On a late Wednesday evening at the beginning of 1994, people were being exposed to a new kind of TV. The Day Today had all the hallmarks of a traditional news broadcast, with intense, dramatic music and high-tech animated graphics. Yet when the stern voiceover began to read out the evening’s headlines, those sitting at home expecting the News at 10 soon realised something was a little off. “Bryan Ferry bathmat poisonous say lab / Fist-headed man destroys church / Headmaster suspended for using big-faced child as satellite dish / Portillo’s teeth removed to boost pound.”
The Day Today was a satirical news show that also took aim at popular television formats of the day, like Crimewatch, 999 and MTV. It was created by Chris Morris and Armando Iannucci and was a continuation of their radio satire show, On the Hour. The radio show featured a stellar cast – including Steve Coogan, Rebecca Front, Doon Mackichan, Patrick Marber and David Schneider – who came with the show when it moved to television. In doing so, it set a new precedent not just for what comedy could do on TV, but also for what it could look like and where it could get its laughs from.
The Day Today combined hyper-realism with profound absurdity. It brought Alan Partridge to our screens for the first time, and launched the careers of creators and writers who would go on to be some of the most critical voices in British comedy, between them creating shows such as Brass Eye, I’m Alan Partridge, The Thick of It and Big Train.
25 years down the line, its co-creator, writers and stars recall the making and legacy of The Day Today.
Armando Iannucci (co-creator/writer/producer): It was our first TV show, and we decided early on not to repeat the material. We didn’t want to do a TV version of the radio show. We just wanted to treat it like all the presenters from the radio had been promoted to TV, and all of this was their first attempt to radicalise the news on television, like a bunch of arrogant fools.
David Schneider (cast member/writer): There was a certain fearlessness of youth, and it’s Armando and Chris (Morris) that have to take credit for the transition. It wasn’t just making On the Hour for TV; it was tearing up what had been done before. We had satirised radio and feasted on its corpse and now we needed to feast on the corpse of TV. They restructured their whole way of thinking, which shows the confidence they had.
Armando Iannucci: On Radio 4 you have a very specific audience, but when you’re suddenly on television it’s less specific. There was something almost unnerving about that. There was an uncertainty, an element of, ‘We better not fuck this up’ – because there was a passionate audience for On the Hour. Also, at that stage, the comedy graveyard was littered with skeletons of radio shows that didn’t translate to television. So we just thought, ‘Let’s abandon everything except the names of the characters and start fresh.’
CREATING THE MATERIAL
Patrick Marber (cast member/writer): There were various different strands of the writing process. There were commissioned writers like me, who would be commissioned to write a certain amount of material – I was on about five minutes per show. You’d also come up with sketch ideas and gags to pitch to Armando in the writers meeting. The other process was improvisation, and the actors would go down into the basement in the production office. We spent a lot of time down there. Improvisation was a big part of it.
David Schneider: Our bits would often be put together through improvisation. Then that might be shaped with extra writing input or just honed down until it became a stock of concentrated comedy that could be dissolved in – my metaphor is crashing here – TV hot water.
Peter Baynham (writer): I remember being asked to come up with names for racehorses for Alan Partridge when he’s doing commentary, and just coming up with demented things like: Trust Me I’m A Stomach. I was very happy and asking, ‘Is this actually a job?’ I was wildly excited to be able to have a job thinking up crazy shit.
Patrick Marber: That little basement was comedy heaven. It was a pleasure to be able to see Steve Coogan mucking around in the early days of Alan Partridge or Rebecca Front doing Barbara Wintergreen.
David Schneider: I remember witnessing the creation of Steve’s swimming pool attendant and the brilliance of that. There were only a handful of us in the room and it felt like watching the best Beckett or the funniest Pinter play. It was a piece of absolute genius and completely improvised. That was written very much in real time.
Armando Iannucci: I always likened it to editing a weekly magazine or a newspaper. I’d commission a piece that was going to be about such and such. We didn’t sit down and have a big script conference or anything. There were outlines to each programme but there was also an air of: ‘Lets just shoot all these different items and we’ll find the program.’
DEVELOPING THE LAUGHS
Patrick Marber: The challenge was always to make Armando laugh. If you could make Armando piss himself then the material at least had a good chance of being recorded. He was a generous laugher but he wouldn’t laugh at just anything to encourage you, he’d only laugh honestly.
Chris would occasionally come in and improvise with us and that would always feel like the king had descended. I did some Peter O’Hanraha-Hanrahan stuff with him, which was exciting. He was a brilliant improviser: completely deadpan, challenging, muscular and highly intelligent. It was like suddenly this wolf had entered and you really had to be on your metal and raise your game. He was special even back then. He had a presence and authority – you just wanted to please him and to crack him up. Him and Armando felt slightly older than us, so there was a bit of a feeling of us being the children trying to amuse the grown ups.
Peter Baynham: One of Armando’s early ways of working with Steve as Partridge was – because Steve knew nothing about sport himself – to put him in a room with clips of sporting events and then have him just improvise over it. It was a brilliant way to utilise someone’s lack of knowledge for something funny. We did also have ideas too, like him shouting, ‘shit’ or ‘liquid football’. Steve’s improvisational abilities felt like he was coming at something from an angle that I’d never heard before. There has been a lot of comedy like that since, but there had been nothing like it before.
David Schneider: Pissing yourself laughing doesn’t happen as much when you get older, but there were so many times when we were rehearsing The Day Today that I was worried about my bladder control because I was laughing so much. I was really on the edge. I feel privileged that I was one of a few people who got to witness some of the stuff in improv that didn’t even make it in. There is a DVD extra that features a conversation between Chris and Alan Partridge about his crazy theory on the death of Princess Diana. Watching them improvise that for about 25 minutes was so funny. I felt privileged just to be in this tiny audience watching these incredibly brilliant comic minds at work.
THE EDITING ROOM
Armando Iannucci: We took a good hard look at American TV news – especially the graphics. We hired the people who did the News at 10 and ITN to do our graphics. That was something we wanted to do as much as possible, to get the people who actually make these things so we can make them properly. We did these little spoof documentaries called The Office and The Pool and we hired a proper documentary film crew to make it. For Attitudes Night, the spoof of programmes from the ’50s and ’60s, we hired one of those old cameras from the Film and Television Museum in Bradford. The BBC put together a news training course for us, so we learned how to make a news report and how to cut up rushes and do voice overs.
Rather than trying to replicate things with modern technology, we just wanted to use equipment that would actually be used for such things. Part of the joke is that this is taking itself very seriously and that there’s no hint of comedy in the delivery. So the production had to do the same as the performances. Each item had its own methodology of production. There was no one-way to make all these very different segments, there were thirty different ways to make thirty different items of the show.
Patrick Marber: It was much more pressure for Chris and Armando than it was for us. We were aware that when we left the building Armando and Chris were still there working into the night. We were very appreciative, but at the same time we didn’t really know what they were doing, we had no idea about the level of graphics and music and production value that the show would have. We were a component of a much bigger whole.
Armando Iannucci: We would edit through the weekends. We had an edit room above a cheese shop in Goodge St – urgh, the smell – and I remember being there and editing on the Sunday that was my 30th birthday. My wife called and was saying, ‘We’re just going to have a bit of tea and cake.’ I missed my own 30th birthday because I had to be there. It was all-consuming.
David Schneider: I think there was so much pressure because they are perfectionists. Nobody was – as we would have said in the ’90s – faxing it in. There were a lot of obsessives in that group.
Armando Iannucci: There are loads of little things that go on in the background that some people have spotted and others, to this day, haven’t – which I quite like, they are almost like Easter eggs. For instance, in the homeless clamping scene, the Bureau de Change is in the background. There’s a Peter O’Hanraha-Hanrahan report and somebody is just being punched in the background. We added lots of things like that to see if it registered.
Patrick Marber: I remember doing that War segment and there was an explosion behind me. I didn’t know that was going to happen – I shat myself. They hadn’t told me so I thought a bomb had gone off.
IMPACT AND LEGACY
Armando Iannucci: You’d think that once people read the headlines that they would know it wasn’t real. I wanted people to be disoriented by it because there’s no audience laughter, the actors aren’t raising their eyebrows, and they play it straight. I had a hunch that the straighter it was played, the funnier it would be. It wasn’t a hoax, it wasn’t an attempt to pull the wool over people’s eyes. You want people to enjoy it and get the layers. My expectations of people go down if they think it’s real.
David Schneider: When Partridge was first broadcast on the radio I remember getting loads of complaints, like ‘he hit a child, how have you allowed him to come back next week?!’ I remember enjoying a lot of that but with The Day Today I think we were all so consumed by it that we were just relieved when it came it out. I remember it looking amazing on screen though.
Armando Iannucci: I think we showed that you can use the style of the broadcast and make that part of the joke, that it didn’t just have to be sketches and to explore the medium and the format and to be more experimental. Comedy at the time seemed to be either sitcom or sketch show – it was showing people that you can write a different way. It was recognising that we were also the first generation of comics that were TV literate, so it wasn’t just about writing the lines but also looking at how it was shot and using cut points.
Davis Schneider: Where you feel that the show was a generational shift was with it bringing in this sense of realism in comedy that then went into things like The Office, Big Train, Smack the Pony and Simon Pegg’s work. All these people saw that the way to be funny was to be incredibly realistic but with stupid stuff. So with the realism of The Office, I like to think it’s connected to the sea change that Armando and our generation brought about.
THEN AND NOW
Patrick Marber: The world has got worse. 25 years ago we were reaching for an extremity that would be both credible yet shocking and funny, then the extremity became reality. If we had done a sketch about an American President who wanted to build a giant wall to keep Mexicans out, we would have said, ‘No it’s too comedy, it’s too silly’. The early ’90s now seem like a rather lovely and innocent time. It’s shocking what happened.
Peter Baynham: The insanity has been way outdone now, especially the way that news is presented as entertainment in America. They make money from the outrage.
Armando Iannucci: Nothing has been learned and now news broadcasters seem to use it almost like a template rather than a warning sign, that’s a depressing thing.
Patrick Marber: We certainly didn’t reform television news. Who would have thought that Fox News would have come along in the manner that they did? If we had invented a right-wing news channel at the time and cut live to what Fox is now, it would have seemed over the top. That’s why we need The Day Today back. We’re in desperate times and laughter is one of the things to keep you going. There’s a lot to laugh about, albeit rather darkly.
Peter Baynham: It was a dose of the serious, graphic and really stupid. It would be fun to do it again.
Patrick Marber: There was just a giggly excitement around it all. We were pigs in shit. I remember thinking, ‘I’m really glad I’m appreciating this because it’s one of the best times of my life.’ I was sufficiently long in the tooth – I’d been knocking around for four or five years as a stand up – to know that this was special.
Peter Baynham: It felt like breaking new ground. It’s like when a new kind of rock or pop music comes along and it opens your mind and inspires other people. I don’t know if we thought it was a movement but I felt very lucky to get into this gang. I owe everything to that, really. It was life changing for me
Armando Iannucci: It was an exhausting but exhilarating time. We feel thankful for it and I think it set us all off on our careers. It’s something we’re still very proud of.
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