Monday, February 07, 2005

The return of Chris Morris

This month sees the return of legendary shit-stirrer and all-round hero of our times Chris Morris to British television after a lengthy absence. The man whose record for provoking the most viewer complaints in history was recently topped by Jerry Springer: the Opera is taking a new path with 'Nathan Barley', a sit-com about a pompous, over-privileged trendy and his cretinous friends in the London media scene. There's a lot of expectation surrounding the new series over the last decade, Morris has carved out a unique niche for himself in British culture as the most uncompromising and savagely funny comedian of his generation. Whether or not 'Nathan Barley' is a success, Morris has already done more than enough to ensure that his name won't be forgotten for a very long time.

Morris first came to notice with The Day Today, a spoof news show that first aired in 1994. A decade on, it hasn't aged a day. Its parody of hyperbolic media coverage was cruelly accurate; the worse the 'serious' media gets, the more powerful the spoof appears. It was, of course, the show that spawned Alan Partridge; Coogan's petty-minded sports reporter was a brilliant character, and well worth the two subsequent shows based around him, Knowing Me, Knowing You and I'm Alan Partridge. But there was never any doubt as to who the star was. Morris pulled a brilliant turn as the sneery, Paxmanesque presenter who flirted with his co-hosts, bullied the incompetent reporters, and even managed to incite a war between Britain and Australia for the sake of ratings. The show just wasn't big enough for his talent, and Morris followed up The Day Today with a solo effort, the hard-hitting current affairs show Brass Eye.

It's hard to write about this show without degenerating into hysterical superlatives; suffice it to say that it was like nothing else on television, ever nor has anyone come close to topping it since. When I first saw the show in 1997, it was a cult favourite; re-release on video and DVD has brought it to a much wider audience, helped by obsessive word-of-mouth hype. If you haven't seen it yet, go straight to the video store and rent it out.

Most attention at the time focused on the bogus interviews Morris would conduct with real celebrities. The fake celebrity interview has now become such a cliché that it's amazing you can watch one without having to stifle a yawn. The difference, of course, is that Morris wasn't just playing a prank he was on a single-minded mission to humiliate vacuous people who used their fame to mouth off about things they didn't understand. It's impossible to feel much sympathy for the celebs, because Morris went out of his way to show them they were being made a fool of. Why on earth did Noel Edmonds agree to read out a script, informing viewers that the Czech drug 'cake' affected the part of the brain known as Shatner's Basoon, which controls time perception.

But looking at Brass Eye now, the celebrity maulings were just a garnish: Morris was the real attraction. His range was amazing, going from an inch-perfect parody of Pulp (Blouse, whose lead singer Purvis Grundy had written a song of love to Myra Hindley) to aggressive investigative reporter Ted Maul (who kicked the bumper off the car of a truculent interviewee in a fit of rage) without missing a beat. Every single detail of the show was perfect, from the over-long, over-blown credit sequences to the absurd names of the presenters. Something Morris didn't get enough credit for was sheer bravery. Going up to (genuine) drug dealers on a London street, wearing only a nappy, and asking them for imaginary drugs like 'clarkycat' is taking things a little further than most comedians are willing to venture for the sake of a punch-line. And at a time when the brain-dead FHM/Guy Ritchie culture loved to glamorise criminals, only Morris would have interviewed 'Mad' Frankie Fraser and made a mockery of him to his face (even imitating his accent).

To say that the humour was close to the bone doesn't really do it justice. Having dissected the hypocrisy of the drugs debate, Morris concluded that night's programme by telling viewers that while his own heroin consumption was healthy and normal, if you're less stable, less well-educated, less middle-class than me, like blacks or builders, for example, my advice is to leave well alone'. A discussion about AIDS ended with Morris informing a gay man who was HIV-positive that he had 'bad AIDS', unlike the virtuous people who had contracted the disease 'through no fault of their own' via infected blood.

Society never really cares for such a cruelly accurate mirror to be held up to its face, and the modern media certainly doesn't get irony. Morris was vilified from the start; the show was delayed after tabloid outrage over a sequence purporting to show the Yorkshire Ripper on day release to star in a West End musical based on his life story. Channel 4 boss Michael Grade ordered him to delete it (Morris retaliated by inserting the line 'Grade is a cunt' in a frame of the last episode). The final show proved to be the final straw “ when the ad break came, a bogus Channel 4 news report informed viewers that Clive Anderson had been murdered by Noel Edmonds. Morris got the sack.

Morris went back to work on the radio, but returned to television with the sketch show Jam in 2000. A very different programme, Jam had none of the topical flavour of Brass Eye, but in its own way was every bit as disturbing (it's also available on DVD watch it, but bring a strong stomach to the proceedings). But the best, or worst, was yet to come, Brass Eye was revived for a one-off special in 2001 that ridiculed the media’s obsession with paedophilia. Unless you were in a foreign country at the time, you’ll have heard the shrieking it caused in the tabloid press. Charlie Brooker, with whom Morris wrote much of his Brass Eye material (and the man behind 'Nathan Barley'), told a story which gave the most perfect illustration of the media's hypocrisy at the time. He opened a tabloid newspaper one day to find an article denouncing him as a sick, depraved man who found child sex funny then looked across the page to find a picture of under-age Charlotte Church with her tits hanging out.

There's no sign that Morris wants to revive Brass Eye, which is probably just as well the concept would lose its freshness and impact if over-done. But with just seven programmes, Chris Morris has had as much impact on modern culture as Johnny Rotten had in the seventies. Morris would deny any earnest political intent: he sneers at lefty comedians like Mark Thomas and Michael Moore (he once interviewed Moore, and asked him had he heard of Thomas: 'you must know him, he also goes around bullying receptionists.') But he's probably done more to challenge today's orthodoxies than Moore's goofy sloganeering ever could.

'Nathan Barley' is a very different kind of show, and Morris won't be in front of the camera at all. If it conveys any of the vitriol of Charlie Brooker's TVGoHome site, on which the character is based, it'll be well worth a watch. Check out this link for a sample: It's not clear how much of the website's profanity will find its way into the show: I doubt Channel 4 will ever allow Morris and Brooker to quote the following lines verbatim: Get a grip. You're a cunt, you always HAVE been a cunt, and you always WILL be a cunt: a useless, artless, soulless, worthless, hateful, sickening, handful-of-your own-shit-fucking cunt-chewing cunt-eyed cunt!

Then again, you never know...

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Nice article Mr Dan.
Thanks, was looking at your blog and was pretty interesting stuff.
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