Four Lions

October 28th, 2011

Islambad rapper Adil Omar was inspired by ‘Four Lions’ to call his new song ‘Paki Rambo’.

He also uses a sample of those words in the chorus. The result is a track and accompanying video that cause controversy in Pakistan just as Chris Morris’s work does for him in the UK.

Omar is 20, articulate, witty and remarkably level-headed. Pakistan is a dangerous country in which to be provocative. This is a place under high levels of censorship where journalists are subjected to harassment.

Yet Omar talks of ‘Four Lions’ as a straightforwardly funny film, a compliment which is also a good indication that Morris had perfect pitch with the cultural tone of his film.

It’s the other way around in the UK. ‘Paki Rambo’ will outrage few, while the release of ‘Four Lions’ was accompanied by gale forces of press wind on whether terrorist subject matter would bring a fatwa on Morris’s head.

Meanwhile, both Morris and Omar consistently deny they have any political or provocative agenda and insist they are primarily entertainers.

Whether or not you believe their eyebrows aren’t forehead-ticklingly arched when they make their claims, ‘Paki Rambo’ is a pretty extraordinary cultural journey.

From a comedy in Britain about idiots abroad in Pakistan to a rap in Pakistan taking on a racist insult from the west. Here’s the song:



September 29th, 2011

BBC Radio 4 Extra celebrates the 20th anniversary of On the Hour with a special on Saturday 1 October. Three hours from 9am/7pm introduced by Eddie Mair, appropriately enough as the anchor for Radio 4′s flagship news PM. I’m particularly pleased to see that it’s going out as it was me who told the Radio 4 Extra producers about the anniversary.

This in the week that Alan Partridge‘s memoirs are released.   A good autumn for On the Hour fans.

Eddie Mair’s a good choice to front the special, presenting PM with great awareness of the inherent ridiculousness of the medium. One or two of the BBC journalists who spoke about Chris Morris to me did it only under conditions of great secrecy. There was a sense that you couldn’t admit news was funny even though they said that On the Hour and The Day Today were absolutely required material in newsrooms of the 1990s. Somehow it’s no surprise that Eddie Mair’s out of the closet.


Arise Sir News

August 9th, 2011

On The Hour was first broadcast 20 years ago, on 9 August 1991. The anniversary gives me another excuse to plug my book on Chris Morris again, which itself begins by discussing On The Hour, the BBC Radio 4 series that introduced Chris Morris to the nation. And there is still so much to love about On The Hour! Start with Alan Partridge making his first appearance and then randomly celebrating headline wordplay that was the writers’ signature. ‘Sri Lankan diplomat expelled for copying rice.’ Here’s Morris vox popping the public about illness.

And one more to revisit. The hoax about Neil Kinnock (played by Steve Coogan) being drunk in the 1992 election and shouting ‘Forget Paddy Pantsdown, I’m Neil King-cock.’ The Sun broke the original Paddy Ashdown story and the idea they might get a follow-up overrode all the alarm bells that On The Hour’s elaborate set-up should have triggered. Happy birthday, On The Hour.

One thing stood out for me about how original the show was. It was hugely influential on the genre of comedy disguised as documentary, so much so that it seemed to be the start of it. It seemed to pop up fully formed and, underlining that, there was no one favourite ancestor named in interview by actors and writers, though This is Spinal Tap popped up more than once. And it immediately made sense. Spinal Tap may have been American rather than British and it was a movie rather than telly or radio. And it wasn’t a name that everyone mentioned – Armando Iannucci cited radio sketch show The Burkiss Way as an influence. But it was that sense of doing things for real which was so compelling in Spinal Tap. Strange that something so thoroughly American could feel so completely like it could only have come from the UK and been so formative for so many comedians. To finish with, not On The Hour, but Spinal Tap. You’ll have to bear with me and click through as for some reason I can’t get the blog software to insert the band’s manager explaining just why he loves his cricket bat.


Welcome… oo vudge welcome in Blue Jam

June 25th, 2011

Mark Leckey has a mischievous streak a mile wide in his art. Deadpan and compulsive. See, We Assemble at the Serpentine Gallery in London, which closes on 25 June, reminds me of the Blue Jam series. You wouldn’t know it from the rather opaque trailer, but there’s a deadpan humour underlying the exhibition, each work taking up a room and immersing you in a wash of sculpture, sound and film. The show is technically immaculate and gleefully undermines while celebrating the whole idea of entertainment.

GreenScreenRefrigeratorAction is the highlight. A squat, black Samsung fridge takes the centre like a 2001 monolith, its innermost thoughts relayed with accompanying imagery on flanking screens. With the comic  melancholy inherent in a computer synthesised voice, it lists its contents, describes its harsh self-cooling process and ponders the universe to hypnotic effect. Poor fridge. Alone in the cold darkness.

Elsewhere in the show a Henry Moore sculpture stands impervious to Leckey’s attempt at trying to set up a conversation. He’d placed a teetering sound system stack of similar height nearby, blaring intermittent synth tones with a background of crackling on an acetate record. Blue Jam too animates the world with a singular vision that makes total logical sense in its own terms while lurching a few degrees away from sense.

Fabulously expensive by Radio 1 comedy show standards, Blue Jam was buried late at night by Morris, at a time when listeners might come across its strange ripples by accident. It mixes sound effects, narrative and a murky playlist. As Leckey insists you enter wholly into his world so Blue Jam demands to be listened to on its own terms.

And there’s even a Leckey-esque computerised bleat in the ominous welcome to the first episode, just after: “When you sick so sad you cry, and in crying, cry a whole leopard from your eye”.

Machines of Loving Grace

May 18th, 2011

One of Chris Morris’s friends remarked that he only really got to understand fundamentalism through Four Lions. This same friend was moved to invest in the film’s early stages and act as its enthusiastic proselytiser.

For him Morris’s film stood above the investigative work of Jason Burke and the playful deconstructions of Adam Curtis. A bold claim indeed.

Four Lions was, he insisted, as deeply insightful as anything they did and it was also easy to follow – not an accusation that could be levelled at Burke’s ‘Al-Qaeda‘, comprehensive and brave though it is.

Adam Curtis is an altogether pacier proposition. His films are challenging but entertaining. The news that he  is about to unleash a new and doubtless mind-twisting series is very welcome. Its trailer suggests his trademark is much in evidence – complex and provocative ideas showcased in a mash of comic archive footage and eclectic music.

This time he is All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace. The documentaries will look at how the computerised society we hoped would free us to become inventive individuals has actually enslaved us.

It starts on BBC2 on Monday 23 May at 9pm

Curtis’s other fine work includes his take on the way that Islamic fundamentalism and the West’s Neocons developed at the same time, The Power of Nightmares. It’s a revealing series, not frightened to be smart and also very funny. Curtis has a neat sideline of irreverence for the media he works in which may well have come from an apprenticeship served under Esther Rantzen on That’s Life.

Old Woman Killed by Little Glass Planet

May 4th, 2011

I’m back after holidays. While away I heard Mark Thomas discussing his new book ‘Extreme Rambling’.

He’s incorrigibly lefty in a way which would be quite fearsome in the ’80s but is now almost endearing.

His style was at home on Radio 4’s Saturday Live alongside a former Guantanamo Bay guard who became friends with his prisoners. Interviewer – and former Communard – Richard Coles was naggingly persistent but unfailingly gentle. None of which heart-on-sleeveness would probably endear the show to Chris Morris.

Mark Thomas has long used comedy as part of his restlessly inquisitive campaigning style and  Morris reportedly dismissed him in conversation with Michael Moore with, ‘Mark Thomas [who] also goes around and bullies receptionists.’

That was way back in 1999. But even if Morris’s opinion hasn’t changed in the intervening years, Thomas has developed a persuasive style of exploring often complex and emotive themes. If you don’t mind his political position being displayed like a large flashing red light he’ll take you a surprisingly long way along his road with him.

Doctor Fact is Knocking at the Door

April 14th, 2011

At Radio Bristol in the 80s Chris Morris developed fast. Even after-hours work done for a friend featured recognisable characteristics. This example didn’t make it into the final book.

Morris’s friend and Bristol news presenter John Armstrong had written a sketch set in a newsroom. It was commissioned by the Conservatives to assist in media-training aspiring politicians.

Morris redrafted the short piece and according to John Armstrong, ‘He totally transformed it… made it really funny.’

The reworked version features a reporter who is the sort of self-important, parochial newshound which regularly populated Morris’s later satire.

More interested in his assistant than the programme, the reporter’s bulletin even has a headline which would be reworked into On the Hour years later:

‘Right, darling, that’s the lot – tomorrow’s news is frankly a corker. Lead story: that cardboard box still blowing dangerously around the city centre – there’s a leaf found lying near a pavement in Little Yatton – and I’m ready to go… so bring on the night, sister, let’s writhe!’

Distinctive Morris verbal flourishes adorn the meeting of reporter and a European MP: ‘[aside] Christ – he’s a raving barklord – I’d better humour him until Eurofuzz arrive.’

Lord of Landmines

April 6th, 2011

The words of the Archbishop of Canterbury were edited by Morris in a Blue Jam sketch. But he hadn’t chosen just any old Archbishoppy sermon. This was the oration given at the funeral of the Princess of Wales.

Originally planned for broadcast only months after the death of Diana in 1997 the remix was not surprisingly vetoed by BBC management.

Morris sneaked it into the show anyway.

The transmission went out so late at night that even Radio 1′s boss remained blissfully unaware of the illicit broadcast. It was faded out towards the end by a BBC engineer.

Recording the sun, then clipping the tape to a serf

April 1st, 2011

Michael Alexander St John-Gifford had a golden voice and a charming eccentricity to match his spectacular name. He lent unimpeachable authority to nonsense chart rundowns on Chris Morris’s radio shows:

St John was a longstanding member of Morris’s unofficial repertory company, but it was for doing the brief links for On The Hour – ‘holding up a net in the strong breeze’ – and The Day Today – ‘bagpiping fact into news’ – that he was most known.

The two met at Radio Bristol in the late 80s. St John was a fixture on the station where he did film reviews on the breakfast show.

St John, who died in 2002 at 66, was known for always riding a moped to work whatever the weather and although some 30 years older than Morris, he nevertheless shared a similar sense of humour. He could do a Chris Morris nightlife guide with utter sincerity:

Hey Chris – you killed me

March 31st, 2011

The Chris Morris Music Show ran for almost six months on Radio 1 in 1994. It was a seamless mix of music and comedy. Morris had a broad and deep taste in music which he was allowed to explore to its fullest limits in his career as a DJ to date. Radio 1 was modernising and he was in the vanguard.

The sketches were written and performed largely with Peter Baynham (below on the left) and worked into the fabric of the programme as if they were improvised and sometimes, as in this chilling tale of the death of fellow DJ Johnny Walker, real.

The YouTube poster has edited out the music elements from a gothic fantasy which originally played out over the full hour of Morris’s show.