Oxide Ghosts: The Brass Eye Tapes | Andy Murray attends the first screening of this revealing new collection

Oxide Ghosts: The Brass Eye Tapes

Andy Murray attends the first screening of this revealing new collection

Not all TV comedy shows stand up to repeated viewings. Some are so unmemorable that you've pretty much forgotten them before you've even finished watching. But that certainly doesn't apply to the mighty Brass Eye. When it was first broadcast on Channel 4 in early 1997, after being delayed a few months due to legal wranglings and a severe case of broadcasterly cold feet, Brass Eye was revealed to be gobsmackingly audacious. 

Fans of Chris Morris's work on radio and The Day Today might have thought that they knew what to expect, but the new show still managed to push the envelope, and its luck, as far as it could possibly go. 

As it turned out, it was perfectly possible to laugh and gasp at the very same time.

The show was also tailor-made for the age of home recording, packed as it was with way more visual and verbal gags than it was possible to digest in one pass. The graphics alone took the look of mid-90s current affairs programming and reproduced them almost exactly, except for twisting them ever slightly out of shape until they appeared totally demented.

This year marks the show's 20th anniversary, then, and to mark it, the Pilot Light TV Festival in Manchester staged a special event in the city centre venue, Gorilla. True to form, the publicity-wary Morris himself didn't attend, but happily it was blessed by the twinkly presence of Michael Cumming, below, who directed the series and a host of other fine projects – Snuff Box, Toast of London – in the years since. 

Michael Cumming Brass Eye

For a kick-off, the sold-out venue was treated to a screening of all six original episodes of the show. (The 2001 special wasn't included, on the very reasonable grounds that Cumming didn't direct it, and besides, it hasn't turned 20 just yet). 

However many times you've seen Brass Eye since 1997, watching it again on a big screen and with a big crowd is a proper eye-opener. The sheer barrage of detail lends itself nicely to the grander scale. New things leap out: a small monitor screen off to one side with Paxman on it, or a woozy speech about the poor, beleaguered Earth which seems to presage Blue Jam slightly before its time. 

A couple of celebrity appearances – Donald Trump, Rolf Harris – seem far more contentious now than they did back in the day, and draw enthusiastic boos from the audience. On the other hand, there's a flotilla of beautifully-turned performances to admire, from Kevin Eldon and Mark Heap to David Cann, Gina McKee and Claire Skinner, and little touches within them are writ large here. In particular, you're reminded what a very fine performer Morris is, which makes his move behind the cameras seem rather a shame in retrospect.

Arguably, though, the main event here is what comes after the show. For the occasion, Michael Cumming has unlocked his personal crate of ageing VHS tapes containing raw Brass Eye material and created Oxide Ghosts: The Brass Eye Tapes, an hour-long assemblage of unseen out-takes. Cumming has shaped the piece and added his own narration to frame it as a kind of personal documentary about the story of the series.

Again, if you're very familiar with Brass Eye, this peek behind the screens is a revelation. There's even more footage of Morris on a street corner with drug dealers attempting to score Clarky Cat, Triple Sod or Yellow Bentines – with the added insight that he'd stuffed a copy of Vogue up his shirt to impede any attacks on his person. Apparently, the plan was for Morris to return to the scene in a horse-drawn carriage a few nights later, as a Romantic poet in the market for a tincture of opium, but regrettably that didn't pan out.

Brass Eye

The film consists of low-fi, time-coded material, but in practice that suits the nostalgic tone to a tee.  It includes the familiar set-up of Morris in a TV studio next to an elephant with the name 'Mike Fox' projected onto its side, but this time complete with a full-on Lulu on Blue Peter-style bladder-voiding incident. Elsewhere, Morris is seen by the Thames with large glasses and slicked-back hair in the guise of ex-civil servant Foster Pann, rattling off a ludicrously long list of animals he's illicitly procured for MPs, until the mention of a basking shark finally cracks him up. (Morris studied zoology at university, which must somehow help to explain his endless comic fascination with animals.)

In short, most of the best-loved moments from the finished series originally existed in extended versions, and now, thanks to Cumming's efforts, some of them can be relished again. Fans of classic characters such as retired weasel fighter Bernard Lerring and Cow tormentor Simon 'Chob' Hottrin will be in clover. The film also features Morris' legendary conversation with Reggie Kray over a prison phone line from Broadmoor, which went unbroadcast once a burly, persuasive gentleman arrived at the production office to argue the toss later that day. 

The series' original, unexpurgated, go-for-broke ending is present, too, complete with Heap as leading religious figure in a state of evident sexual excitement. 

In fact, as the series originally took shape, an early plan had been for one episode to address the theme of religion directly, but in the event some of the material ended up in other editions instead, whereas some is only seeing the light of day for the first time in Cumming's film. There are simple, old-fashioned bloopers as well, some of them genuinely charming and delightful, but wisely, these are used sparingly. 

As you'd expect, most of the very best material made it into the finished show, but there's the odd gem here, such as a swiftly-dismissed 'Lady Parliament' discussion on the ethics of eating animals, which could easily have made the final cut.

Brass Eye

After the screening, Cumming takes the stage for a Q&A session chaired by TV journalist Emma Bullimore. He's an affable, open figure who is happy to share his memories. It's enlightening stuff, too. There was no director's commentary on the Brass Eye DVD and Cumming isn't featured in Lucian Randall's Morris biography Disgusting Bliss, so these tales all feel fresh. 

By way of example, it turns out that Morris only offered to direct the pilot of Talkback's sketch show Big Train by way of penance for the fines the production company had to cough up because of Brass Eye. Also, it seems that the only public figure to demur when asked to deliver a nonsensical speech to camera campaigning for poor Karla the elephant was none other than Toyah Wilcox.

Rather sweetly, Cumming admits that stray phrases from the show – ‘Bloody book, bloody book!’; ‘"Where in shitting crikey is my nose?"’- have become part of his standard lexicon over the years. 

He talks fondly of incidents such as the visit to the Embassy Club to capture Bernard Manning's thoughts on the perils of made-up drug Cake, which concluded with Manning wandering off with an open invitation to the team to, ‘have whatever you want, lads – have a drink, have a fucking sandwich if you want’.

In conversation, there's a rather wistful admission from Cumming that Brass Eye would be unlikely to get made today. Too many contemporary factors – jittery, risk-averse broadcasters; the all-pervasive eye of social media; a celebrity culture that's almost beyond parody – would be stacked against it.  

Brass Eye

It emerges that Chris Morris himself has seen Oxide Ghosts, and has given his blessing for it to be shown uncut. Cumming seems eager to take the film to any other venues around the country which might be interested, but explains that it can't ever be released commercially, for a whole tangle of rights and legal reasons. Instead, it's meant as something to experience in person, rather than to watch on YouTube.

It's a treat to see Brass Eye again, and to get to watch, and hear in person, what it took to get it on screen. Meanwhile Oxide Ghosts is a very worthwhile piece, a thoughtful, curiously touching time capsule which pays fulsome tribute to, and certainly never cheapens, the spirit of the original show. 

It offers a well-judged and very rare insight into its making, encapsulating the fun and covert excitement that went on while the project was still under wraps, before all the legal wrangling kicked in. If you're an admirer of the show and the opportunity should arise for you to see Oxide Ghosts, have some self re-cocking-spect and do so without hesitation.

Brass Eye

◼ PICTURES: JACK KIRWIN

Published: 10 May 2017

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