Here’s something longer – this didn’t make it into the book. The great lost Christmas show… Morris’s first outing on Radio 1 was in 1990. It’s never been heard again and the rumour was it was so shocking that he was promptly banned. His day job back then was on the BBC’s London station, GLR and he had been in local radio since the early 1980s. Even if the Christmas broadcast had been too outrageous for the BBC top brass it didn’t have any discernible effect on his career. By mid-1991 he was well into his partnership with Armando Iannucci with On The Hour, the show that made their names as pioneering satirists. Perhaps the fuss about the Christmas show was just another part of the Morris legend, as I pondered here before cutting it from the final book:
Morris made his Radio 1 debut on Christmas Day 1990 with a show that hasn’t been repeated or circulated, its disappearance becoming part of Chris’s mischievous reputation. Rumour suggested it was so shocking that Morris was banned until long after the departure of the station’s controller Johnny Beerling.
‘I don’t even remember commissioning it,’ says an apparently untraumatised Beerling now. ‘It obviously made no great impact on me at the time. I can remember having a meeting with Chris Morris but apart from that nothing.’
Roger Lewis, then head of the Radio 1 music department, also has no memory of unacceptable content in the show. He explains it wasn’t so much what Morris was doing but the fact that he was doing it at all which caused, he says, ‘a big stir’, coming at a time when the culture at Radio 1 was torn between remaining a traditional music broadcaster and trying to engage with all the new possibilities of modern culture. It was still a very successful station, but many saw it as complacent and jaded, a rest home for Wayne Carrs.
‘We were attempting a big cultural change in the radio station,’ says Lewis. ‘Very painful, a bit clumsy at times and it certainly frightened the BBC horses! I was keen to explore other genres – drama and comedy in particular.’
The progressive faction at Radio 1 had hoped Morris’s Christmas special would be part of an evolutionary process in which his increasingly deadly rival Victor Lewis-Smith had already broadcast a groundbreaking series earlier in the year with John Peel producer John Walters. Smith’s Radio 1 shows were marked by fast-paced sketches with characters such as Dr Dreyfuss, the Jewish one-fingered gynaecologist. Lewis-Smith also did his own brand of phone pranks and musical spoofs, including multitracking himself for a gag in which a dyslexic choir performed ‘Old MacDonald Had a Farm’. This was brave, innovative stuff, exquisitely crafted as if to highlight the frequent tastelessness and all the more amusing for the evident pride in its transgressions. The series, remembers Roger Lewis, resulted in ‘lots of upset people and complaints – very funny.’ Lewis-Smith won the radio comedy award at the first ever Comedy Awards that year.
Having both him and Morris on the same station was a dream for those who wanted to see Radio 1 be as rich as it had once been. ‘It was very apparent he [Morris] was hugely talented,’ says Roger Lewis. ‘He and Victor Lewis-Smith had a similar approach to the genre.’ He remembers Johnny Beerling and many others fully supporting the change in direction, but there was an ingrained attitude among older producers and the star DJs which resisted any change. They believed Radio 1 should stick to playing music as it always had, their unwillingness to experiment ensuring the BBC’s youth station was markedly more conservative than Radios 3 and 4. The old guard were easily spooked. They were concerned by the idea of prank calls, having an attitude to the possible legal ramifications of misleading people that had more in common with Radio Bristol than the home of rock’n’roll. At a time when broadcasters had to apply to use the word ‘fuck’ on air, Radio 4 made far more requests than Radio 1 did. Healthy audience figures were held up as proof that the old ways were the best.
Frustrated at the lack of action, Roger Lewis left not only Radio 1 but the BBC itself at the end of the year. It wouldn’t be until 1993, when Matthew Bannister was appointed controller to do what he’d done at GLR, that Radio 1 truly committed to the inevitably agonising process of growing up – part of which would include a treatment of half a year of Chris Morris.