It’s odd that Chris Morris is known primarily as a comedian, because his indisputably most famous project, Brass Eye – and its primordial ancestors, On The Hour and The Day Today – were, just as much as they were comedies, making some heavy-handed points about the news as an institution, and wouldn’t have been anywhere near as funny as they were if it hadn’t been for the news putting in the work itself by doing such eminently mockable things. The War segment on The Day Today, for instance, could never have come to be without CNN sensationalising every moment of the Yugoslav Wars. (In the ‘90s, a common curse in the Balkans was ‘may your house be live on CNN!’ – i.e., be hit by a missile.)
Blue Jam and its TV adaptation Jam, meanwhile, were dark humour in the truest sense, and for any given watcher there will very likely be a point where that joke simply isn’t funny any more – though, because of the weird way humour works, that may well also be when they laugh the loudest.
Contrast these, Morris’s better-known work, with the relatively unknown Chris Morris Music Show, where pretty much all of his contributions are just straight-out comedy, yukking around with Peter Baynham and Paul Garner, and, you can tell, honestly having a good time with it – as opposed to Brass Eye, the stress of which led directly to the creation of Blue Jam. And frankly, anything that leads to Blue Jam should be advised against medically, which would actually have been pretty good material for a sketch on the same.
Anyway, here’s my top ten bits from the Chris Morris Music Show.
10. A bath
Mocking a subcategory of consumer goods you wouldn’t even think anyone held an opinion of, this segment was prompted by a discussion of gift-giving generally, and in particular anything made of falsely aged metal. Coming in for particular ire were assorted bath products with a recurring motif of crescent moons. But then something strange happened – the bath products started to creep into their minds, and before long Morris and Baynham could feel a bath coming on.
The conversation that follows merrily straddles the line of being outright gibberish, and taking deadpan sarcasm to heights previously unimagined by man. Though perhaps ‘deadpan’ isn’t quite the right word, given the gleeful twee intonation they both adopt for most of it. It really comes off as a cosy, if incoherent experience – they take in a quick game of Botticelli (Botticelli in the bath!), and teach us all about curious bath accessories you may not have heard of, like the bath-bib, and ‘a little duvet for my candles…because they’re all tired when you finish’.
9. The death of Johnnie Walker
Veteran DJ (and Morris’s former boss) Johnnie Walker has had a distinguished career in radio – starting on pirate radio in the ‘60s, recruited by the BBC, spending the latter half of the ‘70s in America and then returning triumphant to the Beeb. He would eventually receive an MBE for services to broadcasting, so obviously, his death would be handled with the utmost tact.
When Baynham ran in claiming to have found Walker’s body in the next studio, Morris initially played it off as a joke, before realising he was quite serious. Naturally, Morris called up station security in some distress, and they agreed to get in touch with someone – which, when he relayed this to Baynham, became ‘you’ve got to drag the body through to our studio’.
The dragging process knocked a pocket of gas loose from inside Walker’s body, which got Morris thinking – was there a way Walker could still bid his beloved audience goodbye? And, as it turned out, there was. It involved punching holes in the back of his neck and blowing through them, a process which is remarkably visceral even through the medium of sound alone.
The fun didn’t stop there, though – Morris came up with a plan to have Walker stuffed and put on display in Radio 1 reception, and had Baynham find him the number of a reputable taxidermist. The first taxidermist’s receptionist was very reluctant, even when Morris claimed it had been stipulated in Walker’s will – so Baynham suggested they might have better luck with a French taxidermist. Morris ended up calling two, trying to get the best price possible.
(Morris apparently ran into the real Johnnie Walker outside the studios shortly after this episode went out – his only comment being ‘Hey, Chris! You killed me!’)
8. Tudor Sykes’s tortoise
Success always brings problems of its own. In this case, a fan of the show had sent in one of their possessions hoping Morris could autograph it and return it to them – the possession being a live tortoise. Peter Baynham was initially startled but then became quite curious about the internal workings of tortoises. This leads Morris to demonstrate how to slip tortoises out of their shell, and the way he says ‘now look at that!’ upon his success is worth the license fee on its own.
Morris then claims that, like a cat, tortoises will always land on their feet. Baynham gives it a try, and as you might expect, the tortoise doesn’t like this one bit. So the immediate response was to try and fix it – Baynham, trusting in Morris’s knowledge of zoology, attempts to persuade it to get back in its shell, and then to insult it back in.
Naturally, they ring up a vet for advice. Morris makes sure to blame the de-shelling on Baynham, and before too long the topic becomes how one might best put a tortoise out of its misery. When the vet they ring suggests putting it in a freezer, Morris’s ‘what?’ is a wonder to behold – and then he comes back with the less orthodox idea of having Baynham pogo-stick around the room until he and the tortoise collide.
While this is going on, Baynham himself is drafting a letter to Tudor Sykes, apologising for everything that’s happened to his tortoise.
7. The Nick Ross interview
One of Morris’s favourite tricks is to get on a celebrity or other public figure – someone the vast majority of the population will respect and trust – and make them do stupid things. This was one of the best and most controversial aspects of Brass Eye, where we saw celebrities – real people, remember, with working brains – duped into denouncing cake, a ‘made-up drug’ from Prague (‘it’s not made from plants, it’s made from chemicals, by…sick bastards!’) and claiming, stony-faced, that paedophiles shared more genetic structure with crabs than humans.
This is another classic in the same vein. With Ross on the line, and already going along with some utterly nonsensical topics, Morris asks him if he’d like a quick word with Keith Richards, who’s in the next studio. Obviously, Keith Richards was not in the next studio. So we’re treated to Morris putting on a (bad) Keith Richards voice and Ross merrily chatting along, none the wiser, about the very very serious issue of drug abuse (‘Many contemporaries of mine still take it…you know, we’re nearly fifty, man!’)
Ross doesn’t come off badly, really – just a bit dim in this one instance, and even that is perhaps a bit strong, since you and I probably wouldn’t expect to find ourselves talking to a fake Keith Richards. Still, the cult of celebrity could now more than ever do with a bit more puncturing, and a bit less ‘here’s what a Kardashian tweeted’.
6. Beating the heat
In one episode, sometime late in the summer of ‘94, the heat really started getting to Morris. Naturally, he denied this was the case, instead explaining his ire by launching into furious tirades against some of the minor annoyances in his daily life. The term ‘microaggressions’ has basically been poisoned by the way the SJ left has used it, which I think is a shame, because it gets across the idea of lots of little annoyances piling up and then causing family-sized rage very well.
So, we have his righteous fury unleashed at hi-fi shop employees who speak in the same tepid way about both Michael Neiman and Ice Cube, the people who get in your way when you’re getting off the bus, and, eventually, his co-host Peter Baynham – blaming him for giving someone in the studio t-shirt with an unfunny drug-based pun on it, then ordering him to shut up and get him a coffee, and responding apoplectically when passed a note reading ‘do you want sugar’. This all comes to a head when he cancels the scheduled news updates and does it the old-fashioned way, by ringing up a newsagent and interrogating them for the day’s headlines.
The other shoe drops when, after newsbeat (because sadly, he couldn’t actually cancel it and improvise instead) he returns with a beatific sigh of ‘isn’t life great?’ and goes on to wax lyrical about how much he loves stereo shop guys, people getting in his way on the bus, Ollie’s ‘Adi-Hash’ shirt, and indeed having sugar in his coffee. And for once, Baynham gets the real punchline, saying ‘if you ever got irritated, I’d understand’.
There’s some continuity to be observed here between the jokier Morris of the Music Show and his demonic newsreader character (also named Chris Morris) in The Day Today/Brass Eye. The character was defined by his crazed, insatiable lust for news, and taking this segment as a whole, it is as if Morris’s rage is prompted by him jonesing for a hit – then, after newsbeat, displaying the sedated bliss of the satisfied junkie (‘I feel…so fluffy…’).
As we’ve made clear, a fair bit of the show still had a Brass Eye-ish newsy stamp to it, but with a looser feel more appropriate for a music show, an almost improvisational tone (although even before the BBC forbade them to go out live, a lot of it was still ruthlessly edited). This segment, which certainly dates it, had Morris and Baynham relating the various ridiculous events planned to celebrate the new millennium.
The main focus of their ire was the huge amount of public money going towards it all, some millions of which had been set aside in a pot to be gifted to the first child born in the year 2000. Naturally, this created a perverse incentive for anyone even remotely able to bear a child to try and beat the odds – it began at women who conceived in early 1999 trying to hold it in for a few more months and got more absurdly grotesque from there, hitting some kind of disgusting zenith when they got onto the strange folk remedies that old women might be tempted to use to conceive.
(There is a golden moment when Morris lets slip how radio will often refer to television programs in order to ‘substantiate some ridiculous lie’.)
They then point out that all these celebrations and giveaways are really a bit frivolous, given the very real possibility that Christ would be born again on the night of the millennium.
4. I don’t usually do requests
A recurring bit rather than one specific thing, Morris would on occasion read out what were supposedly letters from listeners who, knowing he didn’t usually do requests, were relating their moving stories of love and loss in the hope they would move him enough to do it. These all followed roughly the same formula – an awkward, lonely man meets a beautiful woman and does his best to charm her, then, as things are going swimmingly (and usually when they’re just about to kiss) she gets impaled by a spear of frozen effluent dropped from an aeroplane toilet.
The real fun is on the word-to-word level of it – Morris has always had a marvellous way of phrasing things (‘Her look of stunned incomprehension, tempered still with a slight sensual anticipation, is pop-riveted to the scarred bonnet of my memory’), and when you combine that with his impeccable delivery it’s quite simply a treat. There’s also the song requests that remind the writers of better times, all wonderfully incongruous, such as James Tarbuck’s cover of ‘I Should Be So Lucky’.
Given the format, they come off a lot like precursors to the monologues in Blue Jam, which were easily some of the strongest parts of that program. To any right-thinking person’s disgust, they were missing from the TV adaptation Jam, although the ‘Rothko’ monologue became Morris’s short film My Wrongs #8245–8249 & 117 – clips and snippets of which, oddly, could be spotted in Jam’s interstitial segments.
3. A theological discussion
In the depths of the festive season, a discussion about Christmas shopping and which butchers you could actually smell the turkey in quickly turned towards – in the truest spirit of the season – the real meaning of Christmas. Morris cites Christmas’s roots in pagan tradition, which Baynham dismisses as ‘A.N. Wilson garbage’ that is, at best, technically correct but irrelevant and useless in any actual discussion of Christmas.
Morris counters by revealing the origins of the stable scene, adapted to Christian purposes by replacing some of the animals with human beings. Joseph was originally a heron, Mary replaces a monkey, the adders were written out altogether because of the negative serpentine connotations, and Jesus, as it turns out, was a chicken – a ‘large, charismatic’ chicken that became a minor cult leader in Roman Judea.
Baynham is understandably shocked to discover that Morris is relating this from a photocopy of the Nicene Bloc – sent to him, apparently, by a priest in the Vatican who hates the church. We also learn about the shocking original version of the song ‘Silent Night’.
2. Big spoon baby balloon
A recurring feature of the show was the ‘kiddy’s outing’ – in which, every week, an infant would out a public figure. This time it awoke some deep-seated emotions in Morris about the soothing effect of a child’s voice, which prompted some surprisingly sincere discussion about the nature of parenthood. Then Morris mentioned that they’d arranged to have a baby guest on the show, and it all got twisted.
Baynham, having been sent out to Oxford Street to collect the baby, couldn’t find the right address – but was near a pedestrian with a baby in a pram, which Morris insisted was the right one. With Morris’s guidance, he managed to conceal the baby under his Jamiroquai hat, only to realise he’d been sent to collect a girl, and that this infant was a boy. However, faced with the prospect of returning it to its mother and explaining exactly why he’d taken it, he decided it was the right baby after all.
Morris was immediately incredibly proud of ‘their’ baby, and had Baynham feed it by chewing up bread and dribbling it into the tot’s mouth, just as you might see happening in the wild. Then, with the aid of tea-strainers and balloons, they dressed it up as a fly and batted it around the studio with spoons (hence the segment title).
With Baynham distracted getting a fresh cup, Morris got Baynham’s father on the phone, and after some trademark rambling (‘Me and Peter, we found him, you see…big spoon baby balloon!’) eventually explained the events of the day to him. On Baynham’s return, they did ‘some Satan stuff’, by playing a Sting record backward and humping each other over the record desks while the baby floated overhead, presiding over this strange ceremony. After that, there was little left to do but push the baby out the window and let it drift back down to Oxford Street.
1. The death of Michael Heseltine
Probably the show’s most well-known moment, this is the one that got it suspended for two weeks and made the BBC stop putting it out live. Strictly speaking, Morris never actually announced Heseltine’s death, but if you were flipping between channels or not really listening, you could have easily come away with the impression he had.
The show featured two of Morris’s finest prank calls, one to Bruce Foxton of The Jam asking which bassline he thought might serve as a suitable epitaph, and one to Heseltine’s colleague, Tory MP Jerry Hayes, which never actually claimed Heseltine was dead – Morris claimed to be updating the BBC’s obituary tapes, which Hayes cheerfully helped him out with. He would later make similar prank calls regarding Meatloaf, and actually did falsely report the death of famous paedophile Sir Jimmy Saville (who claimed it had ruined his Christmas).
The real kicker, though, was the intro and outro to the show, where Morris intoned in his measured newsreader best – ‘This is BBC Radio 1 FM, and if there is any news of the death of Michael Heseltine in the next hour, we’ll let you know.’ So while he could hardly be done for libel, he knew exactly what he was doing and what it was suggesting. The intro was followed by Elton John’s elegaic ‘Song For Guy’ – which frankly treats this fictional death with more gravity and respect than the media tends to treat real ones.
Heseltine himself apparently found it pretty funny.
It should be noted that these are just the top ten, and all were up against some pretty stiff competition – I mentioned the feedback reports, a savage parody of BBC vox pops in which Morris would get members of the public to give their opinion on utter nonsense, like the trend of people tying knots in their faces. And I haven’t even touched upon Michael Alexander St. John’s semi-regular dance charts, or Paul Garner’s various exploits, such as getting airport tannoy announcers to read out names that are fairly obviously rude messages, and bothering shops by, for instance, complaining his chance is too shiny.
It may be more than twenty years on, but the Chris Morris Music Show is still as good as anything radio’s ever turned out. I would highly recommend not just this, but all of Morris’s work if you’re not already familiar. Take a day, take a couple – bask in it. You won’t regret it.
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