“Those are the headlines. Happy now?”
Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Kristyna M on FlickrDuring the early 1980s, BBC Television news bulletins were much as they’d been twenty-five years earlier; a middle-aged man, or slightly younger woman, sat at a desk reading reports in as neutral a tone possible, introducing filmed inserts from journalists from abroad or around Britain. By 1990, bulletins had attained the slick visual complexity of their American counterparts, with elaborate graphics, pairs of presenters, and unnecessary reports filmed outside buildings where important meetings had taken place, such as 10 Downing Street. The bulletins now felt as much of the news as the events the bulletins covered; the news was Important, so had to look and sound important. This pompous and bombastic attitude towards news presentation was the target of The Day Today, one of the sharpest and funniest satires ever broadcast by the BBC, or by any other station.
The newsroom had provided the setting for another successful British comedy, Channel 4’s Drop the Dead Donkey (1990-98), though this was more of a topical sitcom, going behind the scenes of a TV news broadcast, whereas The Day Today kept its unwavering eye on the bulletins themselves and their methods of presentation. Running for just six episodes on BBC2 from January 19th to February 23rd 1994, it skewered the contemporary news format so effectively, that even twenty years on, news channels look little different to the demented graphics and formulaic journalese deployed by the comedy to such devastating effect.
The ‘news’ presented in The Day Today is an off-kilter yet recognizable version of the news seen on the BBC, CNN, Bloomberg or even Fox, where events are the product of a system which has completely run away with itself and is now somehow in control, if not of events, but of which events are transmitted and why, without regard to relevance to the viewer. If it is important, it is news; it is on The Day Today, it is news and therefore important. The medium’s coverage takes precedent over the event. Therefore, if a presenter provokes the ambassadors of Australia and Hong Kong into declaring war upon each other’s nations, the program immediately swings into a ‘red alert’ war setting, as if it were a crucial part of the conflict; we have reporters at the scene of the battle, and a report from our special war correspondent, but first here’s the evening’s soccer results.
As with modern news shows, vox pops with members of the public serve to look important while actually just filling time with uninformed opinion; in The Day Today, unknowing Brits are asked to pontificate on the rise of controversial music genres ‘Belgian House’ and ‘alkaline tent,’ or which letter of the alphabet best summarizes the concept of justice, even reading prepared handouts to camera giving their ‘opinion,’ on various issues.
The Day Today started life as On the Hour, a BBC Radio 4 production running from 1991 to Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Peter Novak, Wikipedia1992, when it won Best Radio Comedy Series at the British Comedy Awards. Producer Armando Iannucci, creator and executive producer of the HBO series Veep, brought most of the cast and writing team with him when the BBC commissioned a television version in 1993. As in On the Hour, the ringmaster of this weekly disassembling debriefing is Christopher Morris (played by Chris Morris), a tall, intimidating figure with dark slick-backed hair, whose presentation combines humorless arrogance with pointlessly fierce questioning, treating the organizer of a charity fruit preserves festival with the same attack-dog approach as with a government minister or business CEO.
This cultivated belligerence extends to Morris’ fellow presenters, especially financial correspondent Collaterlie Sisters (Doon Mackichan), a semi-robotic woman who spouts unintelligible quasi-management speak about the stock market and foreign currencies, and hapless business reporter Peter O’Hanra-hanrahan (Patrick Marber) who attempts to nervously bluff his way though reports having failed to interview his intended subject or even remotely understand the topic on which his report depends.
“Fact times importance equals news.”
Credit: Tim CookOther regular presenters we meet include Rosy May (Rebecca Front), a solemn bearded woman who reports on environmental issues such as the giant hand growing out of the Antarctic ice shelf; Sylvester Stuart (David Schneider), a weatherman who includes himself in his forecasts in a very physical sense; travel correspondent Valerie Sinatra (Front) who reports from a studio at the top of a one mile high tower in the center of England; Jacques ‘Jacques’ Liverot (Marber), a disenchanted existential ‘permanent commentator’ (also a parody of the kind of figure British people imagine populate French films) and ‘Brant’ (Schneider), a newspaper cartoonist whose visual interpretations of news events are no more than three-dimensional versions of lame political newspaper cartoons, where every person, object or over-extended metaphor requires an identifying label.
Of particular interest to American viewers is “CBN Reporter, Barbara Wintergreen” (Front), a pouting, vivacious journalist who reports from the States, usually on the various executions of serial killer Chapman Baxter (Marber). One week finds the Elvis-loving Baxter seated not on an electric chair, but an electric lavatory, gorging on tablets and cheeseburgers until he reaches Presley’s death-weight, triggering the lethal charge; another time, Baxter's last wish is to marry fellow convict and arsonist Charlene Gray, with the wedding ceremony performed on a special electric chair made for two. On placing the ring on Gray’s finger, Baxter completes the electric current, executing them both. Wintergreen, almost teetering under make-up and blonde bouffant, ends each punning report with a smoldering look at the camera, with Baxter screaming as he smolders in the chair. These reports also demonstrates the technical brilliance and attention to detail of the show's real-life BBC production team; to British TV viewers, American shows taped on video appear hazy and reddish in hue, due to the difficulties in converting low-resolution broadcasts to higher-resolution British TV broadcasts, and The Day Today replicates this effect superbly well.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons/BenabombThe breakout character of The Day Today however is sports reporter Alan Partridge (Steve Coogan), a parochial and over-opinionated man whose ambition and love of presenting completely outstrips his abilities, resulting in awkward commentaries and interviews in which Alan’s small-world views and jovial prejudices inevitably emerge and turn people against him. Combining the measures of bitterness and homeliness perhaps only found in British regional TV presenters, the Alan Partridge character, as played by Coogan, spun off into his own spoof chat show Knowing Me, Knowing You (1994-95), the fly on the wall sitcom I’m Alan Partridge (1997 and 2002), a book in the form of fake biography We Need to Talk About Alan (2011) and a feature film, Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa (2013), although by the time we’d reached Sky TV’s Mid-Morning Matters with Alan Partridge (2010-11), Alan’s TV career has long since disintegrated and he is reduced to presenting a show on a digital radio station only broadcasting to the thinly populated North Norfolk area.
“Since that report, there’s been a meeting, and it’s all been sorted out.”
Targets were not limited just to TV news, but its spilling and leaching into other genres, such as soaps (in the form of The Bureau, a drama filming 1000 episodes a week despite being set in a small bureau-de-change), reality show documentaries, emergency service shows, and nostalgia slots, where elderly women reminisce on the days of paper door locks and suitors first presented a lion to their intended’s mother for approval.
With its exquisite use (or perhaps abuse) of language and visuals, The Day Today succeeded in Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Deskanahitting its target, yet without making an impact upon it. If anything, news channel seemed more and more to base their methods on Iannucci's show, with ever more elaborate graphics and graphs, needless OB reporting (an example, often quoted by contemporary British humorists, is of a reporter standing on a motorway bridge in a snowstorm, demonstrating how much it is snowing by indicating the deserted/jammed motorway in the background), unedifying vox pops and stories almost satirical in themselves, of major capital cities being declared ‘no-go zones’ or epidemics or natural disasters declared emergencies one minute and forgotten the next. Nevertheless, The Day Today is one of the most pivotal comedy shows of the last twenty years, and you should grab the chance to watch it as soon as you can.