Digging Up the Roots of News Satire with ‘On the Hour’

There have been many articles I’ve written for this series where I assumed that I was probably introducing a significant portion of my readership to that performer. I have never felt the same kind of pressure as I do now when I write about Chris Morris. The reason is that I really want to make sure I get this right. Morris is one of the few people in comedy that I feel deserve the moniker “genius,” and see? Now that I’ve said that, I have to prove it.

I’m not sure how well known Morris is in America, beyond the assortment of comedy nerds that congregate on message boards (I say that with love, as one of those nerds). You might know him as Denholm Reynholm, the first boss on The I.T. Crowd, or for his most recent solo project, and the only film in the terrorist comedy genre, Four Lions. Like much of his previous work it was daring, a little dangerous, deeply satirical of our modern world, and very funny. He’s brought this same lens to the deeply surreal and occasionally disturbing sketch show Jam that Curtis Gwinn did an excellent job of describing for Splitsider here. And before that, there was what I’m dubbing now his news satire period.

There are three projects of Chris Morris’ that fit into this genre: The Day Today and Brass Eye, both for television, and before each of these there was BBC Radio’s On the Hour. On the Hour was not produced as a comedy show. This program was designed to sound as much like a news show as humanly possible; there were no winks to the audience, no laugh track or sound effects. If you were paying half attention and left the radio on you would think it was just another BBC news show, until you listened a littler closer and realized that in between the announcers, pompous tones, and bombastic music, it was all complete nonsense.

I feel like this is as good a spot as any to point out when On the Hour’s 12 episodes were made. The first episode went out in August of 1991 and the last in May of 1992. That puts this show long before the days of The Daily Show and the many official and unofficial spin-offs it now boasts, at a time where the closest thing to a sustained satire of this type would be SNL’s Weekend Update. One of the show’s writers, David Quantick, described the program very aptly, “On The Hour was not so much about the news as it was about news programmes.” The goal wasn’t necessarily to satirize the political figures and happenings of the day (though that did happen) but instead, it blew up the pageantry of the news. What’s even more impressive is that, again, this is 1991, and yet the satire feels just as relevant. Imagine how insane the 24-hour cable news channels are today. Now dial that back 25 years and jump across the Atlantic. It makes the show seem almost clairvoyant.

Here’s a nice little taste of the show that features an advertisement done with an actual on-the-street participant, which was also an ongoing feature of Morris’ early radio work. You’ll also get to hear some great examples of headlines, some expert radio sound design, and a very early appearance from a Steve Coogan character you may have heard of…

The level of talent on this show is simply staggering. Let’s go for a brief rundown. There’s Chris Morris, as you know, and if you’ve listened to the clip above then you heard one of the first appearances from Steve Coogan’s Alan Partridge character. Alan first debuted as the sports reporter on On the Hour. If you’re not familiar, the Alan we know today from his various TV shows and his movie and book, is a man who is inept in his job and his personal life while still remaining very confident and very cocky. No matter how terribly he treats his personal assistant, though, we still feel for the guy and wish him the best. On On the Hour, Alan doesn’t quite have this same depth and instead is just really bad at reporting sports.

The co-creator of the show was Armando Iannucci, no doubt best known in America for the brilliant Veep which is a spiritual successor to its British counterpart, The Thick of It which explores the behind the scenes mishaps at and around a minister’s office. (If you like Veep but haven’t checked this show, or its film In the Loop, you really should get on that.) Iannucci has quickly become one of the biggest and most well respected names in British comedy.

Then co-writers Stuart Lee and Richard Herring also helped shape this iteration of On the Hour. Today both writers have broken out and created their own very successful stand up careers, with Lee being named one of the 20 most influential people in British comedy.

John Oliver, when asked to choose something that he was a fan of for The AV Club, selected On the Hour and when the interviewer asked him to describe some of his favorite bits from the show, he didn’t believe that he could describe any bits from it because it was all too dense. He explained, “So you don’t need to know anything about it because bullshit is completely transferable. If there’s one thing that there’s a universal language of, it’s bullshit. And On The Hour is premium bullshit.” I find myself running into the same issue as I write this article. I’ve now relistened to about an hour and a half’s worth of shows, but to pick out one piece of the larger work feels like I’m ruining the whole product. Lucky for you, there’s a full episode waiting for you at the bottom of this article, and there’s 11 more waiting for you on iTunes if that doesn’t give you enough.

Arise, sir news:

Ramsey Ess is a freelance writer for television, podcaster and a guy on Twitter. Check out his webseries “Ramsey Has a Time Machine” featuring Chris Elliott!

Digging Up the Roots of News Satire with ‘On the Hour’