“This is the news! Happy now?” Since The Day Today first aired 27 years ago, with Chris Morris’s anchor posing that provocative question, it has remained the gold standard for parodic current affairs absurdity (as well as a guide for all credible news producers of how not to do their jobs).
The show has enjoyed television immortality. For everyone involved – from co-creators Armando Iannucci and Morris through to Steve Coogan, whose now seminal sports hack Alan Partridge showed his face for the first time here – the show changed everything. This week, the original group – minus Rebecca Front, Peter Baynham and, inevitably, the elusive Morris – get together for a gentle grilling by Kirsty Wark in Radio 4’s The Reunion, to examine the show’s significance.
The Day Today has acquired a certain retrospective importance over the years, not just because of the careers it launched but also because, for a long time, it seemed to function as a deeply amusing but remarkably prescient early warning system. Here, prophetically, was the triumph of punditry over expertise, the final victory of presentational hysteria over calm rationality. There were illustrations of the idiocy of vox pops in Speak Your Brains, the segments during which the mesmerising Morris seemed to be able to induce passersby to say almost literally anything.
There was early citizen journalism in the shape of the sharp, ridiculous “Genutainment” slot – which not only anticipated the rise of mobile filming technology but also, somehow, Sky One’s 2016 series Dogs Might Fly, in which pooches attempted to land planes. (“If you don’t do it,” as Partridge would later say in another context, “Sky will.”) The Day Today – along with Morris’s later, even more provocative spoof Brass Eye – was a sign of the places that we, as a culture, might be heading.
Well: we are here now. The show’s subversion of style-over-content current affairs presentation has been outpaced by reality. In fact – possibly to the relief of its creators, but probably not to the benefit of the rest of us – The Day Today might finally have become satirically obsolete. As Iannucci points out himself in the reunion programme: “There is no ‘the news’ any more. You choose your own type of news now.”
The Day Today partly relied upon the notion of a singular, definitive version of the news, whose implicit gravitas allowed all manner of absurd presentational tropes and tics to consolidate unchallenged. But what price satire in the era of Dan Wootton burbling about Covid muzzles on GB News? The Day Today was underpinned not by the idea that the news would be ludicrously subjective, but the idea that it would be presented ludicrously. It was literally “fake news” (although some viewers took it seriously enough to complain about it), but as such it relied on the notion that a version of the news existed that could generally be regarded as “real”.
That does not feel like an accurate assessment of our current situation. We have the ludicrousness and the crazed subjectivity. The Day Today anticipated many things, but perhaps not the extent to which utter shamelessness would become the most valuable currency in modern media.
Fortunately, The Day Today worked on more than one level – which is why it is still worth celebrating and revisiting in 2021. The beauty of the show was that it wasn’t simply satirically sharp; it was – and remains – absolutely hilarious, the work of several singularly gifted comic minds, all beginning to speak their brains simultaneously.
In fact, as Iannucci says, the show was much more traditional than it seemed. Yes, in contrast to much BBC comedy of the time, it was different – it had northerners on it, plus people who hadn’t been to Oxford. But only a few. David Schneider mentions sheepishly that he and Iannucci met in the Bodleian Library at Oxford. But, more importantly, the format was familiar, too, as long as you saw it for what it was. “I was looking for a new way of packaging jokes, basically,” says Iannucci. “Don’t tell anyone, but it’s a sketch show. It’s not like I had some manifesto.”
This, finally, is the genius of The Day Today. It is a sublime sketch show. The recurring characters – such as Patrick Marber’s bumbling reporter Peter O’Hanraha-hanrahan and Doon Mackichan’s oddball business correspondent Collaterlie Sisters – are beautifully realised. The comic density is extraordinary. The details of the various setups, musical parodies and recurring skits are minutely and perfectly observed.
What finally shines through in The Reunion is that The Day Today must have been an utter joy to make. In fact, there is clearly a part of several cast members still wondering if the show might have continued. Did it have the legs to run further? Almost certainly. But, if it had, it is possible we might not still be discussing it with such awestruck delight now. We might have lost the news. But The Day Today lives on.
The Reunion: The Day Today is on BBC Radio 4 at 11am on 15 August and will be available on BBC Sounds