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The greatest satire is vicious and no show was as cruel – and consequently, as funny – as Brass Eye.
Building on his BBC news parody The Day Today, creator and star Chris Morris refined that show’s elements into a format so controversial that, ultimately, members of parliament called for it to be banned.
Not since Fawlty Towers (1975) had a comedy cut such a swathe with so few episodes.
The initial run, in 1997, consisted of just six episodes: Animals, Drugs, Science, Sex, Crime and Decline, each exploring topics beloved of the British tabloid press with its insatiable hunger for moral outrage.
Sketches featuring fake newscasters and documentary makers expanded upon – or, more commonly, obscured – each subject, but the true highlights were what got the show’s makers into the most trouble.
Posing as genuine journalists, they persuaded celebrities and politicians to hold forth about each show’s theme, often inducing them to read out prepared statements whose absurdity would have been obvious if the clueless marks had spent even a moment thinking about them.
This was precisely the show’s point: in our news culture, we want to be outraged more than we want to be informed.
With 2001’s one-off “Paedophile Special” – setting out to lampoon the way the media sensationalised anything to do with child abuse – Brasseye didn’t so much push the boundaries of taste as demolish them. As part of the episode, a number of celebrities took part, endorsing two fabricated anti-paedophilia campaigns.
In one scene, former Genesis star Phil Collins was featured wearing a t-shirt and baseball cap with the words “Nonce Sense” across the front while he warned youngsters what kind of people to be suspicious of.
He later sought legal advice claiming he was tricked into appearing.
Also duped was comedian Richard Blackwood, who warned viewers of the dangers posed by the Internet and in one scene, told watching children that paedophiles could make toxic vapours rise from their computer keyboards that would make them more susceptible.
Radio Dj Neil “Dr” Fox was seen hammering a nail into a crab saying that paedophiles had more in common with crustaceans than humans . . .
Channel 4 insiders replied by pointing out that none of the participants had taken the time to check the credentials of the “charities” that had approached them.
While there were more than 1,500 callers complaining about the show, there were also more than 750 supporting it. There was also an ITC investigation, which concluded in favour of Morris and Channel 4.