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8 August 2017

All the fuss over Brass Eye’s bad taste obscures its technical genius

As part of our 90s comedy week, we ask whether Chris Morris’ celeb-baiting satire holds up, 20 years on.

By Tom Gatti

“Genetically, paedophiles have more genes in common with crabs than they do with you and me. Now, that is scientific fact. There’s no real evidence for it but it is scientific fact.”
– Neil “Doctor” Fox

“What is Cake? Well, it has an active ingredient which is a dangerous psychoactive compound known as dimesmeric andersonphosphate. It stimulates part of the brain called Shatner’s Bassoon.”
– Noel Edmonds

“Heavy electricity is regularly flattening cattle in Sri Lanka. Afterwards, the poor beasts look like giant, fur-covered slugs thrashing about on their backs and made of what scientists call “wobbly matter”. I won’t go into it here but basically it’s caused by sodomised electrons, which rush to the cow’s head end. Now, just apply that to a young girl human.”
 – Nick Owen

“Sadly, bad clouds equals bad science.”
– Tania Bryer

The roll-call of celebrities and politicians tricked into endorsing ludicrous causes on Brass Eye was so long (Gary Lineker, Jilly Cooper, Phil Collins and Rolf Harris all succumbed) and involved such brass balls (the creator Chris Morris knew he was bending the law to its limit) that it became the show’s calling card. Re-watching the spoof current affairs series 20 years after its first broadcast, many of these segments are still hilarious and shocking – did nobody think to question the likelihood of an elephant getting its trunk stuck up its anus, or a girl on drugs throwing up her own pelvis? – and they powerfully demonstrate the problem with “personalities” lending their “passion” to whatever project crosses their desk.

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But the hoaxes risked obscuring the true genius of Brass Eye – in fact they contain the show’s least interesting and most puerile humour. Interviewing the agony aunt Claire Rayner, Morris (in the guise of the goatee’d David Unesco) repeatedly asks variations on the question, “If I attacked you now, would you beat me off?” Rayner, furious, argued in the Observer that “in abusing the trust of people who have valid points to make and who have done no harm to anyone . . . he does real damage to his argument”. The problem with this particular prank, though, was that there isn’t an argument: it achieves little more than a handful of double entendres.

Similarly, grand claims that Brass Eye predicted the post-truth era and the mob justice of social media need to be taken with a pinch of salt. It held up, under horribly garish lighting, a mirror to the hypocrisies of the media – but the fact that Morris’ observations still seem true 20 years later is only partly down to his prescience. Rather, the show’s continued relevance confirms our suspicion that “fake news” is not a product of the digital era but has long been with us: in the tabloids’ public shaming and titillation; the moral Manichaeism of broadcast debate; the synonym-mangling nonsense of news-speak and the willingness to allow insubstantial or false stories to swell, and swallow airtime.

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What’s perhaps most impressive about Brass Eye in retrospect is the sheer density of the programme-making. In an effort to capture the hyper-active, attention-deficient nature of television – and to extract every available drop of comedy from each 25-minute show – no edit, graphic, link or line is wasted.

It’s an approach that reached its apogee in the 2001 special on paedophilia. A notorious paedophile is blasted into space – with an eight-year-old boy “also placed on board by mistake”. In an arena in Cardiff, clowns fit children with anti-paedophile canisters containing eight litres of pressurised sewerage. In Sheffield, security footage shows a paedophile disguised as a school. Gary Lineker shows us a grainy photo of a “blue speck” on a hillside that could trigger a paedophile attack. Chris Morris asks “Why can we no longer think of the British Isles without the world “paedoph” in front of them?” before shrinking to the size of a child, screaming and running away, returning, full-size, to safely tuck his own children up in bed, inside a filing cabinet: “They’re safe tonight. Are yours?”

All that, and barely two-and-a-half minutes have elapsed. In a sketch show, some of these ideas might have run for several minutes each: not in the ultra-compressed atmosphere of Brass Eye. It’s both thrilling and exhausting to watch, and it’s unsurprising to learn that production regularly went over budget and over time (although Morris’s habit of only handing tapes over a couple of hours before transmission was also to prevent unwelcome tinkering from Channel 4).

In a 2014 radio documentary, Armando Iannucci talks of the “love and effort” that Morris pours into his work. During their radio collaboration On the Hour (1991-1992), Morris would often be found in the studio in the middle of the night, working on spoof jingles and doing take after take on news items, and would go on solo jaunts at weekends without telling his colleagues: he once pulled out a cap-gun on the Sellafield site in a bizarre prank that never made it into the show.

For Brass Eye, he expected similar levels of devotion from others: “You find that he raises the quality threshold of anything you do,” Iannucci told Morris’s biographer Lucian Randall. “But it is hard, it’s very hard. It’s just sheer, gruelling, hard, toil.”

Much of the pressure-cooker nature of Brass Eye is down to the script, which is rich, dense and rightly celebrated. Along with co-writers including Peter Baynham, Charlie Brooker, Jane Bussmann, Graham Linehan, Arthur Mathews, and David Quantick, Morris bent language into all sorts of awkward shapes. There’s brilliantly pointless aphorism: “If time’s a drug, Big Ben is a giant needle injecting the sky”. There’s Lewis Carroll-esque nonsense: “Oh, once happy bauble, twisting on the bliss twig of ignoramy, you were suddenly plunged into the braintanglia of rudemath and with what shocking results.” There’s plenty of off-kilter slang – “Have you got any triple sod? Are you the boz-boz?” Morris asks a drug-dealer in Notting Hill – and super-sized un-English: “Even our own artists seem hell-bent on depravitivity.” Then there’s the self-destructing oxymoron of the show’s title: a news programme should advertise its clear-sightedness, but what could be more blind and bauble-like than a brass eye? 


The warped poetry of the series – and Morris’ subsequent radio show Blue Jam – became a sort of dialect for my teenage friendship group (and, I’m guessing, many others across the country). But on re-watching Brass Eye, what’s striking is that the attention to verbal detail extends to the simplest of links: the macho reporter introduced with the utterly vague “Ted Maul has this there” or stupidly cranked-up “Ted Maul disturbs”; his colleague treated to the languid, babbling repetition of “Austen Tasseltine reports reports reports”; the Paxman-like condescension of Morris in “no-nonsense” mode: “People say alcohol’s a drug. It’s not a drug, it’s a drink.”

And it captures perfectly the rhetorical questions that broadcasters still use to shrink-wrap complex issues into neat packages and make the viewer think they are part of a useful debate: “Tonight, science is on trial. Will it be found innocent or guilty?” “Should we revive our ailing culture or just put it out of its misery? Or should we bring it back to life and then shoot it for letting us down so badly?” “So far do we have it right or wrong? . . . Find out exactly what to think next.”

The editing, graphics and music are similarly fine-tuned and turbo-charged. Jonathan Whitehead’s theme, a bombastic, over-extended progression of brass stabs based on “Montague and Capulets” from Profokiev’s Romeo and Juliet, accompanies explosions, flipping screens and vertiginous, rushing circuit boards (plus what is now nostalgia-inducing footage of Blair and Liam Gallagher).

The first episode, “Animals” includes a graph that plots “number of animals abused against what makes people cruel versus intelligence of either party”. The resulting pattern is “so unreadable, you might as well draw in a chain of fox heads on sticks.” And if you do that, the voiceover, points out, “an interesting thing happens: the word cruel starts flashing”. Every time statistics are offered in Brass Eye, they fall flimsily away to reveal sensation and emotion, the true drivers of audience figures (then) and clicks (today).

As a satire on the media, Brass Eye bears repeated viewing. But it’s worth considering how the “paedogeddon” special – which attracted 2,000 complaints, a record later broken by Jerry Springer: the Opera (2005) and Sachsgate (2008) – holds up after the Jimmy Savile revelations. At the time, few leapt to Morris’s defence: the Guardian’s leader described the show as “a deeply unpleasant piece of television that degraded children much more than it satirised either the media or celebrities or politicians”, the Daily Mirror “unmasked” him as an unpleasant acne-scarred oddity, and the Brass Eye clip shown at the Bafta awards was greeted with boos.

Over time it has become accepted as a major, even necessary, cultural intervention, but by 2013 several commentators were wondering if the attack on the moral panic over paedophilia had been shown to be spectacularly off-target. After all, Operation Yewtree had revealed that “paedogeddon” was real, and it had been happening for decades.

Morris’s satire is not, however, straightforward, and it does not deny the existence of abuse. On the contrary, the presenters are deeply creepy, treading a queasy line between condemnation and titillation. And there’s one scene which illustrates how utterly pathetic some institutions are at safeguarding against abuse. An education official is interviewed about a “sex-pest teacher” who has been re-employed 47 times. When asked what the authority did to ensure he wouldn’t re-offend, she answers:

We invited a ten-year-old boy into the room and we asked the man, “Are you attracted to this boy?” And he said no.
And you believed him?
Even though on that occasion he put his hand down the boy’s trousers?
He was trying to save the boy from a fly.

The turning of blind eyes in this manner was precisely what gave Savile the freedom to abuse for so long.

Earlier this year, Phil Harrison of the Guardian asserted that “we need the likes of Chris Morris more than ever”. But Morris has been hard to find since his feature film Four Lions was released in 2010. Were he to return to the fray, what would he make of today’s demons? There’s an oblique answer buried in the “Science” episode of Brass Eye from 1997, in which Ted Maul delivers an item on “London’s top-whack quack-shack, the Bounty Clinic”, where surgeons have been growing extra organs for wealthy clients. Michael Jackson and Donald Fagen are on the list. Saddam Hussein, we discover is “obsessed with having white lady’s wrists”. But the biggest scoop is this: “Donald Trump has received over seven feet of new tongue”.

This is part of the New Statesman’s look back at classic comedies from the 90s. You can find the first instalment, about Alan Partridge, here