IThis original broadcast was postponed by a nervous Channel 4, it led to questions in the House of Commons and to a (Labour) culture secretary professing herself “shocked and appalled” on the 10 O’Clock News. It is also “one of the greatest comedies ever shown on television,” says David Walliams, who on Sunday night hosted a screening of a film about the making of Chris Morris’s legendary series Brass Eye – 25 years old this year. Oxide Ghosts: The Brass Eye Tapes splices together off-cuts and outtakes from the show, and is made by Brass Eye’s director, Michael Cumming, who excavated the material from his own chest of floppy discs and VHS tapes. It’s touring now, and for Brass Eye fans – that’s me! – it’s a must-see.
why? Because it reveals the broadcast series – six short episodes only, plus the notorious “Paedogeddon” special – as just the type of an iceberg of astonishing material. Scenes such as the West End musical about Peter Sutcliffe and the footage of Morris with a spacehopper on his head scoring made-up drugs on a street corner were often prime cuts of much longer sequences, shown here. Then there are whole unseen items, every bit as harsh/funny as the broadcast material – like the “Lady Parliament” sketch, in which Morris agrees an all-female panel to adjudicate on animal cruelty, then bamboozles and patronises the panel to a hasty conclusion.
But you can also enjoy Oxide Ghosts for a peep behind the veil that tends to conceal the show’s reclusive star. There are flashes of how he persuaded his celebrity stooges to appear on the program – or failed to, in the case of Jeffrey Archer. A sense arises of the risks to which its creators were exposed when making the show, as Morris fashions an impromptu stab-proof vest from a Vogue magazine, and as Reggie Kray commissions a heavy to visit the production office after Morris pranked him on a phone call to Maidstone jail.
Then there’s the corpsing, which can’t help but humanize an artist whose human side is more zealously guarded than the crown jewels. Here, Morris giggles at the list of animals he’s improvising while in character as a livestock supplier to British MPs. He giggles when an elephant pisses over his studio floor. And he breaks his daytime TV presenter character to giggle at one of the sickliest moments of the series, when he’s interviewing a fictional teenage girl who has been sexually abused by her uncle de ella. “Was he,” asks Morris, unctuous concern and self-regard vying for the spotlight, “as handsome as me?”
oof. But then there are so many “oof” moments – when you can’t believe Morris’s rent-a-quote celebs are actually speaking the nonsense he feeds them; or moments of cruelty or obscenity that you marvel Morris got away with, even (or perhaps especially) when viewed at 25 years’ distance. We’re more delicate now than in the 90s – this is not a series made for the era of self-care and the safe space.
In a post-screening conversation with Walliams, Cumming discusses the scenes Morris might not venture were the show made today. A sketch about a Holocaust board game was mentioned – although it ended up on the cutting-room floor anyway. The series’ rape jokes and conspicuous interest in gay sex feel ickier to me a quarter century on. Then there’s the subliminal single-frame expletive directed at Channel 4’s then chief exec, the telly grandee Michael Grade – which Cumming apologises for tonight, because Grade, he admits, was bolder in programming and defending the show than they gave him credit for.
But Brass Eye’s brutality is the point: it’s a bonfire of properties. (Cumming cited Pete ‘n’ Dud’s Derek and Clive albums as an influence.) You take it in that spirit, or not at all. Its genius – alongside the rampant silliness, the Edward Lear-like linguistic flamboyance, the great performances – is to be in appalling taste on the one hand, and driven by a palpable moral scorn on the other. Scorn at the pompous inanities of the infotainment culture that was still dawning in 1997, when social media was but a twinkle in Mark Zuckerberg’s eye. Scorn at the cult of celebrity that suggests no charitable cause is worthwhile unless fronted by a C-list personality. (One of the pleasures of rewatching Brass Eye is to be reminded how swiftly such people – your Tamara Beckwiths, your Caesar the Geezers – return to obscurity.)
Inevitably, Cumming’s Q&A tended towards the question: could Brass Eye happen today? Its director doubts it: the internet has changed everything, including the likelihood (give or take the work of Sacha Baron Cohen, Brass Eye’s most obvious inheritor) that a show this audacious could ever premiere directly on network TV. It’s also a show of its time, when perspective was still possible on the interplay of media and celebrity or the flattening effect of rolling news. Nowadays, that’s just the air we breathe. Brass Eye takes a torch to it all, and to whatever bridges still connected Morris to a career in TV comedy. Artists that wild don’t come along often – and when they do, they’re seldom given their own TV show. It happened, once – and Oxide Ghosts gives us a great chance to celebrate it.