ON HOT TAKES

146It’s still early days for this new blog. Design-wise, it’s far from ready – it’s like moving into a new house but you’re undecided on the decor or furnishings, and there’s that back room which urgently needs a floor. As for subject matter, I could have gone with a specific theme, but I felt uncomfortable with that. I decided that, after several years away from blogging, it would be best to just see what ideas came up and run with those. So, for a while at least, these pieces may have little in common. This in itself, though, feels exciting. You have to start somewhere, after all.

But while I don’t want to start laying down rules for what will and won’t feature, I hope to keep the ‘hot takes’ pieces to a minimum. There are too many columnists already, battling to be first with their opinions on why Eric Bristol ‘had a point’, why they always knew Dennis Trump would win but never bothered saying anything, and why ‘that thing you think you like is rubbish’ (copyright, The Guardian, most days). I have stopped reading the columnists. They are all useless. Even the good ones. They are as well. Yes.

We’re in an environment where instant reaction is key, where that tweet doesn’t have to be nuanced or thoughtful, just quick. (Guilty as charged, m’lud.) Yet sometimes it’s hard to have an instant reaction to something. Sometimes you’re simultaneously too close to the event, and too far away from it, to make any coherent sense of what’s going on.

Five years ago this afternoon, I was in a crematorium, saying goodbye to my brother. He had died two and a half weeks earlier, and I was one of a handful of people whose job was to pay tribute to him and his life. I hadn’t had long to write something, but was aware this was a golden opportunity to sum up a life, one curtailed cruelly early.

I have my eulogy written down somewhere. It may even be on the same laptop I’m typing these words on. I could go and look. But I somehow can’t. Because whatever I said that day was likely to have been filling space. I was the first to speak. I think I spoke for barely two minutes, a fraction of what the other speakers said. I can remember my voice cracking when I got to the bit that emphasised that he enjoyed a full, fruitful life despite narrowly missing his fortieth birthday by a matter of days. I can remember saying what extraordinary people his family were – though I may have left myself out of the list.

I do recall two things, though. One was that I couldn’t quite believe how many people were there: perhaps four or five hundred. Some were outside in the cold as the crematorium simply didn’t have enough space for seating.

The other thing I remember, while I squinted at an ocean of faces, was a soup of an alternative speech I was writing in my head. It went something like this:

 ‘What I’m reading out now is filler. This isn’t what I want to say at all, but I am in shock. I remember the joy and laughter but I can’t express that now, not yet. I remember the complications and occasional friction from our childhoods. But I doubt you want that today, either. And then there’s the illness he had, and – well – let’s not go there. It’s not that I have nothing to say. It’s just I can’t put it into words yet.  All I can do is to cling on to the words that I am capable of reading out, right now.’

I’m not suggesting for one moment that the other speakers’ eulogies were insincere. Far from it – I recognised and believed their anecdotes, stories and feelings far more profoundly than my own contributions. But whatever I really thought about the death of my brother would just have to wait. But even though I had nearly forty years of his life to draw upon, whatever I felt and thought about it still felt like a hot take, and my truer reactions would take time to surface.

These past five years, I may not have blogged publicly, but privately I’ve crammed notebooks with feelings, reflections and observations, often about the process of bereavement but also about other issues surrounding it. Truth be told, I felt uncomfortable sharing these matters with the wider world. It’s probably just as well I held back, because one of the trickiest things when sharing grief is knowing what to leave out.

Now, I have a better idea of what to leave out. Sometimes you just have to step back and wait, to see what you really think and feel about something. And I may revisit this subject again, but – come back! – not exclusively.

 

TV Format Idea 1: Supermarket Sweep

TV FORMAT IDEA #1:

Supermarket Sweep (But Literally With Sweep Doing It)

I felt it was high time that Supermarket Sweep, the game show, was rebooted for the 21st century. Then I went and checked Wikipedia and found it already had been. In the late Noughties.

Never mind. It’s now high time that Supermarket Sweep was rebooted, again, for the late Tens. And I know exactly how to do it.

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THEN WELCOME

There are two reasons why I constantly miss Chris Morris being a regular radio presence. One, inevitably, is for his comedy. During the 1990s, his output for the BBC on Greater London Radio, and then Radios 4, 3 and 1, marked him out as one of the medium’s true originators. Though justly acclaimed for his television work (The Day Today, Brass Eye) and latterly his feature film (Four Lions), I believe his comedy bones hail from radioland. And his radio shows – most famously On the Hour, co-created with Armando Iannucci – have been packed with heavily stylised packages of reportage (‘There’s been a large disaster at Bigg Street Station’) and fractured versions of tabloid headlines:

‘Dismantled Pope Found Sliding Along Road’

‘Left Wing Footballer Shoots Cat’

‘Brilliant Professor Unplugged By Careless Cleaner’

But there’s another reason I miss him. Chris Morris was, both as a technician and as a music lover, one of the finest radio DJs this country has ever produced. He had an extraordinary ability to mix the familiar with the unsung, every week offsetting his comedy content with an eclectic pile of records. His show was not in the vein of John Peel: the point wasn’t necessarily to unearth new bands; instead, he cherry-picked from the playlist, tossed in some neglected oldies and very occasionally unleashed the compellingly rank: Derek Jameson; Guy Mitchell’s comeback record ‘Have A Nice Day’, or Jimmy Tarbuck’s reading of ‘I Should Be So Lucky’. Beck, Gil Scott-Heron, R.E.M., Stereolab and Sly Stone – among countless, countless others – were all heard regularly.

His Radio 1 show ended on Boxing Day afternoon 1994 with a selection of highlights from his seven months on the station. Stunts created and performed with sidekick Peter Baynham included claiming to find the corpse of fellow DJ Johnnie Walker in an adjacent studio, and supposedly removing a shell from a tortoise. Another correspondent, roving reporter Paul Garner, was heard to bother a taxi driver in Cambridge almost towards dangerous breaking point. Macabre and hilarious, it forced the listener to wonder if their ears were deceiving them. ‘Did I really just hear that?’

It took nearly three years for Morris to return to Radio 1. Blue Jam, which began in November 1997, was hailed as a wild departure from his previous work – markedly slower in tone, nocturnal, desolate – but it retained several familiar hallmarks. Firstly, the sketch material (though now performed by actors like Kevin Eldon, Amelia Bullmore and Julia Davis) was still about escalating crises, but because of its post-midnight slot and context, these items felt more unsettling: almost contemporary ghost stories, anxiety dreams about parenthood, mortality, sex, identity, health and workplace competition. I’ve always reasoned that Blue Jam’s content – regarded as some of the most extreme to ever make it to British mainstream radio – is justified on the grounds that the dreams and nightmares we have in our lives are entirely unfiltered by censorship.

I used to have a ritual with my Blue Jam listening in the late 90s. I would turn off the light, get into bed, set a tape running and then listen in darkness, still giggling at the comedy. Some of it was alarming. Some of it, it must be said, was also spectacularly bloody stupid.  But what I also enjoyed about it was the music. Every week, it was like receiving a new compilation tape, where new dance tunes shared space with French or Japanese pop, or oldies like “I’m in Love with a German Filmstar” – a song you hear all the time now on 80s flashback shows or 6Music, but rarely in 1999. The comedy was ice-cold but intimate; in contrast, the music was often warm, full of reassuring colour and zest. Indeed, that’s why I was less fond of Blue Jam’s television incarnation. Jam, broadcast on Channel 4 in 2000, reused many of its ancestor’s items, but inevitably could not house full tracks of music, and the pace was affected accordingly.

As I’m writing this, Radio 4Extra is broadcasting the third and final run of Blue Jam (first broadcast early in 1999). Its sound collage of samples, sketches (with recurring loops as counterpoint) and full tracks, remains fresh, original, and quite unlike anything else. And it’s often funny. But while I miss Morris’s comedy on the air, I also miss his choice of music. I feel sure that 6Music must, by now, have tried to entice him back to radio – so far, without success. But it would be a shame if he never treated us to his playlists again. He wouldn’t even have to talk.

PLUG: There’s a book called No Known Cure: The Comedy of Chris Morris. Published by Palgrave Macmillan and the BFI in 2013, it’s a collection of original essays on Morris’s career to date from a variety of writers. My contribution to that book, an essay entitled ‘Rockarama Newsbanana’, is concerned with the way that Morris used music, as a DJ, composer and musician, to enhance his comedy.

You can buy the book here. And no, not all these blog posts will be trying to sell you stuff.

Blue Jam, Fridays, 11pm, BBC Radio 4Extra, until 2 December. Also available on BBC iPlayer for 30 days after each broadcast.