The Prescience of Brass Eye, 15 Years Later

Chris Morris’s brutal satire aired its last and most controversial episode in 2001, but its skewering of the news media feels more relevant than ever.

Channel 4

A sex offender is thrown in the stocks, presented with a small child, and asked if he wants to molest him. A mob of protestors is thrown a “dummy full of guts” that is stomped to pieces within seconds. A radio host insists that pedophiles have “more genes in common with crabs” than the rest of humanity, insisting, “There’s no real evidence for [that], but it is scientific fact.”

It’s hard to pinpoint the most cringe-inducing moment on “Paedogeddon,” a special episode of the British TV satire Brass Eye. But 15 years after the episode aired, it remains a totemic, terrifying satirical vision. Few comedies since have dared to cross the boundaries of taste with such impunity.

“Paedogeddon” aired in the U.K. in the summer of 2001, a year after the murder of a young girl had sparked national hysteria over the country’s sex-offender registry. Britain’s most-read newspaper led a campaign to publish the names and locations of all 110,000 convicted sex offenders, prompting a riot in which an angry mob ransacked the home of an ex-con. Brass Eye, a parody of a 60 Minutes-like newsmagazine show, had been dormant after airing one season in the UK in 1997. But it returned four years later for this surprise broadcast, one that saw its furious (fictional) anchors barking from a dark studio about the plague of seemingly super-powered child molesters stalking the nation, holding a funhouse mirror up to the climate of paranoia and fear that had built up around the country. It was a bold, wildly insensitive piece of comedy, but one that captured the growing madness of the 24-hour news media and foreshadowed some uglier aspects of its future.

It helps that Brass Eye ’s creator, Chris Morris, is one of the greatest satirists in TV history. He’s known for creating shows like The Day Today and Nathan Barley, which contributed to launching the careers of Steve Coogan, Armando Iannucci (the creator of the political satires The Thick of It and Veep), and Charlie Brooker (the creator of Black Mirror). Morris has long been unafraid of tackling touchy subjects—his only feature film, Four Lions, is a bleakly madcap comedy about homegrown jihadist terrorists that ends in a hilarious cacophony of death and slapstick action. But for many, “Paedogeddon” is the perfect summation of his work: dealing with an awful topic, and yet somehow wringing laughs from it. For others, it’s the reason the media dubbed him “The Most Hated Man in Britain.”

There’s an undoubtedly cruel streak to “Paedogeddon” that feels even more pronounced in retrospect. One of Morris’s favorite tricks on The Day Today and Brass Eye was to trick British celebrities into saying absurd things into a camera with as much gravitas as possible. That’s why “Paedogeddon” sees the popular DJ Dr. Fox comparing sex offenders to crabs, and the soccer star Gary Lineker claiming that pedophiles will be compelled to attack if they’re shown pictures of children. “That’s the sort of warped mindset we’re dealing with,” he intones, clearly reading from a cue card.

The segment feels mean, but it’s also worryingly predictive of a world where celebrities serve as influential ambassadors of the news, sometimes broadcasting inane conspiracy theories on their social-media accounts to millions of followers. There’s so much of “Paedogeddon” that feels strangely close to reality. One segment, mocking the world of American beauty pageants, sees a mother bragging about her four-year-old’s cosmetic surgery; it feels just a step removed from the show Toddlers & Tiaras, which would premiere seven years later and eventually produce multiple spinoffs. It also featured a future comedy icon: In perhaps the episode’s most strongly criticized segment, Simon Pegg plays a child molester imprisoned in the studio who says he wouldn’t have sex with Morris’s son because, “I don’t fancy him.”

The release of “Paedogeddon” suffered delays before the episode finally aired on Britain’s Channel 4 multiple times in July and August of 2001. At the time, it sparked the most public complaints in the history of British TV, with thousands calling in to register their disgust and several politicians decrying the broadcast (with most later admitting they hadn’t actually watched it). The outrage quickly took on a life of its own, evidence of the exact kind of media-mob mentality Morris was poking at. One columnist noted that the Daily Mail had decried Brass Eye for daring to mock such a sensitive topic, but in the same issue published paparazzi pictures of two pre-teen members of the royal family on the beach, dubbing them “Bikini Princesses.”

“Paedogeddon,” like so much satire, can only stand in context. Its main target might have been the news media, but as a result of its intentionally manic presentation, it feels broadly dismissive of almost every kind of victimhood. The episode presents itself as a serious warning about the dangers of sex offenders living among us. Then it quickly turns into a hyperactive call for vigilante justice, in which every scared parent is a maniacal fool and every child molester is a monstrous goblin, too absurdly caricatured to exist in real life.

It’s beyond ridiculous—and yet, that’s exactly the direction in which political and journalistic discourse has trended in the intervening 15 years. Morris was mocking the weekly news show with Brass Eye, but he was also envisioning its apocalyptic future. At the end of “Paedogeddon,” a mob sets a man named “Peter Phile” on fire in his car, but the anchors dismiss his death as necessary collateral damage. “There’s an astonishing sense of community here … a sense of a job well done, a shared sigh of relief, very much like the bizarre euphoria at the end of an hour’s vomiting,” a reporter tells the camera, as the streets burn behind him.

That’s the world Morris was warning us about: One where every hero can do no wrong, and every villain is a lunatic worthy of public shaming. The mob justice “Paedogeddon” mocked now might now play out online, rather than in front of a TV camera, but its power remains just as frightening. Nuance, in an era of instant news, will be in scarcer and scarcer supply, and for all of Brass Eye’s shocking humor, that idea is the show’s most searing takeaway.