Brass Eye: The fake news satire that still feels relevant 20 years on
Ivan Radford | On 07, Feb 2017
“The headlines tonight. Euro MPs’ headsets play the sound of screaming women. Bryan Ferry bathmat poisonous, says lab. And bouncing elephantiasis woman destroys central Portsmouth. Those are the headlines. Happy now?”
That was Chris Morris in The Day Today, a 1994 news satire broadcast on BBC Two. Created by Morris and Armando Iannucci, it saw men and women exaggerate facts, blow trivia out of proportion and wilfully parade fiction as God’s honest truth, all the while accompanied by never-ending credits, over-the-top graphs and bad CGI. The series ran for just one season, but it was only a matter of time until real news broadcasts became almost identical.
Fast forward 23 years and Channel 4 is running a week dedicated to “fake news”, examining the rise of unreliable reports from fakers on social media and the post-truth climate of our post-Brexit, post-Trump, post-expert age. Clicks and likes are the driving force of popularity, which is the new measure of reliability, which can make sorting the truth from viral pranks difficult. Certain newspapers, meanwhile, tell us everything from chocolate to burnt toast causes cancer, while political arguments win support by persuading voters through dramatic headlines that immigrants are overrunning our borders. Add in the fact that “fake news” is a phrase appropriated by US President Donald Trump’s administration to delegitimise legitimate press reports that question their own misinformation and the term becomes even more unnerving.
The result, a feeling somewhere between hysteria and bewilderment, isn’t a new sensation. At least, not if you watched Chris Morris’ follow-up to The Day Today. The darkly funny news satire famously gave rise to Norfolk’s leading broadcaster Alan Partridge. While Steve Coogan’s character went on to present light chat show Knowing Me, Knowing You and a military-based quiz on UK Conquest, though, Chris Morris went even darker with Brass Eye. It was brutal, warped and disturbing television, a smart piece of British comedy whose influence can be traced through the following years.
If The Day Today was a worryingly prescient vision of what 1990s journalism was becoming and where it would end up, Brass Eye is a vivid night terror that now takes place in the daytime. Honing The Day Today’s nose for the nonsensical bleating of the news, it sniffed out the moralising grandstanding of the media with a repulsed sneer, calling out the self-justifying hypocrisy that was on the up. Existing in an era before websites and clickbait, today, it’s like watching The Daily Mail’s sidebar of shame acted out in real-time.
Topics tackled in the six episodes and a special include drugs, sex, animals and science. Each subject was given the same uncompromising treatment – with an equally unflinching knack for getting celebrities and politicians to endorse campaigns for things that don’t really exist. Noel Edmonds was one of many to take a stand against a dangerous new drug, called Cake, which “stimulates the part of the brain called Shatner’s Bassoon”. It’s “a made-up drug”, various media personalities read out from pieces of paper, before going on to warn about how it could make you cry all the water out of your body. Conservative MP David Amess even tried to bring up the fictitious drug up in the House of Commons. (“It’s a big yellow death bullet in the head of some poor user, or ‘custard gannet’, as the dealers call them,” he explained, sombrely, to the camera. He later went on to chair the government’s Psychoactive Substances Committee in 2015. Yes, really.)
Today, the idea of repeating an absurd statement without bothering to fact-check is as easy as hitting RT on your phone’s Twitter app, but it’s still surprising to see people such as Nicholas Parsons, Paul Daniels, and Wolf from Gladiators (yea, even he) join in the outrage over the case of an elephant whose truck is supposedly stuck up her anus. Add in fake contributors and interviewees, who announce such things as homosexuals not being able to swim or foxes feeling nothing when being hunted because “they’re made of string”, all delivered impressively deadpan, and you have spiky shards of close-to-the-bone satire – scathingly critical absurdity that’s only become more plausible as time has gone on.
The show’s 20-year anniversary arrives this month, just a short while after “Blue Monday”, a day that we’re told is the most depressing of the year, all because of a phoney formula that was conceived by a PR company. Newspapers still trot out that same lie every year, in the name of stirring up a panic that boosts their circulation by a tiny, short-lived fraction.
Naturally, many found Brass Eye a worthy subject of ire when it returned, briefly, in 2001 with a special dedicated to “Paedogeddon”. MPs who hadn’t even seen the show decried it, because that was the done thing. It infamously went on to prompt one of the highest number of complaints in the history of British TV.
The programme, though, continued treading its same unrelenting path, pretending that paedophiles were tracking young people by disguising themselves as school buildings and getting Phil Collins to wear a t-shirt proclaiming he was talking “Nonce Sense”. This was a world in which Question Time and Kilroy were taken to their logical extreme. In which Morris’ Jeremy Paxman-like presenter, David Jatt, forced guests to simplify every issue into a pop-up Right/Wrong dial on a table. In which Ken Clarke purportedly had a baby moose kept in a cupboard at work and Tony Benn used a tapir to send messages back and forth in Whitehall. In which a white reporter was ‘blacked up’ and sent out into the world to investigate the link between race and crime, only to become a criminal within minutes – prompting a Black man in the studio to apologise to Morris’ presenter on behalf of all the Black people in Britain. In which such tabloid sensationalism was laid bare in all its ugly, cruel, cynicism, while reporters gladly reassured us before the ad break that we could “find out exactly what to think next”.
Like Nathan Barley, Morris and Charlie Brooker’s sitcom satirising hipsters before hipsters were a thing, Brass Eye is perhaps best appreciated several years after the fact – preferably, on a second viewing, after the first has allowed the shock to wear off. In an age of “fake news”, echo chambers and politicians happy to wield misinformation, it’s a horrifyingly hilarious expose of righteous exposes, a grossly funny guide to the difference between rational reporting and vapid ratings-grabbing.
It’s not all doom and gloom in 2017, though: since Trump’s attacks on what he has branded “fake news” – including claims that the media are covering up terror attacks and citations of the non-existent “Bowling Green” massacre – there has been a renewed focus on fact-checking in some wings of the press. The New York Times has seen its subscriptions surge, while people are taking to the streets to protest a ban that the White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer keeps telling the world is not a ban. Next to that, some of Brass Eye’s ludicrous declarations don’t seem so far-fetched after all. These are the headlines, it tells us. In 2017, the thought may not make you happy, but at least it’ll make you laugh.
All of Brass Eye is now available for free on All 4. It is also available on BritBox as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription.