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On The Hour: Parting The Beef Curtains Of News
Alex Denney , August 12th, 2009 09:06

Recently Al Denney spoke to Armando Iannucci, Stewart Lee, David Quantick and the much missed Swells about Radio 4's comedic high watermark, On The Hour

Parting the beef curtains of news between 1991 and 1992, On The Hour’s landmark two-series run on Radio 4 remains one of British broadcast comedy’s most dizzying accomplishments. As well as launching the careers of Armando Iannucci and Chris Morris — arguably the two most important homegrown comic writers of the past twenty years — the spoof news show brought together a stellar company of scribes whose subsequent work drew plaudits throughout the nineties and beyond. Alan Partridge? Father Ted? Nathan Barley? The Thick Of It? All OTH’s precocious offspring, and that’s not even mentioning the show’s direct televisual descendents, The Day Today and its evil younger sibling Brass Eye.

Eschewing the middlebrow, hectoring approach to topical satire adopted by practitioners of the genre both old and new — Rory Bremner, The Daily Show et al — On The Hour’s appeal lay less in its treatment of political issues du jour than its uncanny feel for the ultra-macho, weirdly abstract rhythms of tabloid news speak, epitomised by Morris’ obnoxious anchor (“I’m Chris Morris, you’re not”). It was a parody of form as well as content; the programme devoted an inordinate amount of time reminding you that you were listening-to-the-news, in tones more suggestive of Gabriel’s trumpet blare than of any humdrum factual update. In between such po-faced idents as “This is On The Hour — arise, Sir News” ran headlines that made little or no sense (“Expanding fruit in creeping neck unpleasantness"), patronising yoof-oriented items, and Morris’s mean spirited vox-pops with members of the public, which laid the basis for his later duping of cause-hungry celebs.

The Quietus decided to speak with Iannucci and three of the show's writers — Stewart Lee, Steven Wells and David Quantick — about its genesis, inspirations and legacy. We uncovered On The Hour's unlikely roots in an uninspired BBC training weekend, Chris Morris’s revolting brain and a shady encounter in a car park outside Egton House; plus the creative dispute concerning Lee and Richard Herring that kept the show available only in heavily edited form until a Warp reissue late last year restored it to its full glory.

Armando Iannucci: “The early genesis of the show was when I started as a producer I went on this week-long training course with these people from different departments of the BBC. As a project we had to make a news programme. And I thought we could make a fake one. I thought we could invent stories and just go from there, so we got this reporter in from Radio Orkney. When I got back to my department I asked if there was anything in this and they said sure, why don’t you make a pilot.

“Chris Morris was doing a Saturday show on GLR and he just happened to be doing a similar thing, with all these fake reports and jingles. So I just wrote him a letter asking him if he wanted to meet up. Radio One used to be in a place called Egton House, and he’d agreed to meet me in the lobby there. But he said he couldn’t park his car so we just went round in circles outside.

“We had the same love of radio and radio comedy, we had the same heroes. It also emerged we’d been to Jesuit school and had shared some of the same teachers. So we came up with the basic elements of what the show could be. We’d parcel it out into little segments using the same production methods as the real news.”

Steven Wells: “My chief memory of On the Hour is that Quantick and I were brought in because we were wacky and zany and leftfield. And then kept on being asked to be less wacky and zany and leftfield. Story of my fucking life really. I remember a couple of lines we wrote about layers of fossilised baby Jesi being discovered by archeologists in Palestine really freaked producer Armando Iannucci the fuck out.

“Armando even gave us some not very good tapes of some not very good shows he's worked to show us how it should be done. We thought they were shit. I don't think we ever really got on his wavelength.

“A while ago I did a phone interview with someone who said he was writing a Chris Morris biography. He told me that Chris Morris used the fossilised baby Jesi line on a radio show. Whadya gonna do? At the time I was writing On The Hour and The Day Today, Victor Lewis Smith kept up a pretty constant barrage of accusations that Chris Morris was ripping him off. I wrote a letter to Time Out telling him to either shit or get off the pot.

“I think me and David Quantick were hired because of some stupid Goonsian stuff we did for the NME. It was called ‘Ride the Puffin, Ride The Lizard’ — the title changed every week. I can't remember much about it except that we mostly wrote it stoned, and Mark E Smith, Craig Charles and Andy Kershaw were regular characters. And when I met Charles and Kershaw on the BBC Radio 4 programme Loose Ends they were, really, really, really fucked off.”

David Quantick: “Armando saw some comic articles by Steven Wells and me in the NME and, perhaps assuming we were 17-year-old glueheads, asked us to write for him. I think he was a bit upset when we turned out to be very old.”

Stewart Lee: “We had written for Weekending on Radio 4. When it was Armando's turn to produce it he liked our stuff, and asked us to come up with things for a pilot of On the Hour.”

SW: “When we first met Steve Coogan at a writer's meeting, he was very switched on, very performerish. He talked about this sales conference he went to — and more or less performed the character that would become Gareth Cheeseman. I think we music writer types thought it a bit odd.

“I think the credit for On The Hour and The Day Today really belongs with Ianucci and Morris. There wasn't all that much room in between those two justifiably huge egos. Everything Chris Morris has ever done has been brilliant, whether I wrote it or not. But I am more than willing to bask in reflected glory.”

SL: [On whether there was much clashing of ego during the writing process] “Not from our point of view. We were very much the junior partners, and although I thought Marber was a bit of a wassock, most of the people working on it were clearly more talented and/or better established than us, so we were honoured to be there.”

DQ: [Also on the pressing, enormous egos issue] “Hard to say — we wrote in isolation so didn’t see much. On The Day Today I did see a spectacular standoff between Patrick Marber and Steve Coogan concerning what Alan Partridge would and wouldn’t do.”

SL: “At the time Arm was making the audio release of the series, first time around, we had been offered a big weekly commission on the TV series of On The Hour, The Day Today, but we and our manager were trying to get a percentage share in the format of the program on the grounds that we'd helped define its tone. I don't know if this was strictly true in retrospect, but it was the case that Marber emerged, from not even being a writer on OTH, with a percentage of Alan Partridge, a character we initially wrote around Steve's funny sports voice.

“Our manager John Thoday wouldn't sign anything allowing our stuff to be on the audio release of OTH until Arm agreed to the TV format thing, so Arm just edited out as much of our stuff as he could and out it out like that, as if to show him that the flavour of the thing would survive without us, which it of course did, perfectly well. I can't remember who asked about the new editions or when, but I am really glad they are out there in one piece.”

AI: “My reflection is that we were about to release the show on cassette or CD and there was a dispute which threatened the whole project and I found myself in the strange position of having to edit the work. It’s never reflected my relationship with Lee and Herring, I think they’re great, and Stewart’s stand-up is fantastic. It just seemed silly really.”

SL: [on Morris’s brand of satire] “Chris is Negativland to Mark Thomas' The Clash. Mark Thomas is able to focus on single issues and make a real difference. Chris looks at the bigger picture and appears sickened by everyone.”

“Me and Chris worked very closely. We’d agree on what the big package would be about but then we’d go off and do our own thing. I’d always look forward to being surprised by where he’d taken it, like when he’d taped himself up to a mic and was trying to do the broadcast in the lift on his way up to the studio, that was done for real.

“I was doing Friday Night Armistice after The Day Today, so I wasn’t involved with Brass Eye except with the paedophile special, which came later. I remember being on holiday when the show aired, I picked up a British paper that was like four days old and saw all the tabloid headlines, ‘FURY GROWS OVER SICK SHOW’ and so on . . .

Was he surprised by the darker tone Brass Eye adopted?

“I was and I wasn’t. I knew Chris was very interested in pushing certain targets while keeping things funny, it’s something only he can do really. But he’ll also care enough to work out his stance on something from an ethical standpoint before he starts writing.”

AI: [On what topics he might focus on if he wrote a new series of the show] “5 Live is an interesting area. It’s very blokey news, like Alan’s dream come true really. If you listened to the Today programme there was always the sense of the news reporter looking down at the sports guy, but now it’s staffed by ex-Radio One DJs.

[On the macho language of the workplace, and returning to the theme with his writing for the Thick Of It] “I’d never really thought of it that way. I suppose I find it funny when people pretend to be something they’re not. In politics you get a lot of MPs trying to sound like normal blokes or hardworking mums, people adopting estuary English accents when they’re Oxford-educated and so on, even though they haven’t worked in the outside world since the age of 14. It’s that whole notion of broadsheets spending a lot of time analysing reality shows. I suppose it’s that thing of it being somehow bad form to be intellectual or have ever having read anything.”