‘Doctor Fact is knocking at the door! Someone – please – let the man in!’

It’s proving to be another crowded year for anniversaries, not all of them Great War- or Ireland-related. Two 25-year ones in the coming week that are particularly worthy of attention may well pass unnoticed amid the above themes.

In four days’ time it will be exactly a quarter of a century since the Geneva-based British computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee switched on his patented information network, whereby computer users from all over the globe could access and share information simply by linking to the network via a telephone line. When Berners-Lee first pitched his idea to the head honchos at the CERN laboratories in March 1989 he described it as “a large hypertext database with typed links”, though later settled on the term World Wide Web. Like all revolutionary inventions, however, it would take some time for the Web’s potential to be fully realised.

Just three days later, in the evening of Friday August 9 1991, a comedy programme debuted on BBC Radio 4 that coolly blew minds and shook ears. That night, and over the next four Friday nights, a serious RP-accented voice introduced the news, with such attention-grabbing items as…

DINOSAURS DIED OUT ON A TUESDAY, CLAIM EXPERTS

BRILLIANT PROFESSOR UNPLUGGED BY CARELESS CLEANER

…and my personal favourite:

ROCKET CURTSEYED BEFORE BLOWING ME UP, CLAIMS GENERAL

Scarcely a critic has had anything less than glowingly positive to say about On The Hour. One from Uncut magazine (among other publications) described On The Hour as “the show that changed everything”, while the online radio comedy encyclopedia Radio Haha called it “a landmark in the history of radio comedy”. The industry itself recognised the genius behind the programme, as it was named Best Radio Comedy in the 1992 British Comedy awards, and it also bagged the same year’s Writer’s Guild of Great Britain Award for Comedy/Light Entertainment. There had been topical comedy on the radio before (indeed, On The Hour started immediately after the 1990-1 season of the long-running but overrated sketch show Week Ending had finished), but On The Hour was the first show to poke fun specifically at the news business, rather than individual stories in the news. By introducing each programme with absurd headlines, the Paxman-esque anchorman Christopher Morris was aiming to prove how you can make anything sound plausible if you deliver it confidently and forthrightly. There were other revealing features: Morris would also go out and collect vox pops on serious issues but in a nonsensical way:

MORRIS: What do you think of shooting horses?

MAN: Well, one hardly shoots horses for sport…

MORRIS: What does one do it for?

MAN: …presumably, only if necessary.

MORRIS: And who should they be shot at?

MAN: Well, presumably a qualified veterinary surgeon.

The point being, of course, that if you point a microphone and/or camera at anyone you can get them to say virtually anything (which doesn’t half make me wonder about how pollsters go about their business…).

On The Hour arrived on the airwaves at a timely moment. The early 1990s saw the advent of satellite TV and the growth in commercial radio licences, and we were first getting used to the idea of rolling news, of the possibility of a 24-hour news service – regardless of whether such a service was either necessary or desired. With such trends the deliverers of the news were becoming visibly (and audibly) more self-important…and increasingly ridiculous. As Radio Haha put it:

To many people, the idea that ‘news’ should cease to consist of the mere reporting of events, and should become a cultural animal in its own right, persisting even in the absence of any worthwhile events to feed off, was intrinsically laughable; luckily On The Hour was there to do the laughing.

The show proved to be a career springboard for its ever-impressive cast: Steve Coogan (who in the programme introduced his most famous alter ego Alan Partridge), Doon MacKichan (of Smack The Pony), David Schneider (28 Days Later), future BAFTA winner Rebecca Front (The Thick of It), and the actor and playwright Patrick Marber (Closer), not forgetting, of course, Armando Iannucci (The Saturday Night Armistice, I’m Alan Partridge, The Thick of It) as the producer. Iannucci’s principal contribution to programming consisted of skilful tape-editing to make the broadcasting of familiar radio voices sound surreal and absurd, as is evidenced in this treatment of a weather report from Suzanne Charlton:

MORRIS: In a moment, news, but first, over to Suzanne Charlton at the BBC Weather Centre. I gather we’re in for a mild day today, Suzanne?

CHARLTON: Strong winds, yes, it’s going to feel rather chilly. Temperatures: fourteen to thirteen to fifteen to sixteen to seventy degrees Celsius – generally, about twelve degrees. Some sheltered eastern areas are seeing a fair amount of sunshine, in between a few whales. They’re quite heavy, the bulk of them coming along later in the day, to the north: they’ll really gather together to give prolonged spells of whales – could cause some structural damage. And, by this evening, over the top of Snowdonia, there could well be some degrees.

Chris Morris from On The Hour

Chris Morris from On The Hour

On The Hour lasted for two seasons before transferring to television in January-February 1994 as The Day Today (whose writers included future Father Ted– and IT Crowd creators Graham Linehan and Arthur Mathews). Highlights of the TV version included Morris’s provocation of a war between Australia and Hong Kong, and a pre-Ceasefire campaign by the IRA to use dogs to smuggle bombs into London – an item that also poked fun at the Broadcasting Ban by having fictional Sinn Fein spokesman Rory O’Connor (Coogan) inhale helium ‘to subtract credibility from his statements.’ Morris, of course, went on to greater and more controversial things, in the form of the spoof documentary series Brass Eye and the movie Four Lions.

25 years after On The Hour (and its TV spin-off The Day Today) “changed everything” about comedy, it is, nonetheless, arguably further proof that satire really does not work. As Peter Cook memorably noted, remember how effective Weimar Republic satire was in stopping the rise of the Nazis… A quarter of a century on, 24-hour news is now well established, and is likely here to stay. Newsreaders still sound self-important, and are continuing to tell us their stories in an often ludicrously over-dramatic way. As one of the cast members, Rebecca Front, ruefully noted in an interview in 2012:

I think we thought that journalists would slate us, because we were taking the mickey out of them. What we didn’t bank on was that they would actually use it as a training manual!

Perhaps it is just as well that the World Wide Web is also marking its quarter-century in the same week, since, as more and more of us are choosing the internet over radio and TV for our news, this is inevitably creating more challenges both in delivering the news and in taking it seriously.

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  • Brian O’Neill

    We had this gem last week from sky news

    https://youtu.be/Y6n8IhAhjKQ

  • AntrimGael

    i know it’s hilariously ridiculous. If I was from the Women’s Institute I could have made and sold them jam and scones. SKY NEWS, where if Kay Burley farts it’s BREAKING NEWS and not wind.

  • hgreen

    Great article thanks and a nice reminder of my student days.

    Wonder if British TV and radio comedy today is much more safe or maybe I’m watching or listening to the wrong stuff.

  • anon

    It’s high time another programme like this was made. Chris Morris is the perfect satirical news anchorman. In the meantime, someone needs to give Charlie Brooker a weekly Politics-wipe show.

  • The World Wide Web was NOT patented. The co-inventors deliberately chose to make it copiable by anyone and everyone.

  • Wonderful piece – makes me want to dig out some of their glorious Brian O’Hanrahanrahan sketches.

  • babyface finlayson

    Yes his German wasn’t very good was it?
    They were spot on in they way they ridiculously cut from the newsreader to a journalist who would then turn and interview a correspondent, who would finally interview a ‘person’.
    It made the real news hard to take seriously.
    20 years ago eh? God I feel old.
    Now over to Collaterlie Sisters.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    “… it is, nonetheless, arguably further proof that satire really does not work.”

    That being said, I seem to recall Tony Blackburn (or one of his colleagues) claiming that Radio 1’s major changes were enacted on account of Enfield and Whitehouse’s ‘Smashey and Nicey’: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IaQCr4PIsHE

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Clive James in “Cultural Amnesia” does a brilliant puncturing of that whole idea that wit and comedy are incompatible with tyranny. The line I remember is (paraphrasing) “by all accounts Stalin and Beria used to crack each other up.”

    Smashy and Nicey hit Radio 1 at a time an era was ending – they were the last push. I think comedy / satire can do that, be the shoving hand on the back of someone already at the cliff edge. I think it’s much harder for comedy to frogmarch someone a way to the cliff though. They sort of need to be in the vicinity already.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    “Gamekeeper to the events rhino …”
    I was and am such a fan – as good as it gets. I even liked Morris’s schtick of doing something bizarre in silhouette after the lights go down e.g. self-electrocution, injecting himself etc. So much gold in there.
    If people haven’t heard it, get hold of Chris Morris’s interviews (late 90s?) with Peter Cook as Sir Arthur Streeb-Greebling. It’s mainly Cook but the combination of the two of them is of the gods.