On The Hour: revisiting a brilliant radio comedy

Armando Iannucci & Chris Morris' BBC Radio 4 news spoof not only gave rise to Alan Partridge but also launched countless comedy careers.

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

If you haven’t heard of On The Hour, you’ll have seen or read the work of the people who made it: Brass Eye, The Thick Of It, Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle, Veep, Four Lions, that bit on the train at the end of Mission: Impossible, Closer, Jam, the Leicester Square Theatre Podcasts, the movie version of Notes On A Scandal; the NME, TV Burp, the videos for Little Baby Nothing by the Manics and Kung Fu by Ash, Smack The Pony, and Alan Partridge to name a few.

The show was a parody of current affairs and news journalism on radio, and many of the cast and writing team took the idea and applied it to television with The Day Today. On The Hour took the self-important, over the top qualities of the news and stretched them, exaggerating to the point of ridiculousness, but delivered it all with a straight face. It brought utter nonsense to the public with a pompous confidence that made them go along with it, taking soundclips from actual news shows and putting them in strange new contexts. It was a good enough impersonation of reality that it garnered complaints from listeners about the way host Chris Morris treated guests.

Morris had been making a name for himself at BBC Radio Bristol (where he engineered a tie in a phone in competition then got the three callers to hit themselves with their phones, the one who made the loudest noise being deemed the winner) and Greater London Radio. His ability to exude an authoritarian confidence allowed him to get members of the public (and later, in Brass Eye, people in positions of power and influence) to ‘talk bollocks with apparent authority’.

Ad – content continues below

This meant that when producer Armando Iannucci got the go ahead for his fake news show pilot, he wrote to Morris asking if he wanted to discuss the idea. Their meeting – which took place in Morris’ car due to him being unable to find a parking space – produced the basic outline of the show: small segments introduced by an anchor, replicating the feel of a real news programme. Morris and Ianucci both worked in radio and while both loved aspects of it, there was a drive to mock its institutions. Iannucci is on record as being a fan of I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue, which is parodied early on in the series. Morris has taken the piss out of things he likes in the past however, including The Pixies with a song called Motherbanger. This love of radio, but desire to transgress it, translated to both the accuracy of the imitation and the scabrously pithy pisstakes of the way things were done.

The production and sound of the show was an incredible leap forward in terms of concept and ambition. The level of perfectionism that Iannucci and Morris applied to recreating and expanding upon news radio production techniques resulted in something unique, attempts to do something similar never quite working in the same way.

To be fair, while On The Hour exaggerated early-Nineties radio, actual news shows in the present day have since caught up with it. Writer David Quantick described the show as “the future in disguise”, making it nigh-on impossible for contemporary shows to have the same impact. Also key was the fact that its leading men were not merely comedians. Iannucci was working as a radio producer at this stage of his career, and has always been adept at assembling talented writer/performers around him, whereas Morris’ preference was for live radio, enjoying the unpredictability of it, and also having a genuine fondness for recorded sound and sonics. His predilection for pushing things in unusual directions wasn’t fully unleashed in the scripted and honed On The Hour, but there’s still the much-imitated sense of unsettling nonsense present that characterises much of Iannucci and Morris’ work.

While it sounded superficially like the news, it wasn’t as if there weren’t enough clues present to distinguish it from the real thing, with broad comedy names, voices and sound effects dropped in. Each segment contains enough information and bouts of ludicrousness to confirm the unreality of it all, the finessed balance between mundanity and absurdity making it more about the situations and ideas than individual jokes. As well as the sound of the show, the dialogue feels like it’s been pored over, thought out, initial scripts taken and tweaked and a huge wealth of ideas poured into it.

The opening couple of episodes show a work in progress, not quite nailing the format but occasionally managing to be utterly deadpan. It isn’t until the fourth episode of the first series that On The Hour settles into the programme its fans remember. The punchlines are incorporated into the news format more effectively. Morris utters nonsense headlines, allows people to make fools of themselves with utter conviction, and imposes awkward conversations on Alan Partridge.

Alan Partridge sprang from the need for a sports reporter, and Steve Coogan’s John Motson-aping voice produced an immediate response from the writing team. Within a year he’d have his own show on Radio 4. Even if On The Hour’s legacy was simply Alan Partridge, that in itself would be hugely influential (Ron Burgundy, Mark Corrigan and Will McKenzie owe the character a debt), but that cast and crew have been consistently working on popular and acclaimed shows ever since, frequently collaborating on projects to great effect (such as the various TV series of Alan Partridge, Rebecca Front in Iannucci’s The Thick Of It, Morris reducing Stewart Lee to tears in Comedy Vehicle, David Quantick being part of the writing team on Veep, which also has episodes directed by Morris).

Ad – content continues below

The show itself, along with The Day Today, is held in such esteem that it seems untouchable. Broken News from John Morton and Tony Roche attempted something gentler with a parody of 24 hour rolling news, and lasted one series. There were unfavourable comparisons with The Day Today. On The Hour has a longevity and status that makes it likely to be a one-off.

Morris has said that satirical shows, such as Have I Got News For You, are based on an existing consensus, and hold a mirror up to existing attitudes. Nothing changes. On The Hour is repeated on Radio 4 Extra sometimes and, besides the references to politicians of 1991, it now feels like a more accurate pastiche. News anchors and Paxman-esque hosts have become parodies of themselves. Some headlines appear in your head in Chris Morris’ voice.

As a satire, On The Hour might not have caused change, but it accidentally predicted the present The future in disguise, indeed.