The Day Today as with so many other British comedies produced precious few episodes, but the proportionate impact of those six episodes has been immense. Originally aired in early 1994 following the success of their radio prelude On The Hour, The Day Today covered the news, and by extension the news industry, with surreal accuracy. With Chris Morris providing an eerily accurate impression of Jeremy Paxman in a studio that bore a striking resemblance to ITN’s News At Ten set of the time, one of the show’s great strengths was the casual viewer could flick through and not realise it was parody. If you weren’t paying attention, you could easily go a couple of minutes until you heard a headline or report that’d make you stop in your tracks, like “That’s it, just time to let you know that police are still looking for the actor Burt Reynolds after he stole a dodgem and drove it out of a fairground in Islington.”
Not only was the show’s subtlety and dextrous, creeping satire crucial to pulling the whole thing off, it also leant itself well to building a loyal audience firmly in on the joke. And if Chris Morris’ bombastic professionalism set the scene, his band of satellite colleagues were the perfect compliment: the inept economics correspondent Peter O’Hanraha-hanrahan, who often “loses the news” and thinks the German for 30 percent is “Trenta Percenta”; Collaterlie Sisters, the anamatronic and incomphrensible business news specialist who uses graphics like the Currency Kidney and the International Finance Arse to explain trends in world trading; Sylvester Stuart, the disembodied weather head; Barbara Wintergreen, the pun-happy American correspondent who covers the likes of serial killers being sentenced to death by corpses with the voice of Martin Sheen; and Valerie Sinatra, the outrageously flirted at transport reporter from her travel pod a mile above Great Britain.
But of course, the best known Day Today foil is Alan Partridge, whose palpable lack of sporting knowledge ended up being no impediment to a sparkling career as a chat show host and early morning East Anglian DJ. In fact, it was some of Alan’s best bits of sports reporting that exemplify just how extraordinarily far-sighted the show could be. As the programme basically boils down to a collection of micro sketches pulled together by idents with slogans like “Facts multiplied by importance equals news”, it’s an extremely easy show to look up on the likes of YouTube, even though it pre-dates the site by nigh on a decade, and Alan Partridge’s football commentary (“SHIT! DID YOU SEE THAT?! He must have a foot like a traction engine!”) is one of the all-time YouTube classics. Similarly, they featured a mockumentary called The Office ages before Messrs Gervais and Merchant dreamed theirs up. They even managed to pre-empt the proliferation of reality shows and histrionic soap operas with their miniseries The Pool and The Bureau.
But if surreal innovation got people watching, it was the tendency to push the boundaries that got people talking, the best example of which was the story of IRA “bomb dogs” going off around the UK. The report showed cordoned off streets, people panicking as “terrierists” ran aimlessly round the streets, and amusingly earnest graphics showing a dog coated with a special resin being blown 1,000ft into the air. It also showed Sinn Féin’s “deputy leader” interviewed while taking helium, to take credibility away from his statements. While still funny now, given the tense political state of play in 1994 (the IRA habitually bombed city centre targets, including BBC’s Television Centre, during this period, and interviews with Sinn Fein members could only be showed in silhouette with the voice of actual actors like Stephen Rea and Butch Dingle from Emmerdale dubbed over it) it was darkly humorous at least, and downright ballsy at best.
And then there’s the actors and contributors themselves. Had they been American, they surely would have been dubbed as a Pack of some kind, but despite the lack of officialdom the main players in The Day Today continue to dominate British comedy. The success of Steve Coogan is self-evident, and Chris Morris went on to achieve legendary status with Brass Eye and directed and co-wrote the recent film Four Lions. Patrick Marber wrote the movie Closer, which is one of the more mindblowing facts I’ve heard this year. Doon Mackichan was one third of Smack The Pony, Rebecca Front as Nicola Murray is the recipient of most of Malcolm Tucker’s ire on The Thick Of It, while producer Armando Ianucci has had a hand of some sort in every funny thing the BBC has made since. Executive Producer Peter Fincham is now the head of ITV, but we’ll forgive him that.
Ultimately though, for all the show’s influence, it leaves a legacy of prescience as much as parody. What was in 1994 an incremental clinic in absurdity looks more like a journalists’ handbook in 2010. Which, unlike The Day Today, isn’t particularly funny.