June 1, 2010


The Brass Eye of Chris Morris
by Lucian Randall
259 pages, Simon & Schuster

Dispatches From Shatner’s Bassoon by Pat Black


Every generation has its own TV comedy milestone. My first comedy loves fall between the two highpoints of the eighties and nineties, Blackadder and Father Ted. Others will have an appreciation for the Pythons and Fawlty Towers. Recently, we’ve been blessed with wonderful comedy from the US. And not just Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm; even in Friends, it’s hard to fault the writing even if you can’t stand the people.

Nowadays, Armando Iannucci’s The Thick of It, and its recent big screen adaptation, In The Loop, is breaking new ground as a ferocious satire on the business of government, focusing on the practitioners of the dark arts of spin. But even Malcolm Tucker’s almost unparalleled achievements in swearing tend to pale, and perhaps even fart tunefully, when compared with the impact of Chris Morris on the TV comedy landscape.


Lucian Randall’s impressively well-researched book focuses on Chris Morris’s journey from trainee DJ at Radio Bristol to outraging the British public – mainly thanks to those knockaround funsters, the tabloid press – with the classic TV news spoof, Brass Eye. There’s some excellent contributions from long-time Morris collaborators David Quantick and Armando Iannucci, the latter seeming to have been particularly generous with his time. Morris’s path from days in student bands to tinkering with tape loops in late night cut and paste sessions with razor blades and seemingly archaic reel-to-reel audio equipment reveals to us a deceptively easy ride, and a young man with obvious talent.


The book seeks to debunk in part some of the myths that surrounded the mischievous Morris as he honed his razor-sharp satirical instincts and his talent for hoodwinking people in outrageous broadcasting scams. Although apocryphal, Lucian Randall still takes the time to repeat these tales to us; one wheeze about Morris flooding a news studio with helium just as the anchors talked about a serious news item can’t possibly be true – but no-one in Morris’s circle of colleagues and acquaintances is prepared to rebut it, either.


His foray into radio and then TV news satire with The Day Today ushered in a series of fruitful collaborations for Morris; alumni from the show have all gone on to great things, with Steve Coogan and his Alan Partridge persona prominent among this coterie of clowns. The main target of The Day Today’s jokes – hysterical 24-hour rolling TV news coverage that seeks to shock and entertain rather than simply inform – remains as ripe for lampooning as ever, and there are a couple of satellite broadcasters in particular who might benefit from looking at their recent output in light of the insane array of graphics, headlines and personality tics on show from the performers, Morris being chief among them with journalistic hellions such as Ted Maul. The struggles the team endured in trying to get the programme out under-budget, and the behind-the-scenes genius of Morris in post-production, is very well recounted here.


And yet this polished, almost perfect machine was nothing compared to Brass Eye. The spoof investigative news show, finally commissioned by Channel 4 after the BBC decided not to touch it, remains the high watermark for hard-edged comedy. Here, Morris duped various celebrities into contributing to fake public safety campaigns. The celebs can only have themselves to blame for falling for the trick – their hubris and their need to be seen as identifying with worthy-sounding campaigns blinds them to Morris’s true purpose. These straight-faced appeals are laugh-out-loud funny 13 years after I first watched them. One female presenter tells us of the effect of sodomised electrons, namely “heavy electricity”. Radio DJ Dr Fox lets us know that a paedophile shares more genetic characteristics with a crab than a normal human being, before hammering a nail into one of said crustaceans. Jas Mann, a pretentious one-hit wonder musician, is asked if he thinks he is a genius by Morris. “Yeah,” he replies. “Would you say that’s because you have more genes than anyone else?” Morris says. “Yeah,” replies Mann. Perhaps most famous of all, one hapless MP was even persuaded to raise a question in the House of Commons on the menace of cake (“a made-up drug,” he read out), on behalf of the FUKD and BOMD anti-drugs charity. Morris even diced with rather more than his standing among the hoi polloi on occasions, attempting to score drugs and making contact with genuine paedophiles in order to bombard them with ludicrous verbiage. You genuinely fear for the man’s life when he tricks the notorious gangster “Mad” Frankie Fraser, who still looked handy enough in his sixties into giving a “Frankie-o-meter” grading into how “narked” he would be in certain scenarios.


There simply isn’t space here for a proper commentary on the 2001 Brass Eye “Paedophile Special”, which focused unflinchingly on media hysteria and hypocrisy in light of an emotive subject. There’s an insight into the campaign carried out against the programme’s makers, with particularly jarring notes struck as Morris’s female contributors in particular are hounded by the tabloid press.


In his struggles to get Brass Eye to air – and the controversy that he continued to face after it was broadcast – we get an all-too-rare glimpse of Morris’s drive and personality. He threatens to burn the stock of everything he has shot in order to protect it, at one point; and he delivers a stinging f-you to Michael Grade, the controller of Channel 4 who rather bravely allowed the show to go out, by declaring “GRADE IS A C*NT” in a subliminal single frame of film. For all his creativity, impudence and daring in breaking taboos, Morris is also clearly a driven figure. It’s a shame this excellent piece of journalism couldn’t unlock Morris’s personality, barring enthusiastic appraisals from his colleagues past and present, or shed any light on his personal life other than informing us that he enjoys a quiet life with his partner and two children and retains “an affection for the game of cricket”.


That said, this is pretty indispensable if, like me, you watched Brass Eye with a mixture of disbelief and sheer pleasure at the effrontery and glee of it all. Morris’s most recent work sees him on familiar controversial territory with his jihadist spoof, Four Lions. Although the git has used an idea – taking comedy terrorists and following them on their journey to a suicide mission – which I’d thought was my own, I have to say I can’t wait to see it. As Will Self says in Disgusting Bliss, Morris is phenomenon – an artist who has grown over the years and is producing his absolute best work. In time the majority will treasure him; for now, it’s all for the rest of us.

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