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.