Disgusting Bliss: the Brass Eye of Chris Morris

There's a lovely moment in Lucian Randall's book where he describes the comedy writer Graham Linehan (co-creator of Father Ted) discovering Chris Morris's BBC radio show On the Hour. Listening to it brought back that "intense feeling" he had last experienced as a kid discovering new bands for the first time. "Linehan even listened to the show lying on the floor, just as he used to do with music when he was a teenager."

It's the kind of fanboy devotion that Morris inspires. Throughout Randall's painstakingly detailed book there are examples of writers, producers and fellow comedians being magnetically attracted to Morris, the man and his work. Randall makes clear at the start that Morris won't appear directly in the book.

They met once, and Morris was friendly enough, though he did not agree to an interview, only giving his consent for friends to speak to the author.
While his absence is disappointing, it would have been markedly out of character for Morris to have contributed his thoughts on the trajectory Randall charts - from his earliest days in local radio at BBC Cambridgeshire and Bristol to On the Hour, The Day Today, Brass Eye and Blue Jam. One of Morris's hallmarks is an absolute disregard for publicity and a pathological commitment to the idea of the work speaking for itself. Yet we are so used to celebrities - the very kind of people Morris likes to skewer without mercy - offering themselves up for lurid dissection that his reticence has made him mythical.

To the curious, and the fans, Randall offers a feast of anecdotes. It feels as if he has interviewed everyone Morris has ever worked with, a method that can read heavily at times. But the conversations with leading collaborators - from Patrick Marber to Armando Iannucci, as well as senior BBC figures such as Matthew Bannister - give an intriguing insight into the experience of working with Morris. Or, in Bannister's case, the impossible task of trying to manage his fireball approach to broadcasting.

If it wasn't already clear from the eye-watering effect of his work (from laughter and gripping shock), Randall confirms the portrait of Morris as an uncompromising creator. He would argue with anyone for the sake of keeping his work intact, of retaining the most controversial, wince-inducing elements. If he hadn't, we might have missed the spectacle of the DJ Neil Fox gurning to the camera while holding a crab, confirming the "scientific fact" that a paedophile had more in common with the crustacean than a human being.

Not surprisingly, none of those stitched up by Morris in the course of his Brass Eye programmes agreed to be interviewed by Randall. Nor did Michael Grade, the former Channel 4 boss who insisted on cutting a particularly sensitive scene (on a West End show about the Yorkshire Ripper called Sutcliffe! The Musical) from the final episode of Brass Eye, only to find that Morris, unnoticed, had slipped in a flash-frame caption saying "Grade is a cunt".

But Randall makes up for the omissions with rich behind-the-scenes knowledge - for example, how the production team would be rigid with nerves as they set up a celebrity; the buying of Neil Fox's crab from Billingsgate Market; how Channel 4's lawyers fought for the shows to be aired. Though unashamedly an admirer, Randall is not afraid of examining the controversy that surrounded Morris once the shows were aired (the Sun asked, rhetorically, whether the paedophilia special was "the sickest TV ever").

Brass Eye makes for the most engaging part of the book, mainly because of the programmes themselves. Thirteen years on from their creation, it's hard to think of television that has achieved anything like the impact of those six shows. But Randall's close eye also reminds you of the breadth of Morris's work - the surreal Blue Jam late-night radio shows and the spoof Observer column by "Richard Geefe", supposedly commissioned by the then editor, Roger Alton, to commit suicide (for which Morris even managed to wangle a book deal). Because of his ability to slip beneath the radar, some of Morris's work is overlooked. While it is always original and pushing every kind of televisual boundary, it isn't all as attention-seeking as Brass Eye.

Randall is as devoted to his subject as Morris's most loyal collaborators. Sometimes this can feel fawning: the final page is rather gushing in its praise of Morris's "devastating effect" and the "profoundly emotional resonance" of his work. But, for the most part, Randall venerates his subject with a purpose, and we end up with a fascinating account of a working life. One question is why we need such a detailed book on Morris now, when his career promises years more of controversy. The timing is no accident - Morris's film about hapless jihadists, Four Lions, is to be released in May. It will inevitably wind up the tabloids, sending them into a frenzy of moralistic outrage. Meanwhile the fanboys, Randall included, are lying on their bedroom floors, waiting.

Sophie Elmhirst is an assistant editor of the New Statesman

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 19 April 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The big choice