'Brass Eye' two decades on: the unstoppable genius of Chris Morris
In today's climate of fake news, does the Channel 4 satire still ring true?
I’ll be honest. Putting the Brass Eye DVD into the player, I was worried about how the series would have aged. More than two decades after it was first broadcast, how would it stand up to being revisited? After all, this was satire at its most cutting, directly addressing the issues of the time: surely it would have dated like crazy?
I remember watching Brass Eye on my bedroom TV when it first hit screens back in 1997. It’s hard to imagine nowadays, when an explanation for everything is a few taps away; anything remotely unusual or disconcerting and you can quickly find out what it is. Oh yes, you’d think, tapping Google on your smartphone, “This is a news satire by a guy with previous for it, and these are all the targets that are going to be addressed in this week’s episode, which is one of six due to run weekly”. It is truly hard to shock these days.
But back in 1997, I watched without prejudice, without knowledge, without any sort of context, wondering: ‘what the hell was this show’?
The Day Today – the unbelievably perfectly-observed, and – incredibly – still accurate lampooning of the cliched format of television news – had passed me by at the time, so this was my first exposure to the whirling dervish that was Chris Morris. I remember feverishly discussing each week’s show with my mates at school – was some of it actually true? Where could we get hold of some cake? How had he managed to get Dr Fox to say something so obviously stupid? That guy was smart, he was a doctor after all.
By the time the series finished – the last of the initial six episodes went out on 5 March 1997 – we’d all thoroughly got the hang of it: this was a work of utter deranged genius. In the same way that The Day Today had gone after the sheer laziness of TV news, Brass Eye had systematically gone after a whole load of mindless cliche and default assumption held by not only the media, but the general public; the brainless classification of things into ‘good’ and ‘bad’, ‘wrong’ and ‘right’, ‘innocent’ and ‘guilty’ without any consideration that there might be shades of grey in between, or any sort of subtlety involved in many major issues.
Working this out meant that we were perfectly positioned to appreciate the brilliance of the ‘Paedogeddon’ Special, which emerged four years later, and was, without any doubt, Morris’ creative high point. We’d all watched as the furore, outrage and frenzy over paedophiles had grown to hysterical levels; it desperately needed someone to come along and inject some sort of sense into the debate, but it is impossible to understate the sheer balls that Morris needed to go anywhere near this topic, let alone skewer it so effectively. Such was the fevered atmosphere around the topic, it was no exaggeration to say that he risked his life by making that episode.
As MPs, the public and the Daily Mail went mad in the wake of its airing – despite many of them having not even seen the program – we sat back and appreciated the delicious irony that their unthinking, instinctive reaction was exactly what the program had been seeking to lampoon. It was pretty amazing to watch. Hilarious at first, then quite depressing.
Even the relatively genteel world of Ceefax lit up with people arguing both for and against Morris’ right to tackle the subject.
Together with the delicious irony of the Daily Star running a comment criticising the program, literally next to an image of a ‘chest swell’ 15-year-old Charlotte Church.
Then, after this peak, Morris left the front of the camera behind, resurfacing in the background for the ahead-of-its-time Nathan Barley (as co-writer) and the truly brilliant and criminally underrated Four Lions (co-writer and director) in 2010. Both of which, incidentally, deserve far more praise and study than they’ve currently had – the former for its almost frighteningly accurate prediction of pretty much the next decade of the media and youth culture and the latter as an example of one of the few works which actually humanises the idea of terrorism, albeit whilst laughing heartily at it – something which a certain US President would do well to take note of (not that he ever will).
But back to the Brass Eye DVD: now it’s reached the ripe old age of 20, how would it stand up in 2017?
You can all breathe a sigh of relief – the short answer is ‘very well’ – but, strangely, not quite in the way I remembered it. It actually reminded me hugely of my recent rewatching of The Fast Show, which went out around the same time as Brass Eye.
Firstly, in the sheer pace of the program. Where The Fast Show threw sketch after sketch at you, Brass Eye is similarly relentless in not settling on one idea for too long. Ironically, considering the topic of one of its most famous episodes, it’s like the whole thing is on speed.
Secondly, again similarly to The Fast Show, not all of its segments work. But, again like its sketch show cousin (and back again with a drugs reference), there’s a bloody good hit rate.
It lurches around from the almost childish mickey-taking of the celebrities (more on that in a minute), to suddenly making an incredibly serious and thought-provoking point, then back to utter Monty Python-esque surrealism.
Throughout, it is held together by the staggering performance of Morris, his domineering physical appearance providing the basis of his manic anchor role, while he effortlessly slips into a whole host of various characters. With his narration; Morris’ background in radio comes through loud and clear; the sheer variety of tone he uses – always questioning, always totally authoritative, and regularly downright sinister. When he asks a clearly ludicrous rhetorical question, the way he asks it makes you think, just for a second - just for a split-second - whether he’s actually got a point.
In addition, the sheer commitment he displays to the role is borderline terrifying, particularly in two passages of the ‘Sex’ episode; firstly, brutally parodying creepy talk show hosts in a skin-crawling interview with a former child abuse victim (a section which clearly provided a jumping-off point for the Paedogeddon special); and secondly in his angry, vicious denunciation of someone with ‘Bad AIDS’ in the same episode. It’s genuinely hard to watch both moments, given Morris’ visceral performance.
Underpinning it all is the stunningly high production values: visually-arresting graphics; heart-attack-inducing frenzied, and frequently ominous, soundbeds and theme music; and news segments, which segue between each other in incredibly weird and inventive ways – virtually every transition is complex, even the most incidental. It must have taken an age to put together, but it highlights what a labour of love this must have been for Morris.
You can understand why he became so angry with then head of Channel 4 Michael Grade for delaying the transmission of ‘Cake’ and interfering in the editing of the show – so much that he inserted a single frame in ‘Decline’ which stated “'Grade Is A C***t”.
Strangely, it’s the sections that garnered the most initial publicity at the time – those notorious celebrity interviews – that feel the most throwaway. While, of course, it’s undeniably amusing to watch the likes of Jenny Powell and Richard Blackwood talking absolute nonsense (literally, in the case of Phil Collins), it’s a bit of a one-joke trick – celebrities mindlessly reading anything they’re told – which wears a bit thin by the end of the ‘original six’ episodes. Nonetheless, the sheer level of idiocy on show in ‘Paedogeddon’ is truly something to behold.
And what still stands up? As mentioned before, virtually all of the broadcasting cliches (asking a question/answering it/then saying ‘but should this be the case?’) can be heard on a daily basis on TV news. The overreaction of the media and public? Well just take a look around the internet at the hysterical headlines we still constantly see. And some still resonate in a painfully sharp way – witness the spokesman wheeled out to dutifully apologise ‘on behalf of every single black person in Britain’. Four years later, you could replace the word ‘black’ with ‘Muslim’ as, in the wake of any extremist act, Islamic community leaders would face howls of anguish unless they denounced something they had nothing to do with.
The other aspect which stands out is Morris’ phenomenal use of language. I’d forgotten how many of his phrases had made it my friendship group’s every day language – as well as the fact that his playful use of words had created at least one band name (I remember watching Clarky Cat take to the stage at a gig in a disused mill in Manchester). And of course, who could forget G.E.F.A.F.W.I.S.P, F.U.K.D. and B.O.M.B.D., W.O.F.D.C.A.P. and S.H.A.D.T.? You can see a full glossary of Morris’ magnificent wordplay at the end of this article, it’s really quite something.
And that ‘Paedogeddon’ special? It’s still a remarkable piece of television, best summed up by the official Channel 4 statement at the time, which read: “Brass Eye challenges what it perceives to be the hysterical way the media treats the issue and tackles inconsistencies in our attitudes to children and sex. It is a powerful satire on the way the media exploits and sensationalises the subject of paedophilia. It is a program that is both humurous and directed to make a serious point. As with much of Chris Morris’ work, it is in places disturbing and is astonishingly vivid and original.”
A friend once described just what it was that Morris hated: “Pomposity of any type and stupidity. Pomposity from the Left or Right; from old or young, from newspapers or telly. It's that simple. Nothing happened to change him, to darken him; there's no trauma in the past. He's the most well-adjusted person I've ever met. He does it because he can. He does what all of us would do, all of us with a basic morality, if we were as clever as he is, but few people are.”
Watching Brass Eye back today, you are reminded of what a talent Morris is – and how much we could do with him back on our screens today.
The Brass Eye Lexicon
“Institutionised cruelty is one thing, but the twisted brain wrong of a one-off man mental is quite another. Ted Maul disturbs.” – Animals
“Her dunk pump mechanism has blown. There’s bloody vegetable gas everywhere... She needs Wolfpower, or she will explode in a shower of pulped yams.” – Animals
“Triple sod. Yellow bentines. Makes you go really blutey. Are you the boz boz? Are you a boz boz? I don’t want to end up like a piano dentist. I don’t want my arms to feel like a couple of fortnights in a bad balloon. I’m less interested in giving you fourty quid to end up on a quackhandle. I tell you what, I’ll give you thirty quid for one clarky cat.” – Drugs
“It stimulates the part of the brain called Shatner’s Bassoon.” – Drugs
“They tested this stuff on rats – it turned them into bloody spacehoppers for God’s sake.”- Drugs
“Last time I came here a friend of mine just got triplejacked over a steeplehammer and er jessop jessop jessop jessop” – Drugs
“He got a negative blutey with a crackhandle and he ended up on the jessop jessop jessop jessop” – Drugs
“Drug use among children has for many an education and with obvious alarm to both parents on the increase almost yearly.” – Drugs
“Cake is a bisturbile cranobolic amphetemoid, which is a made up psychoactive chemical.” – Drugs
“A big yellow death bullet in the head of some poor user, or custard gannet, as the dealers call them.” – Drugs
“If someone offers you cake, they might call it looney toad quack, russell dust, chronic Basildon doughnuts, Joss Ackland’s spunky backpack, bromicide, ponce on the heath, cool thwacks and charlie, argue barmies or Hattie Jacques’ pretentious cheese wog.” – Drugs
“He’s the chungwit, the biff boff and the puff pastry hangman.” – Drugs
“Gynasium womb implant.” – Science
“I’m out of womp. I spazzed it all on a horse.” – Science
“London’s top whack quack shack the Bounty Clinic.” – Science
“Sirrus serious, javo nimbus and alto syphillus.” – Science
“On the new buzz about buzz, the bumbuzzard, did he fly in a rocket, or fly up a socket?” – Science
“It’s like being hit by a ton of invisible lead soup. Can we stand around and eat pies while they’re being flattened likes flies, swatted by the tail of a mad invisible horse?” – Science
“Oh once happy bauble, twisting on the bliss twig of ignorami. You were suddenly plunged into the braintanglia of rudemath and with what shocking results. Has the Earth been reduced to an odious spacegland?” – Science
“Sex is a sumptuous glambabe in a hall of donkeys or a sordid little incubus that looks like your granny. It’s a strong feelings kidney whichever way you slice it.” – Sex
“Senator Agsby seems to unsheath a length of skin-clad tube - his anatomy has broken cloth there – and he staggers around vigorously ransacking his dignity until finally he releases several arcs of liquid silk from the fleshy nozzle of his fork.” – Sex
“And for the entrepreneurs, a bonus bonanza boom bomb benefit bowling alley.” – Crime
“Part your belief curtains.” – Crime
“Cowsick people are the smashed toes of a lame duck society. A lame duck that’s attacking its own feet with a sledgehammer.” – Crime
“Now chafing the transmission heads, what is the relationship between crime and race?” – Crime
“Howard’s Arse means prison. One nil at half time means food. Woggy coconuts means air bricks. Gazza is a gas coin used as currency for cigarettes. Plank sanction: a one-for-one fag exchange. Sue my chin: give us a fag, I’ll give you two next week. Buff my pylon: give us a fag, you owe me two so I’m letting you off the other one. Don’t buff my pylon: switch over the telly. Portillo means look out behind you.” – Crime
“Some would say tish and fipsy, but others wouldn’t.” – Decline
”Coco shunter” – Decline
“By night he trawled these hellblocks for innocent vulnerables.” – Paedogeddon
”Which left North brain dead and quadraspazzed on a life glug.” – Paedogeddon
”Of course we can’t, which is why your children could very soon be splatted by a roboplegic wrongcock.” – Paedogeddon
“Pipe to pipe bushman, code for two pedophiles having sex with each other while watching children from a shrub ...DBL means dusky blonde lulu and that’s a male pedophile disguised as a lion.” – Paedogeddon
“You're a paedophile. You're a nonce. You're a perv. You're a slot badger. You're a two-pin DIN plug. You're a bush dodger. You're a small bean regarder. You're an unabummer. You're a nut administrator. You're a bent ref. You're The Crazy World of Arthur Brown. You're a fence foal. You're a Free Willy. You're a chimney bottler. You're a bunty man. You're a shrub rocketeer.” – Paedogeddon