Disgusting Bliss: The Brass Eye of Chris Morris by Lucian Randall

Book review by Steve Bennett

Chris Morris might be one of the most revered figures in modern comedy, but he remains a virtual recluse, refusing all but the rarest request for interviews, even when he has a new creation to promote. That anonymity, which helped him dupe witless celebrities in Brass Eye, has only served to lend him an almost mythical status among those who know his work.

He didn’t grant an interview for this new biography, either, although he did give his blessing for friends and collaborators to contribute. That author Lucian Randall’s previous biography was of childhood hero Vivian Stanshall must have helped.

The result is the best analysis yet of how Morris works, from the perfect alchemy of talents that created On The Hour to the shitstorm-provoking Brass Eye Special and beyond. With Morris’s jihadist comedy movie Four Lions out next month, the timing is perfect.

Randall skilfully walks the tightrope to provide comedy anoraks with previously unknown facts about Morris’s formidable body of work, while keeping it interesting for even the most casual of fans. It reveals something of the man behind the hate-filled headlines, but not enough to shatter the air of mystery that surrounds him.

After a stint in a band, Morris started work in local radio, where legend has it that he was sacked or filling the studio with helium during a news bulletin, so the stories were delivered in a high-pitched squeak. Randall finds no evidence of this, though cites plenty of other evidence of his playful invention, including getting members of the public to take part in ridiculous vox pops – stunts that would serve him well in his later career.

His relationship with bosses at Radio Bristol became strained by suck pranks as adding undermining news reports. And although he wasn’t sacked after some grand stunt, he was eventually let go. Those who subsequently employed him, including Matthew Bannister at London’s GLR and Radio 1, and, famously, Michael Grade at Channel 4 would find him a equally troublesome charge.

Radio produced the perfect collaboration in On The Hour. Led by Armando Iannucci, the acutely observed news spoof provided the birthplace of Alan Partridge and boasted a writing team that included Stewart Lee, Richard Herring and future playwright Patrick Marber – who had an acrimonious relationship with the double act. The pair left the team before the TV incarnation, The Day Today, which exposed the pomposity, insensitivity and meaningless visual metaphors of TV news – but did nothing to stop their spread.

It was Brass Eye that caused most waves, thanks to Morris’s innate understanding of the media. Even though ideas such as the Peter Sutcliffe musical were designed to highlight the industry’s exploitation of tragedy, he could not have been entirely surprised when he was the one accused of being offensive. But the sustained and frenzied attack that he was subjected to following the paedophile special – branded ‘the sickest TV ever’ must have surprised even him, with photographers camped outside his home. The Mirror quoted a conveniently unnamed colleague branding him an ‘arrogant, egotistical character, driven by an almost psychotic need to shock but too cowardly to account for his actions’.

That’s far from the impression given by this book which, although understandably sympathetic to Morris’s aims, isn’t blind to some of the shortcomings of the Brass Eye Special. Morris is portrayed as an iconoclast, keen to use the media’s own lazy thinking against itself. But cowardly doesn’t seem a fitting adjective for someone prepared to place himself among street drug dealers, then wind them up by talking nonsense to them, for the sake of a brief sketch.

In fact, Morris is probably one of the bravest voices in comedy, and this well-written and meticulously researched book is a fitting appraisal of his life and work so far, and certainly worthy of its uniquely talented subject.

  • Disgusting Bliss: The Brass Eye of Chris Morris by Lucian Randall is published by Simon & Schuster, priced £12.99. Click here to buy it from Amazon at £6.49

Published: 21 Apr 2010

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