Switch on the news today. Go on, just have a look. Any channel you can. See the visual onslaught of complicated graphics, bizarrely confrontational presentation styles and sensationalist lust that greets you. Some are maybe less subtle than others at it, but the underlying practices remain consistent across the board. Then go to YouTube, put on clips of 1990s satire Brass Eye, and have a very surreal sense of déjà vu. As Michael Cumming, director of the original show, brings Exeter his making-of-film, Oxide Ghosts: The Brass Eye Tapes, one can’t help but think that his retrospective has come at a very prescient time.
Created by The Day Today writer Chris Morris and co-starring many of its alumni, Brass Eye honed its satirical gaze onto a series of sensitive cultural topics and the media discourse surrounding them. Each week was a Panorama-esque investigation into a certain subject, episode themes being as varied as animals, sex and crime. Born in a time when the media had only begun fully realising the power of creating hysteria, Brass Eye mocked the culture of fear they were perpetrating. Absurd features ranged from celebrities unwittingly campaigning against a fictional drug called cake, a debate about what constitutes ‘good AIDS’ and ‘bad AIDS’, and ‘git surfing’, where teenagers, in the absence of cars, hi-jack people. This was only heightened by Morris’ surreal wordplay that mischievously exposed the meaninglessness of many media sentiments and statistics, making remarks on how ‘crimes we know nothing about are going up’, and spouting nonsense phrases like ‘Dante meets Bosch in a crack lounge’. It was the media’s underbelly exposed through overdressing, an excess of graphics and shock tactics that were so clearly hollow.
‘Born in a time when the media had only begun fully realising the power of creating hysteria, Brass Eye mocked the culture of fear they were perpetrating’
The reason this absurdity worked however, and the reason the show still prevails and brings in new audiences, was its attention to detail. The wall-to-wall insanity of the features was balanced by the fact this really did look like it could go out as a piece of investigative journalism. Loving effort was put into each skit’s visual legitimacy – a blurry Chinese infomercial about taking drugs through dogs really does look like it’s been ripped from an obscure Asian television channel, and security footage of a ‘paedophile disguised as a school’ looks as genuine a sight as it possibly could. A cursory glance at the intercut newspaper extracts and sets will show that attention has been put into the dressing of the most minute detail, a new gag to be found hiding somewhere amidst the constant barrage of sharp dialogue. This level of care and focus on the smaller components precedes modern comedies as varied as Arrested Development to the works of Edgar Wright. Brass Eye was a pioneer in showing how having an eye for detail was pivotal in contemporary comedy – how careful production can have just as much of an impact as the writing.
Above all these reasons though, what really keeps the show’s flame lit in the eyes of contemporary audiences, is how accurate the satire within it is, frighteningly more so in today’s political climate. Though the infamous ‘Paedogeddon’ episode is often the main source of attention and scrutiny when looking back on the show, there is another episode that I believe has only become more important with time. ‘Science’ opens with the rather arresting image of ‘science on the dock’, a test tube literally sitting in a courthouse. The episode then descends into a collection of hilariously nonsensical pieces of pseudo-science, a notable moment being where a group of celebrities are duped into promoting a charity for the prevention of ‘heavy electricity’, flattening cattle in Sri Lanka. This general suspicion and fear of science, as well as complete ignorance and disregard for research, is something that echoes sentiments heard in today’s media. Put alongside Gove’s infamous ‘we’ve had enough of experts’ to the frightening wave of denial surrounding Global Warming, ‘Science’ is an episode of television that wouldn’t feel out of place as part of the Fox Network’s current programming.
‘The show contained all the nuance and thought that its targets lacked’
We’re constantly looking for easy answers, and our media outlets attempt to give them to us, regardless of the facts; global warming? Just doesn’t exist. Crime? Blame it on a homogenous sub-culture. Drugs? Ban them. Brass Eye was the ultimate criticism of these easy answers, a demonstration of discourse degenerating, becoming an aggressive shouting match between parties, not really listening to each other, or really, themselves. Of course, the key irony is that beneath its surface, Brass Eye contained all the nuance and thought that its targets lacked. When director Cumming’s documentary comes to Exeter, it will be a real insight to see exactly how such lovingly organised madness was created. And with a very real, more sinister madness currently permeating our media, a refreshing change.
Oxide Ghosts: The Brass Eye Tapes will be screening at Exeter Picturehouse on October 22nd, followed by a Q&A with director Michael Cumming