Looking Back At BRASS EYE - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

Home Top Ad

Post Top Ad

Looking Back At BRASS EYE

Tony’s got his eye on you.
Comedy comes with a Swiss army knife of potential. It can be written with the simple intent to make its audience laugh. It can reflect society and make us think about what we believe in and what we value. And some comedy can actually serve as a stark, funny warning about what is happening to our society in real time.

That last kind of comedy includes shows like Armando Iannucci’s The Thick Of It, which tore off the sticking plaster of assumption that “The politicians probably know what they’re doing” and showed how murky and desperate the business of day-to-day policymaking really was. It includes shows like Drop The Dead Donkey from Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin and Hot Metal from David Renwick and Andrew Marshall, both of which showed the effects of letting megalomaniac media barons pander to the lowest instincts of the populace.

And it includes Brass Eye, from Chris Morris.

Where all the others though gave us a situation, a degree of separation from the phenomena through the medium of our TV screen, Brass Eye was a warning that came straight down the lens at us, and was an active experiment in the effect it was proving – the effect that sensationalism, panic, and what it had yet to occur to anyone to call “fake news” could be all too easily created by lies and fabrications presented with an air of journalistic authority and insufficient fact-checking.

Originally planned as a spin-off from The Day Today on the BBC, there’s a sense of a definite shift in tone between the two, though. The Day Today (and its radio predecessor On The Hour) was essentially a juxtaposition of patently absurd stories and the same sort of journalistic seriousness to which real stories were treated, as a way of showing quite how far towards legitimising nonsense a journalistic platform and the right tone of voice could take us.

Brass Eye (eventually made on Channel 4 after the BBC passed on a pilot for it – perhaps sensing the difference in intent) took that spirit significantly further, satirizing the media’s hunger for panic and essentially its appetite for news CREATION rather than news REPORTING, to the extent of duping celebrities and MPs to back campaigns against drugs that didn’t exist, or for fake charities tackling problems that were being massively inflated for the benefit of the satire.

The fact that it frequently succeeded in getting people to do the things it wanted them to – and the fact that, for instance, its Wikipedia entry has a whole section for the controversies it caused – is the ultimate vindication of its satirical arguments. When you saw celebrities and politicians take up the causes Brass Eye ‘reporters’ had put to them, you were uncomfortably never quite sure where the scripted portion of the show ended, and the real duping of people into taking action had begun.

That was the revelation of Brass Eye – quite how easy it could be to stoke outrage, panic, and officialised hysteria.

We say ‘easy’ like the Brass eye team just woke up, pulled an idea out of thin air and slapped it on screen, but that of course does the show a massive injustice.

Brass Eye, and its predecessor shows, brought in a cabinet of all the talents to write and star in the experiment into what you could plausibly get away with.

The Day Today was written by Chris Morris, Armando “The Thick Of It” Iannucci, Peter Baynham, David Quantick, Graham Linehan and Arthur Matthews (the duo behind Father Ted). It gave the world Steve Coogan’s Alan Partridge, as well as bolstering the comedy careers of Rebecca “Practically Everything Excellent” Front and Doon “Smack The Pony” Mackichan.

For Brass Eye, Jane “Smack The Pony, Fast Show, South Park” Bussmann joined the writing team, meaning you had quite a cauldron of geniuses working behind the scenes to create suitable subjects for outrage – and how they would best be played out.

While Chris Morris took a much more significant portion of the front-of-camera action in Brass Eye, the number and the quality of additional contributors on that side of the production was still remarkable.

Doon Mackichan was back, but the show also starred the likes of Simon Pegg, Gina McKee, Kevin Eldon, Claire Skinner, Hugh Dennis, Mark Heap, and Julia Davies. While, writing from the perspective of the 2020s that sounds like a list that should have tipped the wink about the satirical nature of the show to its unwitting dupes, the joy is that each of them have gone on to have careers that have made them household names, but back in 1997 when Brass Eye aired, most of them were sufficiently plausible and at least comparatively unknown.

The degree to which Brass Eye pushed its own satirical seriousness varied from episode to episode. In its one main series, for instance, it started off with a show claiming to highlight the scourge of anti-animal graffiti, expressly used to ‘make animals feel bad and lower their self-esteem.’

It’s entirely possible that, even today, you could get away with this show without it being taken too seriously by anyone. Though that said, it’s also close enough to the edge of reality that with a tweak or two, you might well get some Twitter outrage if you remade it for a modern audience.

Episode 2 though focused on drugs, including an entirely made-up drug named Cake. That involved celebrities like comedian Bernard Manning and omni-presenter Noel Edmonds taping anti-Cake messages – and they’re so sincere you’re never entirely sure when you watch it whether they’re in on the gag or not.

MP David Amess certainly wasn’t, when he asked a question in the House of Commons about the proliferation of the drug (which Brass Eye claimed came from Czechoslovakia – which no longer existed as a country – and that it gave users a condition called “Czech Neck”). To be fair, the clues were always there – when asked to film messages against Cake, the celebrities help up bright yellow… erm… cake-sized… pills. It should have been joyously obvious to everyone concerned that it was a hoax, but – and this is crucial to understand – Brass Eye went out originally in 1997. The internet as a widely-used thing was JUST coming in around that time, and most people of an age to have celebrity status still wouldn’t have used it as a fact-checking tool at the time. So a lot more was taken on trust, in an authoritative journalistic set-up and manner, than would be the case today.

Not that today we’re necessarily any more likely to go behind a narrative today – especially one that gives us something to feel outrage about – to find balanced facts and figures. That, in a sense, is what makes Brass Eye prophetic as well as scandalously funny.

It tapped in to the fundamental news-laziness of humans as consumers, and the thirst for scandal and outrage that had, in fairness, frequently been the lifeblood of tabloid newspapers. That thirst was beginning to seep into broadcast news too as unscrupulous media barons and their political puppets rolled back restrictions on what could be done in the name of the press, and what constituted factual reporting.

Brass Eye frequently got at least one celebrity to anchor its issues. An episode on sex brought Peter Stringfellow out to talk about the relationship between sex and society. An episode on crime had Vanessa Feltz recording a ‘message to murderers.’ And an expose of moral decline included Terry Waite, explaining how society had been ‘poisoned’ by the Gospels.

And again, that was the point – you never entirely knew if the celebrities had been paid to contribute to a satirical show, and knew the score, and so were lending their celebrity to the satire on sensationalizing media, or whether they genuinely thought they were helping with a serious programme on real, scandalous issues about which they felt the need to speak out. Brass Eye always trod that magical line of satire where you were never sure what was part of the satire and what was part of the phenomenon being satirized.

The thing about a show like that of course is that it has a very limited lifespan. Once people – including celebrities – are AWARE that a show like Brass Eye exists, they become immediately more cautious. Similar shows that mostly focused on duping members of the public, like Candid Camera and Game For A Laugh had survived longer, but Brass Eye quickly made itself so much a part of the cultural landscape of the late-Nineties that it would quickly have become unsustainable. And besides, at the time, subjects weren’t necessarily as rife for parody as they would be today. Perhaps an episode on weapons of mass destruction would have been fun and timely, but Brass Eye bowed out after just the one series.

Annnnd then there was Paedogeddon.

Four years after the one series of Brass Eye divided a nation into those that saw the satire and the lesson and those that didn’t, in 2001, after lots of people had had a chance to forget about the satire on media-generated panic, Brass Eye returned with a one-off special.

Paedogeddon was… well, exactly what it sounds like. A supposed investigation of the unknown extent of paedophilia in the UK.

The episode came in the wake of some real-life media whipping up a frenzy of fear, both over three-dimensional paedophile grooming gangs, and – with the now growing popularity of the internet - the extent to which the digital world was being used by paedophiles to groom their victims.

Now, this is where the issue with Brass Eye’s satire is probably most keenly seen. It was NEVER intended to downplay the seriousness of paedophilia as a problem, OR the ways in which genuine paedophiles used the new technologies available to them to find their victims. Similarly, the episode on drugs was never intended to downplay the seriousness of drug smuggling, dealing, and addiction. It was supposed to satirize the ease with which a serious-sounding media could make people IRRATIONALLY and DISPROPORTIONATELY frightened of things.

But Paedogeddon got Brass Eye into much greater trouble than any of its other episodes, because there was a sense of a line beyond which, comedy couldn’t go. That said, the ACTUAL episode involved, for instance, having celebrities such as Phil Collins and Gary Lineker endorse a fake charity, “Nonce Sense.” In fairness, you’d think it was plain when they were asked outright to look into the camera and speak the words “I’m talking Nonce Sense” (pronounced of course as “Nonsense”).

Similarly, Tomorrow’s World presenter Philippa Forrester and ITN presenter Nicholas Owen explained a system “used by paedophiles” – the Hidden Online Entrapment Control System. Or HOECS for short. Yes, pronounced as HOAX, since you ask. But while these things probably should have been obvious, there was a sense that wanting to lend your voice to anti-paedophilia causes was fundamentally laudable in and of itself, even if the ACTUAL causes you were talking about were entirely made-up for the benefit of satire – meaning Paedogeddon lost Brass Eye some wider support, for all its satire on media hysteria was if anything more strongly proved by the special episode than it had been by any episode of the regular series.

The show included other elements that were so far beyond the line of credibility as to make its satirical intention clear – you would think – to everyone, including a studio invasion by a pro-paedophilia group, and the reporting that a real and well-known paedophile had been sent into space to keep him away from potential victims.

For all the controversy the Paedogeddon episode caused at the time though, it went on to win a Broadcast magazine award the following year, suggesting that it had done enough to push its satire into the clear realms of comedy at the expense of media rabble-rousing.

From our position in the 2020s, Brass Eye remains absurdly funny, but you might occasionally struggle to see how anyone took its made-up stories seriously enough to, for instance, ask questions in the House of Commons about them, or lend their celebrity clout to obviously fake charities.

It’s worth bearing in mind, when that chuckle of superiority comes over you, that there are people who seriously believe Donald Trump won the 2020 election. There are people who seriously and committedly believe that Covid-19 is a hoax. And there are people who seriously believe that 5G towers actually GIVE you Covid.

We haven’t become any less gullible, 25 years after Brass Eye hit our screens. In fact, you could easily argue that we’re a generation who needs and deserves Brass Eye more than ever. The difference being if it were done today, there’d be significantly fewer people who took it as comedy.

Take a look at Brass Eye now it’s arrived on Britbox, and marvel at the satirical show that gave us an object lesson in media-fuelled public hysteria.

Watch Brass Eye today with a seven day free trial of BritBox.

Tony Fyler lives in a concrete cave, somewhere on the edge of the sea, with his wife, who exists, and the Fictional People In His Head, who don't as yet. A journalist and editor by day, he has written Some Books, and is more or less always writing another. One day, he may even get around to showing them to people. In the meantime, he's Script Editor and occasional Executive Producer at Third Time Lucky Productions, and a proud watcher of things no-one remembers they remember until they remember.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Post Top Ad