When he was hosting a show on BBC Radio Bristol during the late 1980s, Chris Morris had a simple job: generate as much controversy and gain as much attention as possible, which is precisely what he did, and did to perfection.
Hijacking a staid medium and twisting it in strange directions, Morris issued misinformation and ridiculous commentaries while announcing the existence of nonexistent events with such a straight affect that listeners were left wondering what was real—and what in God’s name was going to happen next.
“They hired me to get them in trouble,” Morris says of the station’s management. “But, two years later, when they were firing me, they weren’t too keen to remember.”
Around the same time that Morris moved to Greater London Radio, a young BBC Radio Four producer named Armando Iannucci went on a company retreat where, as an exercise, everyone was asked to come up with new show ideas. Iannucci wanted to create a show that spoofed radio news programs—not to mock events in the news as much as to make fun of the way the news was presented and, like Morris’s show, test the limits of just how much nonsense could be got away with if delivering it in overwhelmingly self-important style.
Iannucci wrote to Morris, and the two agreed to meet outside the BBC. But Morris was unable to find a parking spot, so they drove around the lot for two and a half hours, talking. “We were roughly the same age. Had roughly the same background,” Iannucci recalls. “Both of us had been to Jesuit-run schools and had some of the same teachers—kind of bizarre.” Morris says they “were on the same wavelength” and had a shared desire to play with “the radio fabric.”
“We didn’t want to sound like a sketch show,” Iannucci says. Instead, the plan was to “take very stupid ideas and dress them up in a serious way,” such as accompanying the recently freed Nelson Mandela on his first shopping trip.
The result was On the Hour, Morris and Iannucci’s groundbreaking and influential radio satire that first aired 30 years ago with cries of “Arise, Sir News!” and “Dr. Fact is knocking at the door! Someone—please—let the man in!”
The plan was to “take very stupid ideas and dress them up in a serious way,” such as accompanying the recently freed Nelson Mandela on his first shopping trip.
With its constant and confounding reminders of the time (“It’s o’clock at five o’clock”) and its incomprehensible economic updates (“Sterling today: 7, 2, 50, and 5”), On the Hour quickly came to occupy an important place in England’s history of absurdist humor. There had been The Goon Show, Beyond the Fringe, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, and The Young Ones, followed by something of a lull before On the Hour’s inspired idiocy started broadcasting. “It wasn’t entirely parody; it was its own utterly surreal universe,” says Peter Baynham, who wrote for On the Hour successors The Day Today and Brass Eye. “It was brain-changing comedy.”
It was, according to one of its writers, the novelist David Quantick, “the show that changed everything in the U.K.”
Utilizing the conventions of radio news and heightening them just enough to remain plausible, On the Hour could take headlines such as “Dismantled Pope Found Sliding Along Road” and make them seamlessly lead into a fluffy lifestyle piece about a prisoner’s cell or a story about Margaret Thatcher becoming the new Dr. Who.
Described by Quantick as “the future in disguise,” On the Hour anticipated everything from The Daily Show to The Colbert Report while abiding by a straightforward premise: Treat every syllable of every story as if it were the apocalypse.
“If it was on in the background, you’d think it was a news program,” says the Oscar-nominated screenwriter and playwright Patrick Marber, whose hapless reporter Peter O’Hanraha-hanrahan was under constant attack from Morris’s egomaniacal host. “You wouldn’t know it was funny if you didn’t know it was funny.”
Abandoning punch lines for the absurdity of Monty Python and the deadpan schtick of This Is Spinal Tap, On the Hour did such a good job of simulating actual news that BBC Four received complaints about their declining standards, the way Morris treated guests, and a story in which contributor Steve Coogan, who created Alan Partridge for On the Hour, insisted that shooting tranquilizer darts at senior citizens was safe because his gun was so accurate.
Then there was the hyper-confident Morris—“the dynamic was ‘I’m me and you’re listening’”—whose masterful ability to convey the authority of a BBC newsman enabled him to get normal citizens to answer unanswerable questions, such as whether England should have more red things.
“I’d interview real people and put ludicrous propositions to them,” Morris says. “I’d ask about things that didn’t exist and was amazed at how they’d try to give absolute clarity to things that wouldn’t demand that kind of answer, like ‘What’s the maximum velocity of soap?’ I got someone to give me a speed limit for soap.”
On the Hour did such a good job of simulating actual news that BBC Four received complaints about their declining standards.
Morris would sometimes put his fellow cast members on the spot, leaving them to improvise awkward responses to his intense and nonsensical grilling. In addition to Marber’s reporter, one frequent target was Coogan’s Partridge character, a narcissistic sports announcer whose ambition—and obsession with groin injuries—far exceeded his actual knowledge of sports.
At one point, coming off a story about the health benefits of cream, Morris spontaneously hit Coogan with a lengthy interrogation regarding his feelings about cream. “It was a terrible thing to throw at somebody,” Morris says. “But [Coogan] was so good at being a bit knocked and he wasn’t going to stop—he would just keep going. There was a lot of fun in that.”
Though it ran for only two 12-episode seasons, in 1991 and 1992, On the Hour was a must-listen for anyone in England with a sideways sense of humor, including a teenage John Oliver, who told the A.V. Club Web site that he would tape episodes and listen to them “like some kids would listen to Jimi Hendrix, to learn every note he’d play. I knew almost every word of them by heart.”
On the Hour begat The Day Today and Brass Eye, a Hard Copy–like magazine show best remembered for its infamous episode, “Paedoggedon,” which lampooned the British media’s obsession with pedophilia. With a re-enactment featuring a 25-year-old prostitute in place of a child, and a survey finding that 92 percent of all British men had once identified as pedophiles, “Paedoggedon” notably prompted a deluge of viewer hate mail and denunciations by a number of prominent politicians.
The writers and performers of On the Hour and its television offshoots would go on to have a hand in the creation of some of the best British and American film and television of the last 30 years.
Iannucci went on to create Veep and to direct and co-write In the Loop and The Death of Stalin; Morris made the film Four Lions with future Succession creator Jesse Armstrong; Coogan continues to play Alan Partridge; Baynham co-wrote Borat and Borat Subsequent Moviefilm; Marber wrote Closer and Notes on a Scandal; Charlie Brooker, who wrote for Brass Eye, created Black Mirror.
One change that no one could have anticipated, however, was the arrival in 1996 of Fox News, which in its bombastic presentation seems a lot more like On the Hour than is comfortable. To this day, former On the Hour writers will send each other clips from the network’s shows and say, “Didn’t we do this 30 years ago?” says Patrick Marber.
The irony isn’t lost on Iannucci, who now says, “We should have patented it, got the trademark, and then shut it down.”
Josh Karp is the author of A Futile and Stupid Gesture: How Doug Kenney and National Lampoon Changed Comedy Forever