The Day Today: a modern-day classic

It launched Chris Morris and Alan Partridge into the comedy world. And it's one of the funniest programmes of the last 20 years. Let's salute The Day Today...

It was fifteen years ago when BBC Two viewers tuned in to discover that a man had sacrificed himself to Chris Kelly, a sacked chimney-sweep had pumped his ex-boss full of mayonnaise, and a school had used a big-faced child as a satellite dish. Those who stayed tuned-in discovered that Prince Charles was going into prison to make brooms, an ‘airjam’ was about to make every plane in the sky fall straight out of it, and Chapman Baxter was going to be executed (again).

Anyone not in on the joke was probably writing in to Anne Robinson after five minutes, but everyone else was witnessing one of the greatest comedy series of the 90s and arguably ever shown on TV. The Day Today, a relentless, terrifically biting satire, was six episodes of headlines, financial reports, documentary-style films and talking heads sending up current affairs programmes to the point of complete ridicule. Sadly, creator Chris Morris – whether knowingly or not – foretold the future of news reporting with its overblown graphics and dramatic theme tune, and hit so many other nails squarely on the head that those who watched the show are now left wondering whether he had a crystal ball.

Morris played himself in the series, perhaps a nod to other parodies of the time such as Ghostwatch, where Michael Parkinson and Sarah Greene used their own TV personas to fool twelve million people into believing everything they saw. While Morris’s show is far more evidently comedy, it’s difficult not to be taken in by the presentation. Finance, travel and overseas correspondents were on the spot to keep the audience abreast of worldwide events and there are some laughably ‘live’ errors, notably involving inept wannabe-political reporter Peter O’Hanraha’hanrahan. “You never did meet the German finance minister, did you, Peter?” asks the anchor, gleefully revealing the incompetence of his staff. A further skit involving the September 11th attacks was made some years later, in which O’Hanraha’hanrahan is forced to admit that he was not, in fact, in the World Trade Center about to attend an important conference, but stuck in his hotel while the towers collapsed. Close to the knuckle, certainly, but also too funny not to stifle a giggle.

The career of Alan Partridge was launched on The Day Today‘s sports desk. Insightful commentary was his forté, with one memorable World Cup goal being described to viewers as, “Yes…yes…yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, YES! That…was a goal.” However, even Steve Coogan’s abilities were hopelessly outclassed by a young Doon [MacKaichan], whose versatility shone through in the portrayal of several bit-parts and the inimitable Collatallie Sisters, who somehow managed to do a whole section about the ‘international finance arse’ whilst keeping a perfectly straight face.

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In true Chris Morris style, the public were fooled into participating through a series of preposterous soundbite sections entitled ‘Speak Your Brains’. Following a round-up of those who had no brains, the unsuspecting were coaxed into comparing criminal sentences to a Post Office elastic band, naming the letter of the law (“The letter J, in red, on blue”) and advocating ‘soul reversal’. One agonising moment sees a steadfastly religious man manipulated into saying that he can’t imagine salvation without the day today – thank God it was probably well off his TV-viewing radar.

A perfectly-executed skit on 999, a hugely popular show of the time, was executed in disaster epic  mockumentary It’s Your Blood; but it was the episode entitled ‘Magnifivent’, now simply known to fans as ‘War!’, which showed off the sheer writing genius from co-producers Morris and Armando Iannucci. Deliberately creating a world war live on air so that their news team could be the first to report on it, the crew proceed to shoot an innocent by-stander, kill several soldiers and then break for the weather. Make no mistake: this is sharp.

It’s ironic that other Morris creations Brass Eye and Nathan Barley claimed the fame that The Day Today should have had, the former not being consistently funny and the latter not being funny at all. Although many will have hazy recollections of one episode or another (usually involving the anchor sitting in front of a screen titled ‘BLOODY HELL’), most will have saved their memories for slightly later creations such as The Fast Show. The fact that only six editions were made is criminal, and yet the lack of a dozen series means that the original retains its novelty value. Repeat viewings unearth details which would otherwise slide by unnoticed – the presenter really is playing the theme tune,

Would it work now? Probably not. Fifteen years on, half the country are too media-savvy and the other half would believe it was genuine – just look at the way ITV News conducts itself these days.   Somehow, to parody a current news show would just get nasty and lack the wonderfully edgy feel that comes from crossing the pompous with the downright absurd. Pointed it may be, but it manages to stop short of the unpleasantness which pervades contemporary programmes and wears its satirical badge with pride. There’s no swearing (other than from Fur-Q the rapper), sexual content (other than from Fur-Q the rapper) or outrageous violence (other than from Fur-Q the rapper) and anything that might be offensive is placed squarely in the context of a script which is clearly taking the piss. Providing you’re on the show’s side, it’s on yours.