaigner (Doon Mackichan) trying to “de-encouragise” women from artificial pregnancies now seems like razor-sharp satire on anti-abortion v pro-choice protests.
“Natus is a great example of tapping into something,” says Schneider. “It’s well shot, very authentic. But the strange thing is that the targets of our satire – like Doon in that sketch – is that they’ve won. They’re now in charge. Doon’s character is probably working for Trump now. Like Alan Partridge as well. We used to laugh at Partridge but now the Partridges of this world are in charge. They’re in control.”
7. Chris Morris v The Public
Trying to humiliate innocent members of the public on TV feels ruthless (they can do it for themselves on social media these days). But as part of Morris’s trademark shtick, he questions unwitting members of the public and goads them into saying ridiculous things. “Fudge tunnel” and “Herman the Tosser”, anyone?
“The first I saw of any of that stuff was when I watched the shows myself,” says Patrick Marber. “Chris had been doing that stuff in Bristol on the radio I think, so he already had form as a fake reporter. I think something about The Day Today that doesn’t get talked about much is how good an actor Chris is. It’s never for very long, but his characters are just brilliant.”
Morris riles up ambassadors from Australia and Hong Kong so much that war breaks out. The excitement over war is pure Fox News. Triggering stuff.
“They’re so excited when Chris pushes the ambassadors into war,” says David Schneider. “There’s something horrifically topical still about the way interviews are conducted and the way news is presented. I used to do stuff on Newsnight Review about five years ago. I’d walk onto the Newsnight studio and think, ‘Well, this is The Day Today studio, it feels exactly the same!’ They haven’t changed at all.”
“You couldn’t have imagined then that Fox News could come along,” says Patrick Marber. “There was still an early Nineties naïve optimism that there was a thing called truth and it was the job of the news to report it. We were mocking something we didn’t think would happen. That’s why The Day Today has survived, there are so many The Day Today type moments on the news.”
9. Gay News
In what seems to be a brilliantly immature twist on the then-common playground banter, reporter Colin Poppshed (Peter Baynham) delivers a “quick roundup of today’s gayness”, including a rundown of which roads, periodic table elements, cars, and walls are gay (“Hadrian’s Wall is very gay”).
“The gay desk,” says David Schneider. “That was Peter Baynham. He was a writer on the show. I imagine that’s something he and Armando hatched between them. It’s very funny.
“What Armando brought was this saying it with a straight face, incredible reality, rigorous realism… everything came from Armando saying, ‘It just has to be real. I don’t want anything that feels like it’s winking at the camera or a TV show.’ Without Armando, whether it’s The Day Today or Partridge, there wouldn’t be so many of these other shows that came in the Nineties or afterwards.”
10. Peter O’Hanraha-hanrahan
Patrick Marber’s idiotic economics reporter is caught lying about statistics and blagging his way around the facts. The problem isn’t that you couldn’t get away with it in 2024, it’s that O’Hanraha-hanrahan almost certainly would get away it.
“We are now governed by Peter O’Hanraha-hanrahans,” says Schneider, “people who have to bluff and know absolutely nothing. He’s another character we used to take the piss out of, but he’s risen.
“Now the cabinet is full of them… If you watch Peter O’Hanraha-hanrahan reporting from Brussels and trying to bluff his way through it, that’s another topical one. Timeless, I’d say.”