Chris Morris’ Brass Eye turns satire into art of a very high order indeed
Sunday March 9, 1997
About halfway through Wednesday night’s final episode of Brass Eye (Channel 4), it began to occur to me that Chris Morris might possibly be God. The idea of a Morrisian deity is appealing for a number of reasons: it explains why the world is so consummately absurd it explains why there is little real justice to be had for the poor and the oppressed and it provides a convincing explanation for why public life in this country is dominated by talented mediocrities.
The sketch that occasioned this lurch of theism on my part was a typical piece of Morrisian excess. We were asked to take on board the idea that an utterly undistinguished, ring-road, provincial business had decided to incentivise its management by providing them with unlimited quantities of drugs. As the sketch began, we were treated to the sight of various middle-management types snorting lines of cocaine, toking on joints and shooting up smack (the managing director). Not only were all the paraphernalia and substances depicted with uncanny accuracy rare on television but the reactions of the drugged executives were also utterly credible.
Another comic might have dared this scenario but would have cut it short. Not Morris. As the anguished, bearded face of the new marketing manager went puce with the effects of excess cocaine and the camera stayed right on him, it became apparent to me that this was art of a very high order indeed. David Lynch used the same technique of dramatically over-extended emotion to telling effect in Twin Peaks, but both contemporary satirists have really borrowed the idea from the high avatar of absurdism Samuel Beckett.
As the new marketing manager fell out of the tedious boardroom gasping and retching, one of Morris’s henchwomen intoned in perfect cod voiceover: ‘Soon he will learn to maintain his levels.’ Maybe he will but I doubt Chris Morris ever will. Put starkly, this man genuinely knows no limits. His programme is the televisual exemplar of Yossarian’s motto in Catch-22: ‘Death to all moderators.’ I didn’t see a great deal of The Day Today, because its transmission coincided with my long period of box furlough but what I did see was both brilliant and congruent with the strange, satiric anti-persona that Morris developed during his radio days. Coming to Brass Eye was witnessing that most unusual and remarkable of phenomena: an artist who has grown and reached the height of his powers.
I had read the pieces about it I had heard the substance of the brouhaha. When, in the first episode of Brass Eye ‘Animals’ I saw Carla Lane, Jilly Cooper et al being not so much led, as driven up the warped garden path of Morris’s contempt, I, like any self-respecting bourgeois couch potato, thought: really, he has gone too far this time. Claire Rayner one of the spoofees writing in this paper, had the nous to be able to identify what it is about duping ‘real’ people into fake broadcast scenarios that might undercut the meaning and purpose of satire.
If satire exists to provoke moral reform in HL Mencken’s formulation, ‘To comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable’ then the muddying of the distinction between ‘real’ and ‘fake’ can only be conceived of as a perversion of satiric justice. But Claire Rayner, in her impassioned, self-regarding piece about her experience with Morris, got it wrong in one vital particular. It wasn’t us the afflicted who were being spoofed it was her the comfortable. In fact, I’ll go further than that: the reason why it’s legitimate to gull people like Rayner into making silly asses of themselves on television is that, in a very important sense, they aren’t real at all.
Rhodes Boyson is real-ish. He’s real enough for me to have seen him walking through the central lobby of the Houses of Parliament the other day. I looked into his guileless, headteacher’s countenance. I recognised him. I thought about it hard, but as ever it was a killing case of esprit d’escalier what I should have shouted at the mutton-chopped former Minister was: ‘Oi! Got any cake, Rhodes?!’ Because Boyson was credulous and bigoted enough to allow himself to be conned into deploring the effects of a drug called ‘cake’, on the Brass Eye episode that dealt with narcotics.
Morris in one of his numerous personae apprised all of the dimwits who fell for it that ‘cake’ was a ‘made-up’ drug. He called his pressure group founded to rid society of the evil of cake ‘FUCKD and BOMBD’ he described the effects of cake in lurid, pantomime terms that wouldn’t have convinced a 14-year-old ingenue.
So why did these people fall for such fakery? The Rayners, Boysons, Mad Frankie Frasers and Worsthornes of this world? Because they aren’t real people any more they’re hyperreal. They’ve made the Faustian pact of being that oxymoronic incarnation, ‘television personalities’.
You can always spot a ‘television personality’, even when they aren’t actually on television, because they carry their ‘made-up’ persona in front of them, like some sort of baffler, or Ready Brek force field. Their reach for notoriety predicated on that fulsome mediocrity of talent detailed above has become frozen in their faces. They are like nose-pickers for whom the wind has definitively changed.
All Morris has done is to give these unpersons an opportunity to demonstrate the fact that they’ll do anything to get a chauffeured car, a Styrofoam beaker of tea and five minutes in the green room goofing out with others of their ilk.
The other important point to be made about Morris’s elision of ‘real’ and ‘unreal’ is that it’s at the very core of his attack on television itself. What Morris realises is that television isn’t a ‘medium’ in any meaningful sense at all. Rather it’s a skein of different media imprisoned in a bogus proscenium. Television is the same as the telephone, and the same as the World Wide Web for that matter. People who become obsessed by the peculiarities of these communications media have simply failed to adjust to the shock of the old. People who bleat on about the ‘artistic’ potential of television qua television are equally deluded. There are filmic artists working in television, and there are dramatic artists there are costume and set designers there are actors. None of them are peculiar to the ‘medium’ all could be set in different contexts.
All except Chris Morris , that is. His savage truncations of Shakespearean English I particularly relished tags such as: ‘Whatever you forget about tonight’s programme remember this’ his fantastical nomenclature last week’s show included a slaughter man called ‘Gypsum Fantastic’ his subversion of the apparent logic of television graphics a bogus diagram featuring the heads of dead foxes and his own crazed demonism on screen a brilliant character actor acting the part of a brilliant character actor all of it testifies to the fact that this man is a true television artist perhaps the only one currently at work.
When the semi-fraudulent credits of the last episode of Brass Eye began rolling up, I turned to the friend I had watched it with and we both said almost in unison it’s a privilege to be alive when people such as Morris are at work. And as for his much-feted reticence and unwillingness to be made into a ‘personality’ himself well, you’d have to say that was the icing on the cake.
Elsewhere on the non-medium, the current torrent of superbly photographed wildlife programmes continued with The Eagle Empire (BBC1). Sea eagles hang out in the arctic north of Norway because they’ve been pushed back there by us. They’re partial to the odd eider duck and do lots of nifty fish-plucking from the waves. This Wildlife on One programme didn’t feature the staggering bird’s-eye photography we’d seen in Incredible Journeys, but it made up for it with astonishingly intimate and slow-motion photography.
There was that, and there was the ineffable presence of David Attenborough. He ended the programme on an up note, telling us that sea eagles were heading south once more, extending their empire after years of attrition. I dare say we’ll soon see one of the elegant birds being interviewed by David Jatt on Brass Eye.
Last Sunday, I did something nobody should ever do. I watched the omnibus edition of EastEnders (BBC1) and then I watched the preview tapes for all of last week’s episodes back-to-back. It was almost like having a soap opera that ran in real rather than virtual time (Pauline says: ‘I’ll just put on the kettle’ and then everybody waits in silence for five minutes while it boils) either that, or like watching The Family, the hideous soap opera Ray Bradbury created for his dystopic fantasy Fahrenheit 451. Viewers of The Family broadcast on three, wall-sized screens receive a copy of that day’s script, complete with their ‘own’ lines. At certain key moments in the action, all the actors peer out of the screen and say: ‘What do you think, Will?’ Or Paul, or Jenny, or whoever it is watching. Whereupon I find myself replying: ‘Yeah, I wouldn’t mind shagging Grant Mitchell, save for the fact that I couldn’t run my fingers through his hair. . .’