Peter Cook was in the last year of his life and Chris Morris was still a virtual unknown when he took on the veteran’s dissolute Sir Arthur Streeb-Greebling in a series of interviews. They slipped out virtually unnoticed on Radio 3 at the start of 1994 without being marked as comedy. For the rest of the decade Morris would alternate his high profile projects with these low-key outings but the improvised verbal jousting here is no less dazzling for its simplicity of recording. Eels, Love and Guns features a brutal meditation on Sir Arthur’s relationship with Rodney King and subsequent involvement in Los Angeles riots of 1992 but although it’s all on YouTube, it’s worth investing in the CD of Why Bother?
Archive for February, 2011
The serious point that Brass Eye made, though Morris would always avoid being deposited on the moral high ground, was that almost anyone could be persuaded to say anything if the person asking them had a convincing enough persona and a BBC microphone. And this article in the Guardian about churnalism, the practice of PR releases being put out as news without any tracking, shows how accurately The Day Today and Brass Eye predicted the 24-hour ultra-news culture. Filmmaker Chris Atkins’ setups also very much follow the tradition. Watch the story of the chastity garter and think about Neil Fox saying that paedophiles have more in common genetically with crabs than human beings. There’s no proof for it but it is ‘scientific fact’. www.churnalism.com
Before Smashie and Nicey there was Wayne Carr. When he was a Radio Bristol DJ Chris Morris developed the parody of clueless jocks (‘WC on the radio’) and recorded all the jingles himself. Wayne was crass, boorish and regularly messed up his show, misunderstanding news stories and crashing record intros. It was hearing just this kind of Wayne Carr on Morris’s London show on the BBC’s GLR station that prompted Armando Iannucci to get in touch with him for On The Hour. Here’s Wayne in 1990. Good morning!
And here is the racing on The Day Today.
You could dedicate a whole post to Morris quotes – and I probably will. For comedy that wasn’t known for being catchphrase-based, his material is littered with gems. In his own shows and in collaboration, from the radio to The Day Today and Brass Eye, there are enough memorable one-liners to power a lesser series in its entirety… What about – the twisted brain wrongs of a one-off man mental (featuring the menace to children of a robo-plegic wrong cock)… Hello, you… Where in shitting crikey is my nose? … You’re wrong and you’re a grotesquely ugly freak… and the headlines: Where now for man raised by puffins? … Bouncing elephantiasis woman destroys central Portsmouth… and that’s without getting into ‘eat my goal’ Partridge-isms. Then we really would be here all day. The gags that didn’t make it were often just as good. In the book I featured some of the horse names from the racing sports report in The Day Today. And here are a few more that didn’t make it to the final cut of the show: You Hold The Door Open While I Run Ahead, Bresnev’s Nasturtiums, Soot, Bosnia Cock-Up, Think Tank Cancer Boy and, as it’s you, Christ’s Chin. Any idea who wrote those? Some say they can tell the difference between Morris and Iannucci and other writers.
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.
Long before celebrities and public figures were being encouraged to say preposterous things by Morris on TV with The Day Today and Brass Eye, he was honing his technique on his radio shows. On local radio in the 1980s he would draw the public in through phone calls and spurious vox pops. When he did his Radio 1 series in 1994 he continued with the phone pranks. The six month run of shows was a reflection of Morris’s broad taste in music played out between startling and carefully-constructed sketches with Peter Baynham (later to co-write Borat). Never commercially released, the Radio 1 programmes are nevertheless worth hunting down on the net. Here’s a fabulous prank phone call with Morris’s verbal invention almost musical in its flow, to get all fancy about it. …are the planes sniffing at the building?
I wrote the biography of Chris Morris, Disgusting Bliss, which got quite a good reception last year and is out in paperback in April. This blog is a companion to the book. It’s a big footnote, a digital annotation, giving you pointers to Morris’s work as discussed in the book. Plus I’ll post up material that didn’t make it into the final edit of the print version and, oh, just things about the book and Morris that might be of passing interest. Such as, the new cover is a purple version of the original which was designed by Darren Wall. A Chris Morris fan, he has worked with the likes of electro revivalists Hot Chip. If you can feel cutting edge by association, that is exactly how I felt when he got assigned the job.
This, then, is the new jacket.