You would think an episode of television that set a new record for most complaints to broadcasting authorities in British history – smashing the record previously set by The Last Temptation of Christ – would have been followed by a similarly voluminous body of critical writing. But nearly twenty years after Brass Eye’s 2001 special “Paedogeddon” aired on Channel 4 shortly after a rebroadcast of its first series, it is genuinely astonishing how little shows up in a web search, even on Google Scholar or in academic databases. Virtually all existing commentary on “Paedogeddon” was written within two years of its release, and the vast majority since has been retrospectives (usually pegged to a recent news item or anniversary) as much about the controversy surrounding it as the episode itself. Even though it’s easily one of the finest episodes of television ever made, the closest it’s come to ranking in a list of the best TV episodes, rather than just the most controversial, was when The Guardian bizarrely named it the 37th best TV show of the 21st century separately from the rest of the series. I know history isn’t meritocratic, and there’s no justice in what art gets remembered, let alone what art gets acclaimed. But “Paedogeddon” was a huge cultural event in the United Kingdom, as Sharon Lockyer and Feona Attwood recount in the only academic paper I can find written about it:
“Complaints were made to the Metropolitan Police and there was ministerial intervention from Child Protection Minister Beverly Hughes (who did not see the mock-documentary), David Blunkett, then the Home Secretary, and Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell. The government alluded to the fact that it might strengthen the powers of the [Independent Television Commission] to censor offensive programs. Calls were made for Channel 4 to have its license to broadcast revoked and there were claims that Channel 4 could face prosecution under the Protection of Children Act for taking, making, and showing indecent photographs of children. The National Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children regarded the program deeply offensive and other campaign groups condemned the program. Channel 4 executives and the show’s producers received death threats and bomb scares were reported at the Channel 4 studios. The program also received a wealth of British media reportage from both tabloid and quality newspapers.”
The first – and ultimately only – series of Brass Eye had already been hugely controversial when it aired in 1997. A parody of British current affairs programs (its name comes from the BBC shows Brass Tacks and Public Eye) hosted by creator and head writer Chris Morris, it viciously satirised their sensationalist tone, their propensity for whipping up moral panics to keep viewers too scared to turn off, and the willingness of public figures to lend credibility to awareness campaigns about issues they knew nothing about. The producers duped several celebrities and politicians, including sitting MPs, into recording public service announcements for fake issues, most famously a drug called Cake that was described as causing a young girl to vomit up her own pelvis and a young boy to cry all the water out of his body.
Tricking people into making erroneous or embarrassing statements on TV like this was actually illegal in the UK at the time, and the subsequent amendment to the broadcasting standards that permitted such deceptions in future for entertainment purposes is commonly known as the Brass Eye clause. It not only inspired, but literally opened the legal gates to, a legion of imitators and successors, most famously Sacha Baron Cohen, who spun off his interview segments as Ali G on The 11 O’Clock Show into Da Ali G Show and four spin-off movies. Neither Brass Eye nor its predecessor series The Day Today are the sole ancestors of the alternate reality talk shows, mockumentaries and satirical current affairs programs that have followed: Reeves and Mortimer certainly deserve a bit of credit, and loads of British comics of that era, including several writers on Brass Eye, have cited The Larry Sanders Show as a huge influence. But it’s hard to imagine a world where The Office, let alone The Eric Andre Show, exists without Brass Eye.
The series as a whole has fared a lot better in the critical memory than “Paedogeddon” in particular, and I suspect that’s in part because writing about the series as a whole lets you avoid talking about “Paedogeddon” in too much detail. I can understand being hesitant to touch such a controversial episode, especially when its ostensible topic – child sexual abuse – is and will always be one of the most sensitive issues in the world. Brass Eye definitely had a moral viewpoint, but it was first and foremost a comedy program with a pretty dark sense of humour, one of the indisputable peaks of the boom in surrealism, black comedy and shock humour that stretched from the mid-nineties through to the mid-noughties and launched the careers of people like Tom Green, Frankie Boyle and Sarah Silverman. In “a time that has no patience for shock humour, that dismisses it as crass and offensive”, when there are multiple ongoing moral panics about paedophilia, including one that helped inspire a coup attempt in the United States, I get why people would be loath to discuss how much they love an episode of television whose most iconic joke is about a child getting trapped alone in a space shuttle with real child molester and serial killer Sidney Cooke. It’s not nice to be called a paedophile on Twitter because of your television opinions, like the time I said there was an incestuous subtext to the main romance in The Flash because the characters were adoptive siblings and several fans of that romance found my tweet and said I only thought that because I was a child molester.
Besides, it’s not like it still has vocal detractors anymore either: it has managed, without critical intervention, to assume its rightful place in the pantheon of British comedy among comedians, fans and enthusiasts anyway, so it’s not like there’s any particularly urgent reason to write about it. I understand all that, I do. But it’s still ridiculous that an episode not only this excellent, but so dense and rich with material to analyse, has prompted less cultural commentary in twenty years than the first episode of the next show arbitrarily deemed “important” by enough critics will generate in the twenty minutes after it premieres.
“Paedogeddon” isn’t particularly different in format from previous episodes of Brass Eye. Morris is the show’s stern presenter, occasionally given to Paxmanesque taunting of interviewees, and most of the other characters too, including reporters Ted Maul (originally featured on The Day Today) and Austen Tasseltine. The rest of the characters are played by a small, but excellent cast of comedians, including future institutions of British television comedy like Julia Davis (Human Remains, Nighty Night), Mark Heap (Spaced, Friday Night Dinner) and Kevin Eldon (Fist of Fun, It’s Kevin). It moves quickly through a series of segments in the style of current affairs programs: scaremongering video packages, graphs that mean nothing, investigative features and focus groups. Most of it is complete fiction, sketches essentially, but the participants in the focus group are real, as are all the famous people participating in nonsense awareness campaigns. But there are also two ongoing stories, a nationwide drive to gather children in stadiums to protect them from paedophiles, and the case of a fictional child molester called Jez North, whose imminent release from prison is being protested by a violent mob, even though he’s been “braindead and quadrospazzed on a life glug” for over a decade after getting jumped in prison.
“In 1986, Jez North was convicted for multiple acts,” explains correspondent Swanchita Haze, as she sashays toward the camera. “We believe his story is actually too upsetting to transmit. We only do so tonight with that proviso.” It would be facile to spend this article just recounting and describing bits, not least because “Paedogeddon” has an incredible gag-per-minute rate and even more insane hit rate. But the video package on Jez North, starring Mark Heap as North in recreations, is as good a bit as any to explain everything that makes this episode great. It’s shot like a cheap horror film, with soundbites from acquaintances chiming in as the camera swoops ominously toward a caravan in a field: “I drew pictures of him, and they were disgusting”, “his handwriting was definitely too big”, “I remember once, he got his bum out”. The camera zooms suddenly to the caravan’s back window, where a silhouette puppet of a big monster with its cock out menaces a shorter, distressed figure. There’s slasher strings and it still doesn’t feel like that hyperbolic a parody of contemporary media sensationalism (then or now).
“Like so many of his kind,” the narrator intones, “North was required to leave school, after passing exams, and took a job delivering potatoes. The perfect cover for a serial robe intruder.” That line has so many jokes on its own, both satirical (framing North’s graduation after exams as a sinister step in his path to paedophilia) and straightforwardly silly (the phrase “serial robe intruder”). But then you add the visuals – the very much adult Heap as teenage North in a poncey school uniform, then as a potato deliveryman with long greasy hair hanging from the edges of his bald spot, wanking a very obviously plastic penis to completion in his van mirror – and the creepy score that sounds weirdly sci-fi. Every scene in “Paedogeddon” is like this: I couldn’t even find the space in the last paragraph to mention that the credits on the video package include names like enhancement producer Anastasia Flass, assistant director Malcolm Borbalucifix, and Bing Zort, who did the “freak research”.
This sheer density of gags is, to some extent, the key to the enduring greatness of “Paedogeddon” as television and not just a curio of media history. On the one hand, I’ve watched it several times a year for at least half a decade and I laugh every time just because it’s impossible to remember so many jokes well enough to become desensitised to them. On the other hand, the jokes are so consistently good, and some of them so unspeakable brilliant, that they’ve lingered in the cultural lexicon of both comedy fans and, through them, wider Internet culture. The end of the paedophile in space segment – “A spokesman said ‘This is the one thing we didn’t want to happen’.” – is just one of countless gags from the episode that became classic reaction gifs back when being a reaction gif meant something, because a fan had taken the time to make it, not a corporate marketing department. Sometimes, I wonder if the hesitation to write about “Paedogeddon” isn’t less about shrinking from a sensitive subject than the gargantuan task of analysing something so relentlessly packed with material.
What struck me on my most recent rewatch was how central the format was to the comedy. That’s pretty obvious with stuff like the overproduced graphics and melodramatic music, but it’s so much deeper than that. It’s a recreation of the look and feel and sound of the current affairs programs it’s parodying with a level of granular detail that borders on the obsessive. Lots of British comedians at this time were true students of television in the broadest sense: ravenous viewers, enthusiasts and critics of not just comedy, but everything from children’s programming to soap operas to daytime talk shows. (It seems likely this was in large part because so many comedians spent the early years of their careers living in flats together while only intermittently employed). You see it in the endless, effortless deconstruction of daytime talk shows’ obnoxiously fluffy tone by Stewart Lee and Richard Herring in This Morning with Richard Not Judy or the relentless barrage of reference, homage and parody in Spaced. The Royle Family takes place almost entirely while the characters are watching television: their commentary on the shows and conversations with each other about their lives don’t just overlap and interweave, they are the same thing.
But Brass Eye is top of the class, never more so than in “Paedogeddon”. It’s a hate letter to current affairs programs as passionately as La La Land is a love letter to CinemaScope musicals. It’s a parody so thorough and so complete that it functions more like a broadcast from a surreal alternate reality than a pisstake of ours. The episode is mostly a constant stream of discrete bits that don’t connect or recur, but its structural editing – the order in which scenes or segments appear – still manages to mimic the rhythm of current affairs programs, just faster, like playing a drum beat in double time (or in octuple time, at Brass Eye’s manic rate). The same instincts about how to make television turned back on the genre itself. It’s why the actors play the presenters totally straight, even when delivering the most ridiculous dialogue, no one more so than Chris Morris himself. I’m not an auteurist and I’ve been repeatedly irritated by how much discussion of Brass Eye describes it as if every single part of it originated in the cauldron of pure genius lurking in its creator’s brain. That’s not a jab at Morris, one of my favourite comedians, just frustration that the rest of the creative team, especially series one director Michael Cumming, “Paedogeddon” director Tristram Shapeero and writer slash perpetually undersung legend of British comedy Peter Baynham, don’t get more credit for their work on Brass Eye.
But if anything in “Paedogeddon” can be credited to Morris’s singular genius as a comic, it’s his performance as the host. His commitment to the role is staggering, from his wardrobe to his body language and affect to the exact intonations of his voice. The gag of him putting his children to bed in a filing cabinet to protect them from paedophiles has always been one of my favourites primarily because of the fantastic visual, but on this latest rewatch, it was his follow-up line – “They’re safe tonight, are yours?” – that really got me. I laughed really hard and had to pause and rewind it a few times to get it out of my system before I could go on. And it was all down to Morris’s reading of the line, his faux-seriousness, not in the sense he was imitating the seriousness of a real host, but in the sense he was imitating the fake seriousness of a real host: the stagily uunderstated way he says “are yours?” to give the obviously inflammatory question the air of mere concerned inquiry. It’s the exact same pantomime of sober-mindedness that current affairs programs use to maintain their thin veneer of credibility as a journalistic enterprise while chasing the exact same stories as the tabloids. It’s caricature as detailed as portraiture, an impression so rich it’s hard not to think Morris could do the job better than any of the real journalists he was skewering.
That’s how deep the fidelity to the format goes. It’s more than just a source for jokes. It’s the grand joke that every other joke is embedded in, the foundation on which every other joke rests and the language they’re all expressed in. Even the spoof ad for an American reality show about a vigilante paedophile hunter – “I know how they look. I know how they think. I was one of them for Christ’s sake.” – apes the style of both shows like that and ads for shows like that so perfectly that it feels at times less surreal than hyperreal, as if the dials on our reality were turned up to eleven. That’s what makes it so acutely annoying how much of the furore around the episode relied on taking jokes out of context. It’s obviously irritating when people do that regardless, but with “Paedogeddon”, it’s like taking individual notes out of a song and accusing them of rape apologetics.
The most egregious for me is the Paedophile Island joke that comes at the end of the fake ad break. It was among those most regularly singled out for criticism in the aftermath, especially when people wanted to accuse the show of making light of child sexual abuse. Out of context, why it was singled out seems pretty straightforward: it’s very easy to say “there was a joke about a reality show set on an island with a hundred kids and one paedophile” while tugging on your collar and call it a day. The subject matter is radioactive enough that anyone who hasn’t seen it will fill in something horrible in their mind, and even those who have might wonder if maybe they’ve missed something or let a joke slide that they shouldn’t have. Either way, they come up with the reason it’s bad themselves, so you don’t have to bother.
But in context, the idea it’s making light of child sexual abuse is ludicrous. At the end of the ad for the paedophile hunter show, The Pedo-Files, Morris’s paedophile hunter walks down a foggy alley, firing shotguns in the air like revolvers. The continuity announcer says “The Pedo-Files starts next week on 4, straight after Paedophile Island! A hundred kids and an ex-offender on an island full of cameras: what’s going to happen!?” as if promoting a light entertainment wildlife show about a particularly photogenic and rambunctious colony of badgers. It’s inconceivable to me how anyone could honestly believe that joke is at the expense of abuse victims or that it trivialises their suffering in any way. It’s a straightforward satire of the willingness of mass media to commodify any issue, however ostensibly sacred, and turn it into entertainment, often with a flimsy moral or social pretext. The Guardian’s editorial called it “a deeply unpleasant piece of television that degraded children” and said that “if it did lift the lid on a taboo, it was the taboo that says the sexual abuse of children is not to be taken lightly – a taboo which exists for good reason”. But it wasn’t Brass Eye that took the sexual abuse of children lightly. It was the shows it parodied, the ones that took the rapes and murders of children – real children – and made them into must-watch television, preying on the fears of parents to keep them tuned in and eager for news of the latest threat. They stoked fears of roving paedophiles pulling children into bushes, never to be seen again, and filled as much of their airtime as possible with shite like live coverage of manhunts instead of investigative features that might risk having journalistic content.
The moral critique of “Paedogeddon” after it first aired rarely extended beyond classic, uncut “think of the children” rhetoric. But there were also those who accused Brass Eye of not “doing enough” in some sense, either because it didn’t fit a thorough deconstruction of every individual social, cultural and political factor that leads to child sexual abuse into a half-hour comedy program or because it didn’t make the critic’s pet critique of the topic. Ros Coward wrote that while “it is worrying when paedophiles are misrepresented as evil monsters when they are more often ordinary members of society… there are other far greater problems in our treatment of paedophilia”, which is, I suppose, true. But she never explains why “Paedogeddon” had a responsibility to address those problems. I appreciate this isn’t peculiar to Coward: the idea that art has a moral duty to fight injustice (or, at least, not contribute to it) has never been more widespread than it is today and it’s rarely justified with reasoning more complex than vulgar “you break it, you bought it” consequentialism. Art can have bad effects, bad effects are bad, therefore art must cease to have bad effects. Art can have good effects, good effects are good, therefore art must have as many good effects as possible.
It’s a suffocating and destructive way to think about art in general, but with satire, it’s fatal. It leads to thinking about satire as critique through humour, rather than humour that critiques, weighing the worth of satire primarily – or even purely – by how correct it is, how insightful as argument, rather than how beautiful as art. The mindset of people who judge the moral and aesthetic quality of jokes by whether they “punch up” or “punch down”, who go to comedy shows so they can agree their ass off. It’s not just an awful way to think about art, but satire produced from this point of view hobbles itself from the off because it wastes time trying to “do enough” when it could be directing the full force of its vitriol at its targets, ripping them to pieces and wringing laughs from their shredded remains. If you have the courage of your convictions, you don’t need to pull your punches.
“Paedogeddon” is a masterpiece in large part because its hate is pure: the viciousness of its ridicule is in proportion to the depth of its scorn and disgust, like a Death Star of utter disdain firing directly into the heart of the British media. Nothing drove that home quite as hard on this last rewatch as the scene where one of North’s victims (in shadows, to hide her identity) is asked by the producers to show them how he groped her. As she demonstrates on her bare chest, the camera zooms in slowly and the narrator says that anyone “who agrees to rub their breasts on television is clearly inexcusably disturbed”. Many of the episode’s detractors accused it of being shocking for the sake of being shocking, but that seems insane to me. I don’t have a problem with shock humour for its own sake, but “Paedogeddon” is clearly as incendiary and outrageous at it is because only shock humour can go far enough over the line of good taste to express the scale of its contempt for the media. How they exploit human suffering for profit and play at moral seriousness while using the violence and trauma of real people to satisfy the same voyeuristic impulses as porn and freak shows.
As Phil Dyess-Nugent put it in an AV Club roundtable on “Paedogeddon”, Morris “deserves the honor of being called a satirist because he would never see any point of raising a loaded, morally clear-cut issue like the rape of children just to say, ‘Personally, and forgive me for being brave enough to admit this, but I’m opposed to it.’.”