With Manchester TV festival Pilot Light celebrating Brass Eye's 20th anniversary, we look back at Chris Morris's seminal show and realise we need his blistering satire more than ever
Every joke is a tiny revolution, said George Orwell. Given the current state of the world – Brexit, Trump, the reformation of Steps – a revolution is exactly what we need. Political comedy is often the best place to start; in dark times, satire serves an almost medicinal purpose – a valve to release the pressure. And no comedy in recent memory delivered this public service better than Chris Morris’s fearless media satire Brass Eye.
Astonishingly, this year marks the 20th anniversary of the show that earned Morris the title “most loathed man in television.” The roots of Brass Eye lie in the comedian's pre-television work. From a young age, Morris had an enthusiasm for pranks, and parlayed this into a local radio career. No Known Cure, a late 80s Saturday morning show on Radio Bristol, saw Morris bending broadcasting rules with bizarre parodies, disorientating sound effects, and a series of feedback reports in which he would spring unsettling questions on members of the public.
In 1991, Morris hooked up with producer Armando Iannucci for acclaimed Radio 4 news parody On the Hour, which introduced his alter-ego “Christopher Morris”, the combative, Paxman-esque news anchor. On the Hour migrated to BBC Two, with much of the same creative team, as The Day Today, a scalpel-sharp satire of news speak and media intrusion. The Day Today revelled in surreal language and ridiculous on-screen graphics; it was received with across-the-board acclaim. Brass Eye, Morris’s next project, would prove a more incendiary comedy bomb.
Iannucci was possibly a tempering influence. The Scottish satirist had no involvement with Brass Eye, leaving Morris free to travel into dangerously challenging new territory. Using a current affairs-style TV format, each of the show's episodes addressed a different issue from a perspective of moral panic. Morris, in a series of elaborate disguises, interviewed numerous celebrities – including Peter Stringfellow, Phil Collins, and Babylon Zoo one hit wonder Jas Mann – and convinced them the stories his research team had 'uncovered' were real.
Paul Daniels asked viewers to help a German elephant with her trunk stuck up her anus; Steven Berkoff warned of the dangers of “heavy electricity” leaking out of cables. The detailed subterfuge included fake organisations like S.H.A.D.T (Schools Heighten Aversion Drug Therapy), and A.A.A.A.A.A.A.Z (Against Animal Anger and Autocasual Abuse Atrocities in Zoos), each with its own company address and letterhead.
Drugs, one of the show’s most notorious episodes, concerned a fake Eastern European street drug called “Cake”, which tragically caused users to lose all concept of time. “Well, it almost sounds like fun,” a duped Noel Edmonds says gravely in the episode, “unless you're the Prague schoolboy who walked out into the street straight in front of a tram. He thought he'd got a month to cross the street.”
Controversial broadcasting is nothing new. Peter Watkins’ The War Game – a terrifying doc on the probable effects of nuclear war – was banned for 20 years, while Dennis Potter’s dark psychological thriller Brimstone and Treacle was on the broadcasting shelf for 11. Brass Eye did not receive a ban, but Channel 4 postponed the transmission date for several months because of legal concerns.
Morris has never been afraid of causing trouble, of course: he falsely announced the death of Jimmy Savile on his Radio 1 Christmas show, and there was a similar story about MP Michael Heseltine. But nothing could have prepared him for what happened after Brass Eye finally landed: this was less a comedy show, and more a cultural shock wave. Several celebrities threatened to sue. Tory MP David Amess was concerned about Cake reaching UK shores, and went so far as to raise a question about it in Parliament: upon discovering the time-altering illegal substance was a hoax, he attacked Channel 4, describing the entire enterprise as “beneath contempt”.
Paedogeddon!, the show’s infamous 2001 special, attracted even more complaints, with politicians queuing up to froth at the mouth (even though most hadn’t seen the programme). The Daily Mail called it “the sickest TV show ever” but clearly missed the point. Paedogeddon! wasn’t a comedy about paedophiles, more a hysterical representation of the media’s hysterical reporting around the issue. As a father, Morris was angry at the climate of fear the media was cultivating; parents have enough to worry about, he reasoned, without being told on a near-daily basis: “Your child could be next”. This was comedy with an uncompromising moral purpose.
In America, political satire is currently as strong as ever, with the likes of The Daily Show, SNL and late night hosts like Seth Meyers, Stephen Colbert and Samantha Bee regularly ridiculing the Trump administration with righteous fury. Where is the British equivalent? It’s not like we’re short of targets.
Since his blistering 2010 comedy Four Lions, following a quartet of clueless jihadi terrorists, Morris has been oddly quiet (apart from directing a few episodes of old pal Iannucci’s political comedy Veep). We need Brass Eye 2 as a matter of urgency; without Chris Morris, the revolution will not be televised.
Brass Eye at Pilot Light
Manchester TV festival Pilot Light had its inaugural edition last year, and the undoubted highlight was a rapturously received screening of Chris Morris and Charlie Brooker’s hipster-baiting satire Nathan Barley. Pilot Light’s sophomore edition brings four more days of cult shows, Q&As, and panel discussions to Manchester, and features another Morris show, Brass Eye.
This special event will screen all six episodes from the first series, followed by the world premiere of Michael Cummings’ Oxide Ghosts: The Brass Eye Tapes – a special documentary edited from hundreds of hours of unseen material from the show. Cummings, who directed the first series of Brass Eye, will attend for a post screening Q&A.
Brass Eye, Gorilla, Manchester, 7 May, 2pm-8pm
For more on Pilot Light TV Festival, head to pilotlightfestival.co.uk