If the chaos stirred up by The Day Today wasn’t bad enough, it was soon to be topped by Brass Eye. It was the 29th January 1997 when the first episode aired, and like its predecessor people were unsure if the show was real or not – including the celebrity guests! Many of whom sought legal action after they realised!
Taking a huge step further than The Day Today would ever tred, Brass Eye, under the guise of a current affairs show, instead satirised the media portrayal of social ills, in particular sensationalism, unsubstantiated establishmentarian theory masquerading as fact, and creation of moral panics.
Created by Chris Morris, Brass Eye utilised the writing talents of Morris, David Quantick, Peter Baynham, Jane Bussmann,Arthur Mathews, Graham Linehan and Charlie Brooker.
The series starred Morris’s The Day Today colleague Doon Mackichan, along with Gina McKee, Mark Heap, Amelia Bullmore, Simon Pegg, Julia Davis, Claire Skinner, John Guerrasio, Hugh Dennis and Kevin Eldon.
Only six episodes were initially made:
- “Animals” (29 January 1997)
- “Drugs” (5 February 1997)
- “Science” (12 February 1997)
- “Sex” (19 February 1997)
- “Crime” (26 February 1997)
- “Decline” (5 March 1997)
A special one off episode entitled Paedogeddon! aired on 26th July 2001- this proved to be the most controversial episode in the show’s history.
As mentioned above, Brass Eye aroused controversy because celebrities and public figures were fooled into supporting charities and causes that were fictitious and often absurd.
In the opening scene of the second episode, “Drugs”, a voiceover tells viewers that there are so many drugs on the streets of Britain that “not even the dealers know them all”. An undercover reporter (Morris) asks a purportedly real-life drug dealer in London for various fictitious drugs, including “Triple-sod”, “Yellow Bentines” and “Clarky Cat”, leaving the dealer puzzled and increasingly irritated until he tells the reporter to leave. He also explained that possession of drugs without physical contact and the exchange of drugs through a mandrill were perfectly legal in English law.
David Amess, the Conservative Member of Parliament for Basildon, was fooled into filming an elaborate video warning against the dangers of a fictional Eastern European drug called Cake, and went as far as to ask a question about it in Parliament. The drug purportedly affected an area of the brain called “Shatner’s Bassoon” (altering your perception of time), can give you a bloated neck due to “massive water retention” and was frequently referred to as “a made-up drug”. Other celebrities such as Sir Bernard Ingham, Noel Edmonds, and Rolf Harris were shown holding the bright-yellow cake-sized pill as they talked, with Bernard Manning telling viewers that “One kiddy on Cake cried all the water out of his body. Just imagine how his mother felt. It’s a f**king disgrace”.
Other episodes dealt with the topics of science, animals, and sex. In one scene of the “Sex” episode, Morris posed as a talk-show host who took a starkly discriminatory attitude in favour of those with “Good AIDS” (e.g. from a contaminated blood transfusion) over those with “Bad AIDS” (caught through sexual activity or drug abuse), satirising stereotypical right-wing attitudes to people with AIDS.
More controversy surrounded the show before it even aired with the series being postponed for nearly six months as it made comic reference to murderer Myra Hindley, who was back in the news at the time after her portrait was vandalised in the Royal Academy exhibition Sensation. In a particularly infamous portrayal, Hindley was the topic of a farcical song by a fictitious indie band called “Blouse” (whose appearance and style closely resembled that of Pulp). The lyrics to part of the song read: “Every time I see your picture, Myra/I have to phone my latest girlfriend up and fire her/And find a prostitute who looks like you and hire her/Oh, me oh Myra.” The “leader singer” of Blouse, Purves Grundy (who resembles Jarvis Cocker), is then shown commenting on the song; “Myra is a very complex woman, you know, and this song is about her hair. I don’t think there’s a single reference in the song to her brain, which I think maybe, had a slight problem. I do think [if] someone’s gone and bought this record just because of the fuss that’s been made about it, I think they should throw it away. And then they should go and buy another copy, because they liked the song”.
Michael Grade, then chief executive of Channel 4, repeatedly intervened to demand edits to episodes of Brass Eye, and rescheduled some shows for sensitivity. The final episode (which had been most tampered with) included a single-frame subliminal message reading “Grade is a c*nt”. As part of the 25th anniversary of Channel 4, this sequence was shown again, twice, including a freeze frame for anyone who did not catch it originally. When Grade was interviewed on this he pointed out that subliminal messages are illegal under British law.
As mentioned, a special one-off edition of the show aired four years after the series had ended entitled Paedogeddon! Originally scheduled to broadcast on 5th July 2001, it was later delayed as Channel 4 were unhappy with the timing in connection to the then-recent separate disappearances of two children, Bunmi Shagaya and Danielle Jones. It eventually aired on 28th July 2001.
Around 3,000 complaints were received concerning “Paedogeddon!” and politicians spoke out against Morris. Minister for Child Protection Beverley Hughes described the show as “unspeakably sick” but later admitted she had not seen the episode; likewise, Home Secretary David Blunkett said that he was “dismayed” but had also not seen the episode, because he was on holiday in Majorca at the time and is blind. Tessa Jowell, after watching, asked the Independent Television Commission to change its procedures so it could rule more swiftly on similar programmes.
There was also a tabloid campaign against Morris, who refused to discuss the issue. The Daily Star decried Morris and the show, and the Daily Mail ran a headline describing Brass Eye as “Unspeakably Sick”. The Observer noted that the Star ’s article was positioned adjacent to a separate article about the 15-year-old singer Charlotte Church’s appearance under the headline “She’s a big girl now” and featuring the phrases “how quickly she’s grown up” and “looking chest swell,”and that the Mail ’s was preceded by “close-ups” of the “bikini princesses” Beatrice and Eugenie, who were 13 and 11 at the time.
So what caused all this fuss?
The main problem with the episode was, as the title suggests, that it tackled paedophilia. It did not though mock paedophilia instead it focused on teh moral panic the media caused regarding the issue especially focusing on the name-and-shame campaign conducted by the News of the World tabloid newspaper which resulted in an incident in 2000 in which a paediatrician in Newport had the word “PAEDO” daubed in yellow paint on her home.
To illustrate the media’s knee-jerk reaction to the subject, various celebrities were duped into presenting fatuous and often ridiculous pieces to camera in the name of a campaign against paedophiles.
- Gary Lineker and Phil Collins endorsed a spoof charity called “Nonce Sense“, (pronounced “nonsense”—”nonce” being British slang for people convicted or suspected of molestation or sexual crimes), with Collins saying, “I’m talking Nonce Sense!”
- Tomorrow’s World presenter Philippa Forrester and ITN reporter Nicholas Owen were shown explaining the details of HOECS (pronounced “hoax”) computer games, which online paedophiles were using to abuse children via the internet.
- Capital Radio DJ Neil “Doctor” Fox (himself arrested in 2014 relating to alleged historic sex offences) told viewers that “paedophiles have more genes in common with crabs than they do with you and me”, adding “Now that is scientific fact—there’s no real evidence for it—but it is scientific fact”.
- At one point, bogus CCTV footage was shown of a paedophile attempting to seduce children by stalking the streets while disguised as a school.
- Lineker described paedophile text slang, stating that “BALTIMORA” translates to “literally, I’m running at them now with my trousers down”.
- Labour MP Syd Rapson related that paedophiles were using “an area of internet the size of Ireland”.
- Richard Blackwood stated that internet paedophiles could make computer keyboards emit noxious fumes to subdue children, subsequently sniffing a keyboard and claiming that he could smell the fumes, which made him feel “suggestible”. Blackwood also warned watching parents that exposure to the fumes would make their children “smell like hammers”.
- Other notable figures appearing as themselves were Sebastian Coe, Michael Hames, Andy McNab, Kate Thornton, Barbara Follett MP and Gerald Howarth MP.
- Morris reported that convicted child murderer Sidney Cooke had been sent into space to keep him away from children. Prior to the launch, an eight-year-old boy had been placed on board the spaceship with Cooke by mistake.
- During the programme, the studio was “invaded” by a fictional militant pro-paedophile activism organisation called “Milit-pede”,