Chris Morris? He's the nicest guy ever | Brass Eye at 25: Interview with director Michael Cumming

Chris Morris? He's the nicest guy ever

Brass Eye at 25: Interview with director Michael Cumming

Twenty-five years ago today, Brass Eye first aired on Channel 4. JAY RICHARDSON spoke to director Michael Cumming about his experience harnessing the maverick talent of Chris Morris, and the film, Oxide Ghosts, that he's assembled from outtakes of the groundbreaking satirical series.

How do you direct a forceful personality like Chris Morris, someone who wants to be involved in every creative decision?

For that reason, my favourite bits of Brass Eye are when Chris appears on camera. I think he always felt he wasn't a great actor and always surrounded himself with people he thought were, like Kevin [Eldon], Mark Heap and Gina McKee. But he's a really good performer. And it's amazing how many characters he plays in it. That's when you could shape a little bit of what he was doing.

When you look at it now, it seems very precise and worked out. And it's beautifully written, especially the voiceovers. But a lot of the performances were quite improvisational. For example, the Animals episode, which was essentially the pilot, he plays this weasel fighter bloke, Bernard Lerring.

We shot hours with him as that character and only ended up with a minute or so on screen. He had stuff in his head that he'd written and wanted to say. But we wanted it to be like a natural interview with the hesitations and stumbles. I was firing questions at him that we hadn't discussed. If ever something good came out of those, you could go back, tweak it and come up with a slightly neater version. But a lot of the time we used the spontaneous take.

As your first  experience of making television comedy, what did you learn from Brass Eye?

The main thing I learned from him was getting the balance right, between precision and the ability to improvise. Be as prepared as possible, spend a long time thinking about it, so you're ready to pretend that you made it up on the spot. Everybody was encouraged to try stuff. But the way it was put together, the way the voiceover was crafted and how Chris chose his words was incredibly precise.

How much of your role was a duty of care for his safety? For instance, when you were filming him engaging real drug dealers? Or when an associate of Reggie Kray's visited the production office to take issue with him calling the gangster in jail?

Some of that was the foolishness of youth really. We didn't think too much about it till afterwards. It hadn't occurred to us that that phone call was made from a traceable number at a recognisable address. We learned from that.

But there was always this sense that you'd signed up to this secretive thing you didn't talk about. With all of the celebrity stings, there were no gotchas, we wanted them to leave not knowing they were part of a spoof show.

It's testament to the producers and the researchers that despite some of the incredibly stupid things we got those celebrities to say, most of them left not questioning it. If word had got out about what we were doing, it would have ruined it.

The production period was so long [from 1995 to 1997], it amazes me that, aside from a few hiccups, we kept it under wraps. And I don't think anybody really realised they were in a Chris Morris show. Even if they thought it was a weird interview.

Lucian Randall's biography Disgusting Bliss: The Brass Eye of Chris Morris mentions an instance where Morris threatened to destroy the series' rushes over a point of contention with Channel 4. Did you always back him creatively? Were there moments when you felt it would have been wiser to compromise?

No. Because I'd been to art school and film school, then ended up being this sort of jobbing director, which I'd never wanted to be, making loads of terrible TV. I was sick of it and was going to give up. I probably would have given up if I hadn't met Chris. I thought Brass Eye was a way of doing something different on TV, biting the hand that feeds in a very critical relationship with the medium. I was all for showing up television and the people who mindlessly appear on it.

I don't remember the rushes threat. And I didn't contribute to the book because I was still thinking we don't talk about Chris, we don't talk about Brass Eye. But yeah, we backed him up. At the time we were a bit critical of  Channel 4, we didn't feel as supported as we could be.

But when you look back at what they actually broadcast, it was amazing actually what they pulled off. So although we'd get a bit grumpy about a bit being trimmed, it has to be said that Channel 4's legal department were incredibly behind it and pulled out all the stops to enable it to be broadcast. Now you find the legal departments of companies and channels are so risk averse that it just couldn't possibly happen in the same way.

Are you proud of the so-called ‘Brass Eye clause’, that the rules were changed over entertainment shows duping interviewees in the public interest?

We found a loophole in the ITC guidelines which allowed us to get our interviews without coming clean about what they were afterwards. That loophole got closed up very firmly and it came back to bite us on The Mark Thomas Product [which Cumming also worked on[ because we had to be more upfront. A lot of the stuff we couldn't do in the same way. So I don't know if I'm proud that happened.

Do you think the series nobbling its imitators in that regard is partly why fans are still do devoted to it? It scorched the earth and nothing could follow it?

That law did change a few things. But you couldn't follow it because I don't think you can follow Chris. I reckon if he wanted to do something like it now, he would probably find a way because he's just incredibly tenacious. There are loads of things in Brass Eye where they said: 'You can't do that, you definitely cannot do that.' And bit by bit, finding little alternative routes and wearing people down, we found ways to actually do them.

Did he ever explain why he brought you on board?

No idea. The only thing I can imagine is, that, like a lot of the decisions we made, he wasn't going the obvious route, which would have been to get a tried-and-tested comedy director. I'd never made a comedy. But I had made the kind of programmes we were parodying. And I disdained television. But I don't want to ask him because he'll probably say I was cheap.

What are your memories of the 'Grade is a cunt' incident [Morris' subliminal message taking revenge on Michael Grade, Channel 4's then CEO, after he demanded the controversial Sutcliffe: The Musical sequence be cut]?

I talk about it in the film so I won't say too much. It was born of frustration, that we thought we'd got the programme over the line and it was going to be broadcast in 1996. After all the wranglings and legal ups and downs, they had finally signed it off and we had a transmission date. Then, at the last minute Grade got a whiff of it, wanted to see all the episodes and get separate legal advice.

But, as a consequence of that, a lot of the edits happened on the very day of transmission. So the usual safety protocols of checking weren't as rigorous as they would have been if we'd handed it in a month in advance. And hilarity ensued.

Is it true that Morris was advocating ideas so outrageous that he knew would be rejected, in order to get through the material he really wanted?

That was certainly a technique that has been used. And certainly a technique he used on his radio stuff. That sort of stuff gets covered in the film.

Is there a reason you didn't direct the Paedogeddon special?

I was doing something else at the time. But I don't know really, I haven't talked to Chris much about it. We'd become quite friendly at that point and maybe he wanted someone who was more detached from the process.  I think he probably wanted to do more of the directing himself…  But yeah, I don't know really. Part of me wishes I'd done it. But then it's also nice to have the pure six [episodes].

Michael Cummings
Michael Cumming. (c) Ben Meadows.

How did Oxide Ghosts come about?

Matt Berry and I had gone to the Pilot Light TV Festival in Manchester to talk about the 10th anniversary of Snuff Box. And I'd mentioned to the organiser, Greg Walker, that the following year would be Brass Eye's 20th anniversary. He then said they were going to screen all the episodes and would I like to come and talk about it?

I had this box of tapes, VHS copies of the rushes that I'd always thought I might do something with one day. But I never had. I thought I might digitise them, show a couple of clips, stuff nobody had seen before. Rummaging through though, all the memories came flooding back. Things that had been cut, extended versions. And by the end I had this 60-minute thing. But I didn't want to show it to anyone if Chris didn't want me to. He was great though, said he really liked it. I thought he'd want the behind-the-scenes bits to be cut of him breaking character.

Does the film humanise him a bit, temper his image as the dark, enigmatic lord of British comedy?

I think it probably does. He's the nicest guy ever, a really sweet man. I don't remember ever having a cross word with him. Even so, I wouldn't want to get on his wrong side.

As I say at the beginning of the film, when I first met him, I wasn't sure it was him. Because I was expecting the suit, the hair slicked back. Since then, he's broken cover a bit more to publicise his various projects. But hardly anyone knew what he was like off-screen then.

What's the most interesting feedback you've received from the Oxide Ghosts' Q & A sessions?

I like the very nerdy questions. If people are really into the show, they try to get things confirmed that they've read about. Sometimes I'll confirm or deny them. But sometimes it's nice to keep things ambiguous. The film I narrated in a slightly ambiguous way. Because you don't want to explain everything about everything. There'd be no fun in that.

But is it true that since the film came out, Chris has handed you more Brass Eye tapes?

At one point he did say there was more stuff but I haven't got it yet. But there's loads more I could have put in the film anyway.

The most annoying thing is that at one point I had a copy of every single tape we shot, of which there were hundreds and hundreds. And over the years they've got lost and recorded over. I remember recording fucking Twin Peaks over some of the rushes thinking 'ah, it's only the interview with Rolf Harris, I'll never want that again ...' There's loads that has gone by the wayside. But Chris might … I don't know.

You also made the film King Rocker with Stewart Lee. Do you think you’d work with him again?

Yeah, we've got another film in the pipeline that we'd like to do. King Rocker, like Oxide Ghosts was an independent film, totally independent, there was no backing, no finance, no executives, no notes from anybody. Hardly even a production company really. It gave us the freedom to make something we really wanted to make. But there's only a certain amount of times you can do those labours of love. The only way to do them is by yourself, without interference, and try and flog them afterwards. Though we could find a benign co-funder I guess.

Stewart's on this massive tour at the moment and I've been quite busy. But we're hoping to try and start something later in the year. This one would be part-documentary, part-fake. Part-fact and part-fiction.

What can you tell me about the subject matter?

I'm not sure. If I said it featured Kevin Eldon and Val Doonican, would that help?

I get the impression that Lee and Morris are quite similar, in that they both like to work on the fringes if possible. Is that the same for you?

Yeah, I much prefer to do that. I don't do that much TV now. And I'm lucky enough to do the things I want to and work with the people I want to. It's been great to be independent.

Having said, that I've also been lucky enough to build Toast, which I love doing. I love working with Matt [Berry] and [writer] Arthur Mathews, that's been such a treat to come back to after so long. I never thought it would see the light again, even though we'd talked about it coming back a lot and had tried on various occasions to do things with it. We were maybe going to do a film or an American version, all sorts of stuff that never happened.

The BBC have been great, they've pretty much left us to our own devices. I was worried audiences would have forgotten about it or wouldn't like the fact that it's a slightly different version. But it seems to have gone down pretty well and I actually think it's got more experimental …

Yeah, it feels like it's getting weirder and more leftfield, even as it gains a higher profile...

Yeah, it's weirdly symmetrical isn't it? That Brass Eye was initially made for the BBC, was rejected and went to Channel 4. And that Toast has gone the other way. For it to happen twice, 25 years apart is pretty odd. Because the people who commissioned it left the BBC, the people who looked after us just let us get on with it. It was brilliantly liberating, a real pleasure to do. It felt like slipping on a pair of comfy shoes again.

Are you hoping to make more?

There's definitely an appetite from us to do more. The series is still going out, so it's early days. But the viewing figures have been respectable, if anyone even cares about figures anymore. The series was made in partnership with an American backer. The idea was to sell in America. And as far as I know, that hasn't happened yet. So I suppose it depends on them coming back on board as to whether it's viable for the BBC.

But I hope it will. It feels like it did at the beginning of Toast - the pilot - when I kind of thought, 'this is brilliant but it'll never be commissioned'. Yet once it was, you started to think of all the great things that could happen with these characters. And now America has opened up all those kinds of doors again.

It sounds like you're still in touch with Morris. Any plans to collaborate again?

I wouldn't have thought so. He emailed me this morning actually, a documentary idea I might be interested in. And he wrote Stewart and I a really nice email after King Rocker, which I appreciated more than any review because he doesn't tend to say much about stuff. I don't know what he's up to at the moment. But I might do soon when I talk to him.

So what's next for you?

Well, going round every city in the country [with Oxide Ghosts], answering questions again. I'm hoping there will be another Toast and that film with Stewart.

If I hadn't done anything since Brass Eye and I was trawling this film around, it would be a bit tragic. But it's brilliant that, 25 years down the line, people are still interested.

It's nice to have Toast on TV, even if television doesn't feel as important anymore. I was thinking the other day, part of the reason we got celebrities and politicians to come on Brass Eye was because television had a status it doesn't have now, when there are social media platforms for people to spout bullshit on. There was a context of what you could and couldn't do that isn't there on the internet. The rules were there to be broken and bent.

• Tickets for the UK tour of Oxide Ghosts are available here. Guest hosts for the Q & As include Stewart Lee, Arthur Mathews, David Walliams and Athletico Mince's Andy Dawson. Here is a trailer:

Published: 28 Jan 2022

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