Unreality TV

Why does every news bulletin look like Brass Eye?

Ray Crowley

Topics Politics

I am worried that I have fallen into a parallel universe, in which every news bulletin and press story has been written by prankster Chris Morris.

On Tuesday morning, I watched a report on Channel 5 News about a genetically engineered nude cockerel. The report began: ‘Chickens have feathers, it’s just one of those things.’ Later in the day, I saw an advert in a broadsheet newspaper appealing for money to help abused donkeys abroad. One of the poor creatures had fallen under its heavy load on to a stake. In the evening, coming home, I saw a poster in the tube station: ‘There is no real evidence for this, but it is scientific fact (Dr Fox).’

I wasn’t sure which of the three was the advert for the new video release of the Channel 4 series Brass Eye.

The chicken item was genuine. Scientists (boo hiss) have genetically bred chickens with no feathers so they will be more suited to life in hotter climates (and cheaper to prepare for the pot). This has caused uproar among animal lovers (although I suppose the fact that the naked chicken looks ugly and ridiculous doesn’t help people form an opinion on the issue).

Sadly, the knee-jerk-chicken reaction to this story overshadowed an article in The Times (London) about the 2002 Medical Futures Innovations Awards (1). Winners included a technique for mass-producing tissue for organ replacement, and a protein that can prevent lung disease in premature babies. More worthy of getting your feathers in a flap about.

The donkey appeal was real, too. This was worryingly worded in exactly the same way as appeals to sponsor orphans in Africa. £10 buys food and shelter for one donkey; £300 pounds for 30 donkeys; £1000 buys a mobile donkey vet bus thing…you get the picture.

The poster was the real advert for Brass Eye, but the quote wasn’t spoken in jest. This was Radio 1 DJ Dr Fox, who believed he was part of a documentary, asserting that paedophiles share a majority of their genetic material with crabs. The makers of Brass Eye could probably have told him scientists were genetically engineering donkeys with weakened leg so that they would fall on to stakes to save cruel foreigners the hassle of killing them – and he would have bleated that out, too.

After all, the show’s other famous moments included: actor/playwright Stephen Berkoff smashing dolls with a mallet to display the dangers of ‘heavy electricity’ that falls like a ton of ‘invisible lead soup’; David Amess, MP for Basildon, raising a parliamentary question about ‘cake’, a completely fictitious drug; and Tomorrow’s World presenter Philippa Forrester explaining how paedophiles use special gloves to feel children through their computer screens.

Back in the real news, photos of Rachel Whitear, who died of a heroin overdose, are being used to shock school children into not taking the drug. But in Brass Eye, a fictitious school had a ’school addict’ who would meet the students while going through withdrawal symptoms. The anti-drugs campaigner explained: ‘I feel it’s much better to scare the shit out of a kid now, than to watch it become a heroin addict – then it becomes bummed up with its own shit, and can never shit again, from taking bad shit. I’m being frank to shock you.’

Rachel Whitear’s parents, self-confessed non-experts on drugs, simply call it the ‘fright factor’.

Brass Eye satirised the tendency of current affairs programmes to run unsubstantiated scare stories – and the eagerness of minor celebrities, and (self-appointed) representatives of the (apparently) concerned public, to jump on the bandwagon.

Reality has since caught up, and now appears to have overtaken the exaggeration. Later this week, we can enjoy watching My Nose and Me – the story of UK soap star Daniella Westbrook, who famously lost her septum to cocaine addiction.

At times like these, I can forgive my Mother for believing that Ali G is black.

Buy the Brass Eye series on video or DVD from Amazon (UK)

(1) The Times, 21 May 2002

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Topics Politics


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