Wednesday, 4 March 2015

If you need an antidote to Radio 4's current crop of ghastly pseudo--comedy programmes, try Chris Morris's "On the Hour" from 1991/92

An astonishing thing I've just discovered about the greatest satire series ever to appear on British TV - The Day Today (1994), obviously - is that it consisted of only six half-hour episodes. That's it - no second series. Three hours' worth. I am genuinely amazed. Of course, I knew there had a predecessor on radio a few years' earlier, but, until my son handed me a CD containing some of the best episodes of On the Hour, I'd only heard a few snatches of it - mainly because I was busy producing actual news programmes at the time. My wife was a fan of the radio show, but there was no easy way of recording it for later consumption, and, of course, no iPlayer or YouTube.

I never worked on radio news, so, for me, listening to On the Hour doesn't engender quite the same level of delighted guilt as watching The Day Today does - but both programmes perfectly capture the pompousness, self-importance and silliness of news folk and much of the stuff they churn out, and, while The Day Today is probably sharper, everything in it already existed in some form in On the Hour. Not surprising, really, because many of the same people were involved in both programmes - most notably, Armando Iannucci, Chris Morris, Steve Coogan, Patrick Marber and Rebecca Front. Some of the writers of the radio series - Richard Herring and Stewart Lee (both of whom, as performers, are about as funny as an attack of shingles) - weren't involved in the TV series, and I suspect that may help account for its marginal superiority (as could the addition of brilliant writers Graham Linehan and Arthur Matthews, who went on to produce Father Ted, Black Books and The IT Crowd). The odd thing is that rubber-faced David Scheider was involved in both the TV and radio versions, and I've never found him in the least bit funny in anything.

The best characters who appear in both version are Chris Morris (the presenter), Alan Partidge (sports correspondent, naturally), the perpetually bullied economics correspondent, Peter O'Hanraha-hanrahan, the American reporter Barbara Wintergreen, and the environmental correspondent at the "Green Desk", Rosie May. Characters who would disappear for the TV version included the splendidly repellent Radio One-style deejay, Wayne Carr (think about it) and his French counterpart, Jack Oeuf (think about it again), both played with relish by Morris, as well as Kevin Smear (a recognisably obnoxious newsroom type), disaster correspondent Roger Blatt (who turned into moustachioed doom-celebrator, Ted Maul), Thought-for-the-Day merchant, Monsignor Treeb-Lopez (a Christian version of Rabbi Lionel Blue) and gormless, all-purpose victim Lionel Cosgrave. They are all far more convincing than their real-life counterparts - in particular, it's hard to believe that "Chris Morris" is a comic creation, while Jeremy Paxman isn't.

Satire has all but died on British TV and radio, with wit, acuity and accuracy having been replaced by the sort of unthinking, witless, left-wing sneering one rather hoped one had left behind at university. I expect most, if not all, of the people involved in On the Hour were on the left (otherwise they'd never have been employed by BBC comedy), but the refreshing thing about the show is that it attacks everybody - one of the episodes even features a report on an imaginary Radio 4 "satirical" comedy programme whose right-on female producer says, "I'd say my ultimate ambition for Satireday is to bring down the Tories and their shame-faced hypocrisy". BBC comedy's unfunny, monotonous leftiness was the subject of satire 24 years ago. Now, of course, what with the sparkling originality of such even-handed offerings as The Now Show and The News Quiz, everything has changed!

All twelve episodes of On the Hour are all available on YouTube, and I've listened to all of them several times with pleasure. Here's one one of the best:

And another:

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