REVIEW / Undermining the fabric of our society

WELL, I don't think Michael Portillo's going to enjoy it. The Day Today (BBC 2) opens with some wonderfully glossy computer graphics and one of those pompous current affairs soundtracks - all sforzando brass chords and urgent percussion. It's the real thing, at least until the final seconds, when it suddenly dawns on you that the computer effects have got a little frantic, that the music's final bars are perhaps a little overwrought in their search for a punching climax. Not much respect here for those national institutions, The Nine O'Clock News and Newsnight.

Not much respect either for Elvis Presley, government ministers, the Church of England, Prince Charles, good taste and unsuspecting members of the public, but above all for television itself, which is the real object of The Day Today's scorn. It's very cynical, very clever and very funny. Perhaps this is what Mr Portillo means by those 'whose stock-in- trade is to belittle and undermine the fabric of our society', because if society does still have a fabric then television is as good a contender as any.

It wouldn't work nearly as well if the pastiche wasn't so lovingly and expensively detailed (it makes KYTV look like something that was run up at home with a cardboard box and some old washing-up bottles). The report from the American stringer on a death-row Elvis fan who had requested to be dispatched by an electric lavatory seat was funny because of the precision of its mimicry: the grainy image, wobbling newscam and shameless puns ('This is very definitely one Burger King with extra fries to go . . .Barbara Wintergreen . . . CBN News . . .at the Elvocution, Tennessee State Penitentiary') all perfectly caught American novelty news reports.

There's more here than parody. They have fun ripping actuality out of context - so that newsreel of Lord Owen stumbling through a doorstep interview about some Balkan atrocity ('I don't think I've ever seen anything quite such . . . so totally wanton . . . ghastly . . . mess . . . terrible') is made to follow the urgent headline 'David Owen emerges shattered from Oliver Reed'. In 'Speak Your Brains' members of the public are led through increasingly ludicrous vox pops. 'In terms of this elastic band would you like to see the law tightened up to this tightness, number one, tightness number two, or tightness number three?' a poker-faced Chris Morris asks some hapless pedestrian. 'Tightness number three,' replies his unwitting victim, 'We've really got to hammer these guys.' 'So that tightness being an average Post Office band extended over about eight inches?' the reporter wraps up. 'Yes, yes I think so.'

But, just as in On the Hour, this programme's radio predecessor, the heart of the thing is its eye for the dead cliches of presentation. Steve Coogan brought the sportscaster Alan Partridge to the screen for a Highlights of the Year sequence that was a miracle of close observation, from the fake chuckle in the voice to the ill-informed commentary (as a team car overtakes a Tour de France rider Alan's indignation overcomes him: 'I don't know what this man is playing at] Surely the judges must come down like a ton of bricks on that. Carrying bikes on top of a car is not a sportsmanlike way to run this race').

There was a deadly version of a 999 style reconstruction, too, which should have left both Michael Buerk and Nick Ross shifting uneasily in their chairs. 'All bodily fluids shown are the ones which actually emerged at the time,' said the presenter with soft-spoken gravity, introducing the tale of a disastrous helicopter accident averted only by the fact that a sheepdog was alongside the unconscious pilot and a shepherd managed to whistle them down. 'If this happened to you would you know what to do?' said the reporter after the dramatic reconstruction, and his voice had exactly that tone of gentle avuncular admonition so familiar from the originals. I laughed even more when I watched it all for the second time.