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17 January 2019

After 25 years, The Day Today is still predicting the future of TV news

“It’s a programme designed to knock current affairs broadcasting off its axis,” the Radio Times wrote in 1994, “then blow a hole in its spluttering head”. It did nothing of the sort.

By Jude Rogers

January 1994 began with a familiar parade of grim news. Renewed tensions in Northern Ireland. The Tories still at war over Europe.

Then, on Wednesday 19 January at 9pm, everything kicked off. “Bottomley refreshed after three days on cross. Branson’s clockwork dog crosses Atlantic floor. Sacked chimney sweep pumps boss full of mayonnaise.” On BBC2, those were the headlines. “God, I wish they weren’t.”

It’s been 25 years since The Day Today was first broadcast, wedged with fitting surrealism like a spluttering grenade, between a Diane Keaton film about Frank Lloyd Wright and the latest episode of Middlemarch. It propelled strange catchphrases (“Ich nichten lichten”, “In 1975, no one died”) into student halls; and nascent comedians into the mainstream (Steve Coogan’s first turn on camera as Alan Partridge; brilliant debuts by Rebecca Front and Doon Mackichan).

Co-produced by Armando Iannucci and show “host” Chris Morris, it presented an unearthly future vision for TV news, turning the show’s earlier iteration as Radio 4’s On The Hour into something more over-saturated, Dali-esque, nightmarish and hilarious. “It’s a programme designed to knock current affairs broadcasting off its axis,” said editor Ross Edwards in that week’s Radio Times, “then blow a hole in its spluttering head”. It did nothing of the sort, of course. If anything, it carved a path for it.

The Day Today distilled the news’ budding obsession with outrageous visuals. Jeremy Vine on Election Night. Alan Partridge getting caught up in his multi-pronged SoccerMeter mirrors. Doon MacKichan pulling gore-splattered percentages out of a dummy’s intestines, to show the NHS’ decline, was this idea’s natural endpoint.

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Then the team skewered news theme tunes. “TV was getting obsessed with the potential of computer graphics, and how music could underpin them,” remembers co-composer Jonathan Whitehead. The theme they made together is the show’s spirit in a perfect 25-second blast, beginning with the sound of a bomb (a graphic of a globe exploding alongside it) before string swoops and percussive stabs make it even more histrionic. “News was all about appearing complicated, important and serious. So we thought we’d see how far we could go.”

But these were very different times. In 1994, Sky News was the only rolling news station in the UK, its parent company, BSkyB, having recently returned its first profit. The royalty-free World Wide Web was only nine months old. Nevertheless, The Day Today predicted how frighteningly desperate for events the 24-hour news channels would become. The war sequence in episode five was the show’s tour de force: a report about a peace treaty between Australia and Hong Kong gets twisted into a diplomatic stand-off. “As a result of that broadcast the crisis has deepened dramatically,” Morris’ Paxman-esque anchor gloats. Shortly after, gigantic red neon letters are wheeled on-set, obviously pre-prepared, spelling out “WAR”. Here were late 20th century cultural theories about media control being stripped of their seriousness. Bilious black humour worked better.

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In the war sequence, screenwriter David Quantick came up with the reason that both armies stopping fighting: they were moved by the “distress of a cat stuck on a high shelf”. He remembers the political mood of 1994 almost wistfully. “Back then, Britain was this grey mulch with this monolithic government. Very dull. But there’d also been the first Gulf War and Bosnia, so things were happening internationally.” He still thinks the war sequence captured that time perfectly – and a mood that still persists today. “The browbeating politicians, the easiness of twisting the truth, the desire for a greater sense of urgency, somewhere, anywhere.”

The commercialisation of news was foreseen in this episode, too. It ends with an advert for a Day Today commemorative war video, raw footage edited into a montage soundtracked by Wings’ “Jet” and The Trammps’ “Disco Inferno”.

The show still feels prescient in other ways. The inane repetition of a teaser for an item about police shirts being too small recalls the endless recapping we endure from BBC News today. Other elements feel wildly radical, like Morris’s constant ribbing of useless economics correspondent Peter O’Hanraha-hanrahan (played by future screenwriting Oscar nominee Patrick Marber). “Peter!” Morris roars, as a story not unlike the recent Seaborne Freight fiasco is left unexamined. “You’ve lost the news!”  

Incredibly, the show only ran to one series of six half-hour episodes. “Chris only does six of anything,” screenwriter Quantick explains. “He’s too much of a perfectionist to do more. A stickler for detail.”

And this detail still reveals itself instructively, and surreally, on a 174th viewing today. The end credits (“Carpets – Bono”). A kidnap story quietly turned into a comment upon police brutality. A tiny Doon Mackichan punching Patrick Marber out cold behind a College Green political report. Who could imagine thuggish behaviour being allowed outside parliament now?

Ah. This is the news still, it seems. Happy now?