The Day Today revolutionised TV comedy and changed the way we watched the news forever. David Schneider reveals what it was like to be part of the phenomenon that brought us 'Uzi Lover', 'Kiddy Stare' and Alan Partridge.
I vividly remember the night The Day Today revolutionised TV comedy. It was January 1994, the second term of my first year at university, and me and five other students were cohabiting in a moderately grotty B&B (thanks Bournemouth). My bedroom was barely big enough for the (single) bed, yet we all squeezed in to watch the first episode of this new spoof news show the BBC had been trailing. There hadn’t been a lot of publicity for it, we hadn’t heard its radio predecessor On The Hour, and didn’t know who Chris Morris was (although I later discovered it was the same guy who’d done the brilliant Pixies parody for a Select magazine floppy disc a couple of years earlier, a taste of what was to come with his Day Today Rok TV skit).
But still, it felt like an event – there was a sense that we were about to watch something entirely new. And it didn’t disappoint. Not only was The Day Today fantastically funny, it was exciting. It had a dangerous edge, with a new gang of writers and performers who seemed to have one up on everyone else in comedy (and, indeed, news). It also introduced us to an ever-expanding universe, taking in Brass Eye, Alan Partridge, Jam, The Thick Of It, Time Trumpet, Four Lions and everything in between.
David Schneider played multiple characters on The Day Today, including resident humorist and physical cartoonist Brandt, weatherman Sylvester Stewart (“There should be some cloud around in the shape of a whore”), and Alex in fake soap opera The Bureau. He later played Tony Hayers, the BBC commissioning editor who didn’t give Alan Partridge a second series, and more recently wrote and starred in kids TV show Uncle Max. I called him up to talk about his experience on The Day Today. Here is that talk. Happy now?
I was blown away by The Day Today immediately. It had a huge impact on everyone straight away.
Well I don’t know, we didn’t perceive that it was a major hit. I think with your generation it was a major hit, but your generation weren’t writing the reviews and arts columns, weren’t commissioning things. Now, your generation is doing that, so I think retrospectively it’s a bigger hit than perhaps it was at the time.
How successful was it in terms of viewing figures etc?
I think it did well, and at that time we could do no wrong, we were moving into Partridge-land as well. But there wasn’t talk of getting it on BBC1 or anything like that, it wasn’t that sort of hit.
Ok. So back at the beginning, you already knew Armando Iannucci from university.
Yeah, we were at Oxford together, we performed a sort of loose double-act where we did our own bits and came together for a couple of sketches. We were post-graduates so we were there quite a few years, and in that time Rebecca Front, Patrick Marber, Lee and Herring, Al Murray, they were all there.
Did you go straight from that into On The Hour?
It took about a year from Armando leaving Oxford to the pilot for On The Hour, which he did as a sort of radio project. I think it was a 10/15 minute thing as part of a larger project, it wasn’t a proper pilot, that came next. But I remember playing a brain-dead boxer in it. And it wasn’t quite the style yet, that incredibly realistic style that we found, but it was clearly hacking up the news. He hadn’t got hold of Chris Morris yet, so it was the real pre-pilot stage. By the actual pilot the team was assembled.
So what were you doing at that time?
I was an actor at the National Theatre, my first job, I did 18 months there. And I had done a mainstream BBC1 sketch show called Up To Something, which had big viewing figures, 8.30pm on BBC1. It launched Shane Richie, that was how mainstream it was, but I did some stuff on it that I’m still quite proud of.
So what were your first thoughts when On The Hour started coming together?
Well it was very exciting, but also it was funny to do – that’s what’s exciting, when you’re doing stuff that makes you laugh. Mucking around with the team, there was so much improv that was funny and would never end up in the show. That’s what’s so great about the way Armando works, there’s so much funny stuff that when you condense it down it’s only really, really funny stuff that makes it into the show. But all that period, right through to The Day Today, it was just hilarious, I lost control of my bladder on at least two occasions, and nearly did on countless occasions because it was just so funny, it was great.
You literally peed your pants.
There probably were a couple of drips that escaped at certain points, yeah.
What was the writing process like on The Day Today? I get the impression that Chris Morris wrote in isolation.
Yeah, Chris would do his stuff, we weren’t part of that. But the team stuff we would do through improvisation. We’d be in a room, Armando would lead it and guide it. He’d say for instance, “Let’s do a swimming pool thing – Doon, you be the receptionist,” etc, and we’d all do various characters and see which ones had comedy mileage.
If we tried to do The Day Today now, so much of the stuff we’d have trouble getting on, like Bomb Dogs, however silly it is. Just because of the climate now.
Did you see it as proper satire, or more of a comedy show dipping into that?
Well we were the generation that had been saturated by telly, so that was the window we used… we weren’t making points about specific people, it was about pomposity. And the leading lights, Armando and Chris, are very moral, intensely against pomposity and hypocrisy, and those would be our targets, rather than specific Tory policy.
Were there certain rules that you had in terms of what you should or shouldn’t do?
I don’t think so, we knew the style of performance, we didn’t want to be what we called ‘comedy comedy’, like ‘Look at us, here we are, doing comedy’, we didn’t want to wink at the camera, we wanted it to be real. I think once you’ve committed to that then it’s great, because you can then put very stupid things into a very real framework and it’s funny.
Where did your character Brant come from?
I think it was a group effort. I honestly can’t remember if I had said “God, those cartoons are just ridiculous.” It could have been my idea, because unfunny cartoonists have always really pissed me off.
Pig in the office
My favourite of your characters was Anton Ponn, the guy in the office documentary who has to work on asserting himself.
Yeah. I think that’s one of the things I’m most proud of in my career, because I’m quite well known for doing big broad characters and physical work, and that one is just nicely performed. It was just fun to do. The Day Today was all quite competitive, because we were all very good and wanted to get on, but I cannot get across how funny it was to make. That pig running around the office, you were trying to be a character but all the time you were battling, and because people were trying to improvise – such great improvisers, Steve Coogan, Patrick [Marber], Doon [MacKichan] – there were funny lines flying all over the place. I still remember the improvisation for Steve’s swimming pool attendant, which was a piece of genius and everyone loves it. But the actual improvisation was about half an hour long, and it was a thing that Samuel Beckett would have said, “I wish I could have written it.” It was, to me, the most sublime piece of comedy I have ever witnessed. And there were only a handful of us witnessing it. What you’ve got in the show – “In 1984, no one died,” it’s edited down. He actually did every single year, about 23 years, without stopping, without blinking, so that it became incredibly unfunny, and then absolutely brilliant. And to have been part of that, I feel sorry that it’s not been out there in the public domain, but I feel very privileged to have been in that room, pissing myself laughing at something that only seven people saw.
Apart from the first series of I’m Alan Partridge, I think Coogan’s best work was on The Day Today.
Yeah. I’d agree with that I think. He’s done some great stuff since, but there’s a relationship between Armando and Steve, and a third writer, first it was Patrick, and then Peter Baynham, and that trio works really well, and really well for Steve I think. And they’re doing more Partridge online at the moment.
Was there anything the BBC wouldn’t let you do?
I remember there was an intense debate about Kiddy Stare, on Attitudes Night ["Naked two year olds romping for the pleasure of adults"]. On what could and couldn’t be shown. But actually I think that was within the cast – some thought, “Show the naked children!” And others thought, “Come on, we can’t.” I can’t remember if the BBC objected to things, things were much more relaxed in those days. It was pre-Russell Brand. If we tried to do The Day Today now, so much of the stuff we’d have trouble getting on, like Bomb Dogs, however silly it is. Just because of the climate now.
How did you feel when you watched the show for the first time? With the graphics and all that brilliant post-production.
Yeah, just really excited. And also we hadn’t seen a lot of Chris’ stuff. I remember seeing ‘Uzi-Lover’, that whole MTV package he did, it was so ahead of its time, someone playing all these parts, and doing a rap which wasn’t like a sort of Beastie Boys Oxford Revue rap that we’d all done up in Edinburgh.
Morris Minor and the Majors.
Exactly. It was really contemporary and hard-hitting. I remember being excited about that. And the theme tune, and the unremitting drum-beats that wouldn’t end. And that’s a tribute to Chris and Armando – Armando’s greatest talent is an ability to get his brain around structure. Over that half-hour show, it needed a massive brain to control that, and that’s what he’s so good at.
What effect do you think it had on the news?
NOTHING. Nothing! It bounced off them. I do Newsnight Review every now and then, I go into the studio and I think, “Have they not seen The Day Today?!” Nothing, it had no effect at all, which is brilliant! However, I think it had a big effect in comedy. I think without the house style that Armando developed comedy would be very very different, you wouldn’t have The Office, all this very realistic stuff… I just watched an episode of Him & Her, and the performances are so real, and I think that’s thanks to Armando’s house style.
How do you size it all up today when you look back on it all?
I feel very proud, and like I said, privileged that I was part of it, and just really proud that it has had an effect on people of your age, and that people really respect it, and it has a place in the pantheon of great comedy. Which is nice, because you forget – it’s just a programme that you made, and then people like you remind us that it’s really treasured, and that’s amazing.
It was funny seeing you not long after in the first Mission: Impossible film [as the Eurotunnel train driver]. How did that happen?
A casting director put me forward, she’d seen me in a mainstream BBC1 sitcom actually, and Brian de Palma liked the look of me. It was ridiculous, when I went to the screening, I can’t remember if it was a cast or crew one or a press night, but when I first saw my face on the screen and got a laugh, I literally stood up and cheered in the audience, I just lost it, which was not a very cool thing to do. But it was just so exciting, I was in a major action movie! I got the only laugh!
Yeah, it’s not a hilarious film.
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