Michael Cumming is one of British television’s foremost comedy directors. Over the past twenty years, the Cumbrian has worked with Mark Thomas, Lenny Henry, Rory Bremner, Matt Lucas and David Walliams, Matt Berry, and Stewart Lee. But his career in comedy began in the spring of 1995. Chris Morris’s Brass Eye, which took eighteen months to complete, drew on Cumming’s versatility on a wide range of programmes, from documentary inserts to corporate videos, from children’s magazine shows to Channel 4’s post-pub yoof sneeze, The Word. His wide range of experience gave Morris’s project – somewhere between experimental media satire, sketch show and hidden camera – an authenticity. As with The Day Today, Morris’s previous series with Armando Iannucci, Brass Eye didn’t look like a comedy show.
As I wrote on this blog earlier this year, 20 years after it finally made it to air, Brass Eye had a difficult gestation. With the fragmentation of multi-channel broadcasting and the Internet, it seems unlikely that a single comedy series will have that kind of impact again, especially as television is more cautious with humour now. But fortunately, there is now a chance to sample Oxide Ghosts, an hour-long compilation of mostly previously unseen material from the six-part series, selected and completed by Cumming, but with Morris’s approval.
The only catch? You have to go out and see it, at a cinema or arts centre, where Cumming appears in person, to introduce his film, and then to take questions afterwards. Recording the event is strictly prohibited, and the film is extremely unlikely to be commercially available or downloadable. This is a deliberate decision; some of the footage is legally sensitive, but in any case, both Cumming and Morris felt that there was something alluring about a once-only viewing. After all, though many of us (myself included) made sure we had videotaped the original series off the telly, it felt much too outlandish and extreme to ever be reshown, let alone be released on video and DVD. (Even though it eventually was, and it eventually was.) Because Brass Eye was about impact – at the time it felt like a once-only experience.
And so, Oxide Ghosts, even for people who thought they knew every frame and line of the series (already way too much to absorb and process in one viewing) is not so much a completion of Brass Eye as an added bonus, something we thought we would never see. Included in Cumming’s film are extended versions of familiar material, what you might call “deleted scenes”, and two or three clearly outrageous moments presumably never intended to be broadcast (designed to distract Channel 4 and the ITC from the stuff the programme makers actually wanted to be included in final edits). There are even some outtakes and bloopers involving Morris and other cast members; there’s one particularly memorable moment when one of the tensest scenes in the entire series dissolves into joyous catharsis in the studio. It’s still unlikely to be on It’ll Be Alright on the Night, though.
As someone you might call a ‘comedy historian’, I might once have found this kind of event frustrating. Obsessed with archiving every moment became almost too easy with the Internet, but there was something fantastically liberating about knowing that the showing of Oxide Ghosts I saw last night in Cardiff is likely to be the only time I’ll ever see it. Even then, like the series on first viewing, there was too much material to process (you couldn’t even hear every line, such was the density of footage). But that’s okay. Just to see it at all felt like a massive privilege. Hopefully, if you have not been able to see it, Cumming may tour it again one day. But for me, one showing is actually enough. And that is not a criticism. To quote the poster outside the event, I chose to ‘enjoy the moment’.
Oxide Ghosts is being shown in Newcastle and Blackpool on 17 and 18 December. Further details at Michael Cumming’s website, which is here.