‘You’ve lost the news!’ How The Day Today changed satire forever

25 years ago, Chris Morris and Armando Iannucci’s uproarious news spoof unleashed Fake News on the world (not to mention Alan Partridge)

It’s hard to overstate the shock of the new that accompanied first exposure to The Day Today in January 1994. News parodies had existed before. But none even remotely as acute or as painstakingly assembled as this. Somehow, creators Chris Morris and Armando Iannucci had delivered not just ham-fisted political satire cobbled on to a few throwaway punchlines but a whole parallel TV world with its own hierarchies, visual and verbal grammar and inexorable internal logic. A world in which statements such as “Headmaster suspended for using big-faced child as satellite dish” and “Bouncing elephantiasiswoman destroys central Portsmouth” could be delivered to camera with an entirely straight face.

The key to the impression given by The Day Today of arriving, out of the blue and fully formed was, of course, that it was nothing of the sort. The show was almost half a decade in gestation. Morris had spent several years learning (and twisting, for his own mischievous ends) the craft of radio presentation. In 1991, he and Iannucci launched On the Hour, a devastatingly accomplished spoof of radio news magazines. A TV version was an obvious next step.

But The Day Today wasn’t just a straight transfer; it was a quantum leap. Oddly, the key to the show’s success wasn’t the ludicrousness but the credibility. The tone and manner of Morris’s pompous anchor was immaculate – Jeremy Paxman with the bombast turned up to 11. The graphics and music were calibrated to edge just far enough into the realms of absurdity. The attention to detail bordered on the ridiculous – a 10-second snippet reporting a police initiative to release tigers into the houses of noisy party hosts involved a long, gruelling and expensive shoot with a real animal and its professional handler.

Unusually, it was a news satire that poked barely any fun at the individuals making the news. No party political points were being made here. Instead, it was the kind of satire that would be recognised by media scientist Marshall McLuhan. As McLuhan famously proclaimed: “the medium is the message”. Much of The Day Today’s comedy was found in its subversion of form rather than its manipulation of content.

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