ARTICLE 14

What makes you laugh on television? Maybe it’s Xander and Richard bantering on Pointless. Maybe it’s the dog acts on Britain’s Got Talent. Maybe it’s the esoteric songs they choose for Homes Under the Hammer. Maybe it’s when they say ‘soggy bottom’ on Bake Off. Maybe it’s Danny Dyer’s episode of Who Do You Think You Are? Maybe it’s when Phil and Holly get the giggles on This Morning because one of them said ‘knob’ in another context, somehow. Or maybe it’s one of the remaining Actual Comedy Programmes that shiver in the schedules due to lack of company and clothing.

Half my life ago now, one sweltering day in July 1995, I attended a final board at BBC Radio, for a position as a trainee comedy and entertainment producer. It was an exciting time for comedy: the BBC Radio and Television entertainment departments were growing closer together. Many radio series had successfully transferred to television – The Mary Whitehouse Experience, Have I Got News for You, KYTV, Room 101, The Day Today – with many more still to come.  And the trainee producer candidates were likely to work in both media. I faced five (it may even have been six) people in that interview room. An exciting but scary experience.

There were four trainee producer positions available. I came in fifth or sixth, I think, probably due to lack of directing experience or simply that the others were better candidates. They would join a department that was nurturing shows like People Like Us, The League of Gentlemen, Goodness Gracious Me!, and later Dead Ringers and Little Britain. I licked my wounds, and applied instead for office jobs and hackwork.

In the 1990s, with a massive number and range of comedy programmes on television, it felt like the torrent would never end, and this was still before the invention of PlayUK, E4 and BBC Three, who all invested in original comedy. Twenty years on, TV comedy seems on the fringes. In one way, there’s no shortage of them, but they’re scattered around the edges: iPlayer, Sky, Netflix, Amazon Prime. Only Harry Hill, these past six weeks, has been able to sneak a designated comedy show into pre-watershed hours on terrestrial television, and even his Alien Fun Capsule, which is great fun by the way, needs the facade of a panel show, despite being nothing of the sort on closer inspection. Comedy is expensive and risky, and so a lot of broadcasting couches ‘funny bits’ within other kinds of entertainment format: competitions, lifestyle, reality TV.

But everyone still thinks they’re a comedian, and some like to pretend that provocation is the same as telling a joke. Ersatz ‘comedy’ often survives in bastardised forms, such as the output of the tabloid columnist or a front page headline: you write a shit pun, one which doesn’t even work, you punch down at a minority or at least people who are ‘different’ from you, and then after jokelessly causing offence, you switch to disingenuous and wonder why people are causing such a fuss. Sarah. It’s easier to get attention by enraging them than by entertaining them.

There have been, of course, some great newspaper columnists, but many are, like me, people who would have died on their arse in open spot after open spot. A columnist on a comedy panel show is frequently and embarrassingly at sea, discovering that, when voiced aloud, their aggravating gallery-playing shtick turns to gravel in their own mouth. In the distance, a lone owl coughs, and Paul Merton has to step in. Even Alexander Johnson had to work from an autocue after his first Have I Got News for You appearance.

The columnist’s attitude of bleak bravado has spread to social media. The more shrill posters there – who tend to type with their nose or whole arm – have to stress that they’ve made a joke, using that peculiar crying/laughing emoji, when in fact they mean that they’ve just said something they can’t begin to defend.

Then again, my relationship with Twitter is not entirely innocent. For a while it seems liberating. It’s liberating to dismiss provocative figures in kind: to liken Quentin Letts to the Viz character Spoilt Bastard; to describe the head of The Sun’s editor-in-chief Tony Gallagher as looking like ‘a dented football trophy from the 1930s that’s just been dug up’; to call Paul Dacre ‘a putrified testicle’; to call Theresa May ‘a Londis Thatcher who attended elecution classes and said “Make me sound like the cane from school”’; to wonder why Alexander Johnson and Donald Trump seem to want to look like Jimmy Savile first thing in the morning.

All of this is cathartic, briefly, I suppose. But then the excitement cools and sours and you feel resigned and powerless. It’s not funny anymore, you feel tired, and then the next day’s news comes, and it’s more dung, and the dung is even worse. It’s as if your attempts at being funny didn’t change stuff.

Because Twitter is so transitory, it’s not just easy to become addicted to it (nods), it also has no shape, no finity. If only one could channel its funniest, most dynamic components into a TV concept, for funny, engaging contributors. (Note: I am certainly not suggesting a TV show about Twitter – the only time TV entertainment really used the Internet effectively was on So Graham Norton, which was pre-broadband.)

But I think there’s another problem with Twitter and again, I’m as guilty as anyone. We all have our Twitter character now, and a tweeting style, and we can be prone to catchphrases and memes and hobbyhorses. And if you’re a heavy user of Twitter (nods), you risk becoming reliant on saying a thing just to say something, anything. You are Mumbler3, hence: bins, Pacman Ghosts, pop trivia. You start to become bored of your own language.

On the other hand, Twitter has been a constant companion to me over the past seven or eight years, through self-employment, bereavement (twice), anxiety, depression and isolation. It’s also made me laugh a lot, and there are close friends I would never have met without it.

But one reason I started this blog at all was to expand Twitter thoughts into something more fully-formed and ‘permanent’, if a blog can have permanence. Mind you, it’s been tricky to write much lately without interrupting with BUT SO WHAT in big capital letters. It’s because the enormity of Britain leaving the EU with so few concrete ideas about how and even why it is doing so (and real solutions, please, not just that Union Flag you jammed in your arse last June, thanks) has given us a sense that not only is the past far away, but so is the future – and so is the present.

We need to step back from the edge. Idiots must not set the agenda. We want real clowns. We need incisive, thoughtful comedy back at the centre of things. Partly to entertain us, but partly to make sense of it all.

FAKE NEWS: BRASS EYE 20 YEARS ON

file_0005I was once roped into attending a trivia quiz night in London which hinged on the life and work of the comedy writer, producer and performer Chris Morris. None of its several rounds acknowledged his esteemed radio work, but at one point we were played a clip from his 1997 TV series Brass Eye. The item parodied the studio discussion format in which a contributor (played by actor Mark Heap) had been booked to talk about living with the AIDS virus. He revealed that he had caught the virus from his boyfriend, rather than through a blood transfusion. ‘So you’ve got Bad AIDS, not Good AIDS,’ accused Morris, in character somewhere between Paxman and Kilroy-Silk. Chaos was seen to erupt in the studio.

When the clip ended, the round began. We were shown images of ten public figures, and asked whether they had died of Good AIDS or Bad AIDS. As we started, sighing, to identify the likes of Freddie Mercury and Arthur Ashe, gloomy that their extraordinary lives had been reduced to this cruddy indignity, one of my teammates leaned over and whispered to me, ‘Haven’t they missed the entire point of the sketch?’

The sketch was, of course, really sending up the tabloid perception that some people deserve their punishment according to lifestyle. But maybe, I dunno, maybe the quiz organisers just thought it’d be funny to do a round about people who’d died of AIDS. I know the argument that, once someone’s work becomes public it no longer belongs to them, but it was surprising to discover that Morris fans had misunderstood something so profoundly. Warren Mitchell, who played the character of the bigoted east Londoner Alf Garnett on television for many years, used to say that he had grown used to people approaching him in the street and congratulating him for ‘having a go at the foreigners’. He reputedly used to retort, ‘No, I’m having a go at people like you.’ Oh, fandom.

All art needs context, and although not strictly topical, Brass Eye needs some background. Before, during and even after its first transmission, it caused unprecedented trouble for a TV comedy show, especially one that was only watched by around 1.5 million people. It was billed as ‘comedy with a strong taste’, and as ‘a satirical look at television current affairs’. Each half-hour episode addressed a broad subject that provoked emotive responses: animal rights, drugs, science, sex, crime and ‘moral decline’. After being scheduled for premiere in November 1996, it was postponed by Channel 4’s Chief Executive, Michael Grade, concerned that MPs and celebrities had been hoodwinked into contributing to the programme.

The series made great use of creating its own fake news footage and campaigns, and then showing the material to obviously uninformed politicians, journalists and celebrities. A lot of the footage was supposedly uncovered abroad: cattle being fired out of cannons in Libya; the dangerous drug of ‘cake’ in Prague making it to British shores; heavy electricity in Sri Lanka which hit victims like ‘a ton of invisible lead soup’; a two-foot bollock being kept alive in a Siberian hospital; the miraculous vision in Ireland of a statue of Mary driving a car through a field; a US senator who couldn’t stop masturbating at press conferences…  It lampooned that quintessentially British way of thinking: we’re normal; the rest of the world’s crazy.

After the series belatedly began airing in January 1997, Grade ordered that a segment about a West End musical on the murderer Peter Sutcliffe – itself commenting on the celebrity of criminals – should be snipped from the final episode. When broadcast on 5 March, dutifully minus the contentious item, it included a defiant flash-frame: ‘Grade is a Cunt.’ The c-word; the c-word about your channel controller; and a flash-frame, in itself illegal on television. Cue further controversy when the stunt was revealed.

In the aftermath, Morris returned to radio, to create Blue Jam. For years, radio had been his natural home; a decade earlier, he had begun creating satirical stunts for local radio, influenced by the likes of Kenny Everett, Victor Lewis-Smith and Viv Stanshall. In 1990, he was talent-spotted by radio producer Armando Iannucci, and the pair created On the Hour for Radio 4, later to reach BBC2 as The Day Today. Brass Eye was then only Morris’s second full television project, but its style already seemed a natural conclusion of his work, a full stop.

Repeats or commercial releases of Brass Eye then seemed unlikely, but it won awards, several of its production team went on to senior positions in TV entertainment, and it was a big influence on TV comedy. Not necessarily in a good way: if Mark Thomas and Rory Bremner continued to pursue incisive political satire, elsewhere hasty, ill-conceived hidden camera shows sprang up, frequently concerned with humiliating the public. It was into this environment that Brass Eye was finally repeated, with cut material reinstated, in summer 2001, along with a new seventh episode: satirising tabloid attitudes surrounding paedophilia. It had laudable intentions, but I was a bit disappointed by its comedy elements. Regardless, many weren’t, it helped make more people aware of the original series, and the tabloids got upset all over again.

Morris’s work could be cruel, but his prime target was ultimately media attitudes – and he and his co-writers were both imaginative and obsessed with attention to detail. His targets were wide and courageous: tabloid media of course (who attacked the series) and public figures, but also gangsters and drug dealers. In contrast, those who followed him tended towards simply humiliating the participants, and more desperate to push the envelope than tell any good jokes. It was often a cold, mean-spirited time for comedy in the early 21st century, and I’m struck by how that strain of material has thankfully mostly disappeared from TV now, but migrated to the Internet, an environment Brass Eye anticipated. (Greetings, Mr Pie – now please quit shouting and write some gags.)

Twenty years on, and perhaps the only thing that dates Brass Eye are the public figures who were stung; most are now forgotten, deceased or, in one notable case, disgraced and in prison. Rewatching the programmes again, they remain contemporary, relevant and surprisingly funnier than ever, though in the face of relentless, unfunny ‘fake news’ – too big a subject to be incidental about here – maybe its humour simply acts as sharp relief. Above all, as fans and quiz night organisers should be aware, little of it should be taken purely at face value.

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With thanks to Kate for videotaping the original run for me, while I was moving house and while my VCR was in storage.

Brass Eye was last televised in 2008 by More4, but it’s on DVD for peanuts and on YouTube for even fewer peanuts. For much, much more information on the series, there are two books: Disgusting Bliss: The Brass Eye of Chris Morris by Lucian Randall (in which I acted as a text consultant and researcher), and No Known Cure: The Comedy of Chris Morris, an anthology of new essays edited by James Leggott and Jamie Sexton, in which I contributed an essay about Morris’s work as a DJ and musician.  

EXPLORING POP’S MAP: ON RECORD SHOPS (PART 1)

file_0004A long time ago now, I worked in record shops for nearly a decade: eventually for two nationwide chain stores, but before that, in a tiny independent shop which specialised in heavy rock and indie but which was on the list of shops for the Gallup charts as used by Music Week, Radio 1 and Top of the Pops. So every time someone bought something you scanned the barcode, or entered the catalogue number on the back.

My first day was Saturday, 25 June 1988. I had just left school, having performed disastrously in my A levels and knowing full well that I’d have to retake them. The main thing I remember about my first day, apart from writing up the masterbags for cassettes to be stored under the record racks, was having to listen over and over again to one of the week’s new releases: a plodding heavy metal instrumental version of ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ from The Wizard of Oz. It sounded like some testcard music for when they lost the signal for Tommy Vance’s Friday Rock Show.

The worst thing about this tiny shop was that it was tiny. It was the size of someone’s living room. It was so tiny that we had no stock room area away from the shop floor to process deliveries. We had to crouch on the floor and open the boxes while the customers were there, squinting in panic at invoices while impatient youths stood over you wanting to be first with that copy of Iron Maiden’s new shaped twelve-inch picture disc of ‘Eddie on fire’ or something.

I ended up working there all the way through college and even university vacation. I rarely listened to metal at home, but I had to concede that it was refreshing to listen to something different at work (we didn’t just play ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’, we even stocked some other things). Plus I was undoubtedly a useful presence as I knew the poppier stuff, and we sold a lot of that too.

And, in every shift, more senior colleagues introduced me to stuff I didn’t know and hadn’t heard. We had no iTunes, or Spotify, or Wikipedia, where you could check What People Had Released. All that existed was a frantically well-thumbed Music Master catalogue behind the counter, there was a phone, and your own memory where you’d incrementally archived gobbets of info from the music press, radio and TV. And this was a time when a lot of long-deleted records were reactivated via this burgeoning new format: the compact disc. Every day, then, was an education, albeit a badly paid education, during which you might even be subjected to LPs by Helloween.

I would never claim to have an infallible working knowledge of music, but I would say I was – then, at least – brilliant at working in a record shop. Partly because I was polite and helpful, but also because I knew about music that I didn’t necessarily like but which customers did. You’re there to help, whether it’s someone who only visits a record shop once a year, or someone who is in every day, and yes we did have people who were in every day. Mainly, admittedly, the youth who wanted all thrash metal LPs ever and who wondered aloud who’d win in a fight between Joey Belladonna from Anthrax and Kerry King from Slayer.

All the while, in your head, you were absently continuing to fill in a rough exploratory map of music for your own use and pleasure. Facts, figures, tunes and lyrics were stored away for daily pop quizzes with customers. Their questions would be cryptic but usually could be boiled down to: ‘What is this song I’m looking for, and can I buy it, please?’ They would often sing bits of it at you while other, louder, different music was blaring from the speakers. Perhaps my finest achievement was being asked, ‘I heard it on the radio, it’s got a banjo on it, I think’ and replying, ‘Is it “Kiss This Thing Goodbye” by Del Amitri?’ It was. ‘Yes, we have it. Would you like the album?’ SALE. Kerching.

BBC4’s The Secret Science of Pop, shown this week, also began in a record shop, albeit a deserted one (it might have been the Record and Tape Exchange in Notting Hill, west London). In this rather annoying programme, the evolutionary biologist Armand Leroi was seen rifling through the racks while declaring that although he had little knowledge of pop, he had extensively studied fruit flies (‘earworms’, yeah, see what you did there), and so he was embarking on ‘a journey’ to measure pop through algorithms. He assembled a team of data scientists to analyse five decades of hits and sounds, to reduce pop to its bare essentials, aiming to try and make the ultimate pop song. In practice, what it did was suck all the mystery, joy and spontaneity out of recorded pop: the effect was akin to Johnny Ball on Think of a Number chewing some sheet music.

Although the programme was not made by BBC Music but by the science department, it felt as if this wasn’t just an attempt to make a mean/average pop song, but also an attempt to do the same with the whistle-stop tour of pop’s history documentary. I’ve lost count of how many versions we’ve had now of ‘When BBC4’s Ageing Demographic Slumbers Through The Bill Grundy Clip Again and Again’. It might be time to give these things a rest for a while.

For pop isn’t a science (and in any case, there wasn’t a lot of incisive scientific analysis in this programme either). Those who truly excel at pop are conscious of its past but always bring something new to the table. But this programme seemed to encourage the homogenous, the average, like getting a focus group to make a record. Inevitably, the weird and the unusual were left on the fringes. By the end, a young singer called Niké Jemiyo and the record producer Trevor Horn, who both agreed to participate in the process, looked as though their time had been royally wasted. Because it had. ‘Non-linear effects – they’re the hardest to get at,’ concluded the scientist presenter. ‘Given enough data, we will work it out.’ Nah, you’re fine.

Pop expressed as statistics and graphs and formulae is fun in passing, but it’s a bit like memorising Guinness Hit Singles books for trivia quizzes while never listening to the music. The amateur map I was internally constructing in my years in record shops is, I’m afraid to say, now out of date; I took my eye off the ball at some point in my mid-thirties, so to speak, and though I know the map’s changed, and I remain interested in new stuff, I know I could never really work in a record shop again. Because even though all the information is out there, what’s gone is my playful ability to connect it all up, even if those connections only made sense to me. My map is still full of landmarks, but I’ve never been so aware that it’s also full of holes.