And here now, the news. Sixteen years after it was last broadcast, On The Hour, the Radio 4 progenitor to the critically-acclaimed BBC2 zeitgasm that was The Day Today, is finally released on two CD boxsets comprising the first and second series. Although there were news spoofs that came before, most notably Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update, it was On The Hour that refined the format and made the material razor-sharp at a time when 24 hour rolling news was fast emerging and rapidly taking itself more and more seriously.
Written by a small ensemble that included Chris Morris, Armando Iannucci, Richard Herring and Stewart Lee, a band of players emerged who would follow Morris and Iannucci through their projects for the best part of a decade such as Doon Mackichan; Rebecca Front and David Schneider. Perhaps the most famous export was Steve Coogan, whose Alan Partridge can be found in his first appearance here on Sportsdesk.
Like the very best comedies, On The Hour has scarcely dated thanks to the blanket coverage offered by the myriad of channels clogging up the airwaves. As prophetic as The Day Today seemed, it was this radio show which got in there first, adopting the same arrogant attitude to the provision of news that Fox, CNN et al now demonstrate so brazenly with their smug voiceovers and increasingly outlandish graphics (in their recent US election coverage, Sky – who once proclaimed themselves “News People” – offered up a swimming pool painted with voting statistics, a self-styled ‘Pool of Polls’). Reality was never divorced so little from fiction.
The emphasis throughout is very much on the surreal, the presenters playing it straight in the face of lunacy, a blistering comment not just on the media’s manipulation of current events but of the unjustified pomp and pageantry of news channels and the ever-increasing amount of nonsense that would be required to fill an empty twenty-four hours. And in an age when fact seems to be an afterthought or a bonus, there is Patrick Marber’s Peter O’Hanrahan-hanrahan, surely the most inept journalist to ever cross a studio anchor. On The Hour remains as essential as ever. This is the NEWS.