Many TV comedies lampooned the news industry down the years, but few were as brutal, dark and deeply sarcastic as Brass Eye.
It only ran for one series on Channel 4 with six episodes airing in 1997 and a follow-up special in 2001. Twenty years on it remains a behemoth of comedy and media commentary, largely because the issues it satirised never really went away.
Brass Eye was probably best known for its celebrity hoaxes and general derision of celebrity culture. It exposed the vacuous nature of celebrity backed “causes” by duping TV presenters and politicians into speaking out against a “new made-up drug” called CAKE; the plight of Carla a depressed elephant, and the horror of weasel fighting in the East End.
Brass Eye’s parody of 1990’s TV journalism was just as brutal. Each episode took as its theme a media provoked moral panic exploring animal rights, drugs, science, sex, crime, social decline and, most notoriously, paedophilia or “paedogeddon”; the shock and awe of which has yet to diminish.
In it’s fine attention to detail, Brass Eye struck at almost every aspect of TV and print journalism. The show’s true brilliance came from folding so many layers of media and cultural criticism into one sketch. Even if you were uncomfortable laughing at coverage of animal cruelty, it was hard not to get a kick out of thoughtless and opportunistic celebrities caught fanning the flames of sensationalist news or the savaging of news media tropes in both form and content.
Brass Eye repeatedly mocked the tabloid sensationalism of door stopping and sting operations, the absurdity of TV data graphics and science reporting, and the contrived nature of “fly on the wall” documentaries, audience debates, Crime Call, and even the links between TV segments. The attention to detail meant little escaped much needed ridicule.
As the lead actor, Chris Morris took aim at an array of TV stereotypes. He played slick haired anchor Christopher Morris (“educated, safe and middle class”); David Jatt, the facetious interviewer; Ted Maul, the hard-hitting sting-man; and Austen Taffeltine, the clueless privileged “toff”.
The tabloids and the celebrities duped by Brass Eye deemed the show cruel and outrageous, but the hypocrisy and incompetence it highlighted was never really that far from the truth. It’s razor-sharp wit cut right to the heart of media sensationalism and dubious news practices. That’s what made it so dark, so funny and so relevant. In the Sex episode, Morris spoofs the simplistic moralising of chat show debates as the anchor distinguishes between “good AIDS” (contracted through blood transfusions) and “bad AIDS” (contracted through drug abuse and sexual activity).
Some have lamented that they cannot imagine Brass Eye getting aired today. I can think of no better time. Some of the best comedy and craft in the show was not simply satirising issues such as animal cruelty or racism in policing, the target was also the sensational treatment of these subjects; the distortions, the regurgitation of unverified claims, car crash interviewing, the unintelligible graphics and fear mongering about the scale of problems.
Fundamentally, it was about how news media sometimes not only fail to inform, they completely confuse audiences about important subjects. And journalism is still littered with the same tropes spoofed in Brass Eye along with newer practices. With fake news, celebrities on social media, ailing political coverage, the echo chamber and the blurring of advertising and journalism – the media industry could do with another Brass Eye cast over it.