Watching Brass Eye as a Documentary

The genius of Brass Eye's satire meant it was never too far off the tabloid journalism it skewered

Feature by Emma O'Brien | 05 Feb 2018

It's hard to remember there once was a time when news didn’t seem to unfold in real time. Or a time before anyone with a social media account could pump out self-aggrandising bile and punditry. These days, many feel the news seems beyond parody, living as we do with the possibility that nuclear annihilation may come about because someone on Twitter made fun of a reality TV gobshite’s combover.

Back in the relatively placid time of 1997, tabloids were more in control of news cycle shitstorms. A few months before the New Labour landslide arrived to supposedly save us all, Brass Eye set out to skewer the tabloid approach to journalism and the people who fed it. In its first episode, Animals, it lined up several celebrities and fooled them into issuing grave warnings: a highlight being Nicholas Parsons despairing on behalf of an elephant with her trunk stuck up her anus.

Brass Eye could have stopped at being only hilarious, but it worked as a satire because creator Chris Morris’s dark genius was for identifying the gossamer-thin line at which a particular celebrity's genuine public-spiritedness intersected with the parsimonious self-interest of moralising on prime-time TV.

In Drugs, Bernard Manning intoned that a new pill "caused one kiddy to cry all the water out of his own body." The drug Manning spoke of – 'Cake' – did not exist, any more than Morris's other narcotics 'Triple Sod' and 'Yellow Bentines'. Not that this deterred the Conservative MP for Basildon, David Amess, asking questions in Parliament about Cake. He even received a reply from the Home Office, whose officials assumed he must mean some other substance and answered his concerns accordingly (Amess, by the way, was knighted in 2015). It might seem Manning and Amess were innocent dupes, but their manufactured outrage wasn't far off the drawn-out school assemblies some of us endured at the time. Assemblies which earnestly warned about the dangers of glugging enough water to drown ourselves in should we find ourselves at the mercy of Ecstasy, caricatured at the time as the 'Brain Boiling Killer Dance Drug'. 

Having dabbled in literal fake news with The Day Today over twenty years before that term became ubiquitous, with Brass Eye Morris turned his exquisitely malevolent attention ever more acutely to the pearl clutching, breathless masturbatory prurience of the 'Ban This Sick Filth'-style tabloid fuckery that defined the major moral panics of the 1990s.

Sex features a segment where a straightfaced Morris explains the crucial difference between "Good AIDS" and "Bad AIDS", wearing a green ribbon to symbolise the innocently infected while angrily denounces a gay activist for obtaining sympathy under false pretences. It cut right to the ugly heart of the tabloids' treatment of the biggest public health crisis in living memory: where not even the senseless, ghastly death of thousands of young people halted the snide references to 'faggots' and 'smackheads' in the tabloid press. At one memorable juncture some years before, on 17 November 1989, The Sun claimed that heterosexual sex could not transmit HIV.

In the last episode of its one full series, Morris neatly combined the twin handwringing threats of seditious pop music and stranger danger. It was simply entitled Decline, and used the story of perfectly observed Pulp facsimile Blouse releasing a love song addressed to Myra Hindley. It is the most brilliantly observed send up – Ian Brady must have been spitting.

Four years later the jig was up, as Chris Morris and chums no doubt knew it would be, with 2001's infamous Paedogeddon! special. This threw boiling oil on the troubled waters of the media’s fixation on the final frontier: child sexual abuse.

Despite the best efforts of, among others, the NSPCC to remind the public that most abusers are well known to their victims, The News Of The World was indiscriminately releasing information that would hype up vigilante mobs to vandalise the homes of paediatricians because, well, it includes the 'paedo' suffix and we all know what that means. Brass Eye's scene warning parents that "paedophiles have more genes in common with crabs than with you and me – there’s no evidence for that, but it is a fact” meant the viewer had to pause and consider if this was really more outlandish than the day’s front pages.

Before this episode even aired, there were cries that heads must roll in the same tabloids it satirised. Ironically, one tabloid, The Star, printed its outrage about the 2001 special across the page from an appreciative nod to the newly evident breasts of the-then 15-year-old Charlotte Church. (Should you ever despair of the tabloids' ability to always find a lower place to sink, you can instantly reassure yourself with a quick read of Church’s evidence to the Leveson Inquiry regarding the respect shown to her tender years by those papers).

It was a polarising moment of television – in my family, Mum read the news reports and was distraught at the idea that Dad and me could even be watching it. We explained that the joke was not about child abuse but about the fetishistic newspaper hunt for it – and that getting ‪Phil Collins‬ on film saying “I’m talking NONCE SENSE!” was simply a nice bonus, rather than the programme's main intention.

There was never another episode of Brass Eye after the special. Perhaps after the absurdism of seeing a paedophile disguised as a school sneaking round after children, there was nowhere else to go. But from that absurdism, reality wasn't far behind and perhaps ready to overtake. The newspaper which led the charge to protect 'Our Kiddies' by publishing photos of sex offenders was later embroiled in phone-hacking which targeted, among others, the victims of paedophiles and their families. Chris Morris wrote nothing as outrageous as this.

Co-writer Charlie Brooker, who later went on to make a regular gig out of exasperated rants about how fucked up the actual news was, led a campaign to the Press Complaints Commission in 2009 about the Daily Mail’s implication that the Boyzone‬ singer ‪Stephen Gately‬ had died from homosexuality, a view that wouldn’t have looked out of place in the aforementioned Sex episode. Brooker also wrote an episode of Black Mirror set in a grim dystopian Britain where everyone lost respect for the Prime Minister when he fucked a pig. This, of course, was before the speculation about David Cameron's student parties. Two decades after Brass Eye, the phrase 'you couldn’t make it up' got its trunk stuck firmly in its anus.

And as the march of this century goes on, the news seems ever more of a clusterfuck. It’s hard to imagine how even a mind like Morris could stretch the limits of plausibility in the current storm of abject political fuckery. One can only hope that before Kim Jong Un’s sweaty finger hits the button, Morris peels off the Donald Trump face and raises one quizzical eyebrow at the press gathered at the end of the world.

Oxide Ghosts: The Brass Eye Tapes (a retrospective of unseen footage with director Michael Cumming), The Stand, Newcastle, 18 Feb, 6.40pm, £12/£10