Earlier this week, Gregg Wallace: The British Miracle Meat, about a gruesome new food development, caused a stir. But it was the latest satire masquerading as reality, writes Neil Armstrong.
On Monday night in the UK, viewers settled in to watch a new documentary, Gregg Wallace: The British Miracle Meat, with mounting horror. Wallace, a genial broadcaster best known for co-presenting the BBC’s cooking reality show MasterChef, was fronting a half-hour Channel 4 programme about a new development in food technology. “This,” he said, beaming and holding out a steak, “is engineered human meat. That’s right, a protein made from human cells”. It looked like lightly-marbled beef.
Good Harvest, we were told, is a company producing six tonnes of engineered human meat every day. Wallace was given a tour of the production plant where 30kg meat “cakes” were grown in nutrient-rich tanks from thin slices of human flesh provided by paid donors.
The enthusiastic Wallace enlisted chef Michel Roux Jr to sample some steaks with him. The pair discussed the terroir aspect of the meat – does the stuff grown from donors in the North East of England taste different to that from donors in the South East?
At this point, viewers were taking to social media to express their disgust but there was much worse to come.
Gregg Wallace: The British Miracle Meat was a satire on the cost-of-living crisis, the director has said (Credit: Tom Barnes/Channel 4)
Wallace interviewed a 67-year-old woman driven by the cost of living crisis to, reluctantly, donate. “You know there’s something wrong when you’ve got to jump on a bus and go and have some flesh scooped out of your arm for money,” she said.
Then we learned that the company’s new premium product would be meat created using “donations” from children. “It’s all gravy, baby, because our babies taste great with gravy,” chirped the voiceover on a promotional film.
By now, most viewers had realised. This wasn’t real. It was a spoof inspired by Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal, the author’s satirical 1729 essay suggesting that poor people in Ireland should sell their children as food to the rich, which was referenced at the end of the programme, both verbally by Wallace and in the credits.
Nevertheless, a couple of members of Parliament condemned it and some who watched insisted that, even as satire, it had been – forgive the pun – in poor taste.
For all the outlandishness of the concept, however, the programme’s director Tom Kingsley tells BBC Culture that the show had a very sober purpose – to “satirise the way that the misery of the cost of living has become normalised. We wanted to make the audience feel angry about how unfair our country has become, and how awful it is that we just accept this state of affairs.”
“Some thought it was believable. And their reaction proves our point: if people could believe it was real then it shows how bleak things really have become.”
But Kingsley says the filmmakers didn’t set out to hoodwink viewers.
“Our intention wasn’t to create a hoax – it was just that we felt the satire would be more powerful if it caught people by surprise. I wanted to respect the style of a mainstream TV documentary, but never thought people would believe it for more than a few minutes.
“As well as targeting the establishment, we’re also making fun of the way that TV documentaries can be really superficial. Presenters don’t ask challenging questions, and problematic details are skipped over quickly.”
The history of TV hoaxes
Of course, Miracle Meat is not unique. There is a rich tradition of TV hoaxes. Slightly different, in that viewers were in on the joke while the participants were the ones hoaxed, were British series such as Chris Morris’s Brass Eye (1997-2001) and Sacha Baron Cohen’s Da Ali G Show (2000-2004), both on Channel 4. In both shows, spoof interviewers put absurd questions to notable figures who believed they were taking part in serious documentary items.
Then the Netherlands had The Great Donor Show in 2007, in which a supposedly terminally ill woman selected the recipient of one of her kidneys. The intention was to highlight the need for donors.
In another category still – fake news perhaps – was the supposed footage of an alien autopsy that music producer Ray Santilli claimed to have discovered, which was broadcast by Fox Television in 1995, under the title Alien Autopsy: Fact or Fiction. (In a 2006 documentary, Santilli admitted that the film was fake, though he alleged that it was based on actual alien autopsy footage he had seen).
The BBC’s ‘supernatural event’ Ghostwatch caused national outrage in 1992 (Credit: BBC)
And TV viewers have learned to be especially wary on April Fool’s Day. As far back as 1 April 1957, the BBC’s current affairs programme Panorama carried a report about that year’s bountiful spaghetti tree harvest. Australia’s This Day Tonight once reported that Sydney Opera House was sinking. France 3 claimed that the French government was going to release giant pandas in the Pyrenees. Russian Public TV carried a story that a spring in the Caucasus mountains could cure male baldness.
But the TV hoax without equal was not an April Fool’s gag. British TV “event” Ghostwatch was broadcast on BBC One on Halloween 1992. Presented as a live broadcast hosted by Michael Parkinson, its supposed purpose was to gather evidence of the supernatural. It featured footage of poltergeist phenomena and culminated in a malevolent entity taking over the TV studio. It was genuinely terrifying, resulting in tens of thousands of calls to the BBC and outrage in the newspapers.
“Ghostwatch was always intended to be two things,” its writer Stephen Volk tells BBC Culture. “First of all, a scary ghost story. Secondly, there was going to be a subtext of satire regarding television itself and the way the media was going. The idea of a BBC light entertainment show exploring the metaphysics of paranormal research using well known TV personalities was just too delicious and potent and irresistible a mix.”
“Centrally, as a drama – and this gets overlooked in the obsession with it being a ‘prank’ – Ghostwatch was about, who do you trust? Do you trust this broadcaster? This expert, just because they have a caption in front of them? Do you trust this image we are showing you? Do you trust your eyes?
“We now live firmly in the age of fake news – even before we get into AI – so there’s never been a more important time to get people to question where they are getting their information, from whom, and whether they can trust it.”
The influence of Ghostwatch has been visible in a number of TV specials since, among them Derren Brown: Séance, in which the famed illusionist purported to hold a live séance. Who knows what future shows might be cooked up as a result of Miracle Meat?
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