Edited: My Twitter account was suspended, because I was arguing with far-right people and anti-semites. I will write more about this at some point.
Edited: My Twitter account was suspended, because I was arguing with far-right people and anti-semites. I will write more about this at some point.
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.
If you mourn the passing of anyone close to you, and especially if they died relatively young, that anniversary and the days leading up to it are likely to feel tense. While life has to go on, the tension between ‘carrying on regardless’ and ‘reflecting’ means there are a few dates in the calendar which one will always dread.
August is a difficult time for the London-born author and poet Joanne Limburg. In August 2008, when she was in the middle of writing her excellent memoir, The Woman Who Thought Too Much, about her experiences with obsessive compulsive disorder (both pre- and post-diagnosis), her younger brother Julian, a scientist living in the USA, took his own life. Now Joanne has written a second memoir: in Small Pieces: A Book of Lamentations, she describes the impact of that tragedy with great sensitivity and care, as well as a capacity for emotional detail and depth. Small Pieces movingly pinballs across the years, either side of the tragedy, and lays bare the effects on her and the surviving members of her family and his, too. It encapsulates that feeling that, in whatever circumstances you lost a family member, it chimes with all the regrets you continue to carry around: if only I could have done something, if only I’d said that, if only I hadn’t said that.
In the summer of 2010, I left a full-time office job and opted for freelance life. Although I was still living in London then, and continued to do so for a couple of years, I wanted to see more of my family in Wales. I now had a nephew, my mum was still very active (as she continues to be), but I especially felt that I hadn’t seen as much of my younger brother as I’d have liked. Indeed, there had been about 10 years between our mid-twenties and mid-thirties where sightings of the two of us had been pretty rare. In my newfound self-employment I wanted to make up for lost time, and visit Wales more often. I especially thought that, as the two of us got older, we’d have more opportunity to see each other. We’d had a somewhat stormy relationship as children, but despite – perhaps even because of – the distance between us as adults, we had come to accept and respect our differences.
Then, on 2 August 2011, while I happened to be already staying with my mum, he visited, sat us down and told us that unfortunately, he had secondary cancer, this time a number of brain tumours, and he was about to begin radiotherapy and, subsequently, chemotherapy. He requested two things of us at this stage: firstly, that we must stay positive, and secondly, that on no account were we to research his sort of condition on the Internet. I never did the latter – though some time later, I read Tom Lubbock’s eye-opening and completely devastating Until Further Notice I Am Alive, which answered a number of questions I had been pondering. As for staying positive, I could really only do that while I was with my family. Privately, in my own head, my mourning process had already begun. Whether his end was days or years away, I was already aware there was an end approaching. We all know, abstractedly, that there’s an end for all of us, but here I knew it was coming. August the second was the beginning of all this.
When he told us, others went to pieces while I remained strangely, bizarrely calm. I somehow not only acted positive, but felt positive too. After all, he’d run marathons, was super-fit and was about to pass his maths GCSE with an A-star. If anyone could get through this, surely he could. But within a few days, I’d slumped into a gloom. I’d decided to stay a week longer at my mum’s house, and I vividly remember the ghastly Friday night that week when, perhaps dizzy with the oncoming crisis, we begged television to entertain us or at least distract us. Somehow we found ourselves staring like zombies at a panel game hosted by Chris Moyles. Now, there are those of you who may wonder if there is any other way to experience a panel game hosted by Chris Moyles, but we kept watching, perhaps out of spite, perhaps out of the same kind of spite that the panel game hosted by Chris Moyles was subjecting us to. It was agony, a kind of existential prison: we couldn’t or perhaps wouldn’t reach for the remote, possibly because to turn the TV off might mean we’d have to talk about what we were facing. And neither of us felt able to do that. A couple of days later, I returned to my home in south London, a city where riots had broken out in a few areas, and I decided to watch rolling news on the subject almost as a form of deranged escapism.
My brother’s decline would be swift. I could reel off all the significant dates as my visits grew longer and more frequent: first and last radiotherapy sessions, the last family birthday, the last proper conversation, the first and what turned out to be the last chemotherapy session, the last phone call, the last exchange, the last last encounter. At the time, I continued the positivity entirely for his sake and those around him and me. And then each time I’d go back to London and explode with horror and rage and sorrow, on the grounds that at least this way he wouldn’t be able to hear or see me do it.
He died not in August but November. Yet I mourn 2 August as deeply as the day he died, for it all stems from that.
Joanne Limburg’s Small Pieces talks a lot about the limitations of memoir: frequently you can’t speak for other people. Everyone grieves and reacts differently, and for reasons of courtesy, confidentiality and just sheer mystery, there will always be gaps in our stories. She explores how one squares up our feelings with those of the people who remain. It is an account packed with insight and imagination into not just bereavement but of family, childhood and identity (specifically, in Joanne’s case, her Jewishness). It also wonders whether the object of your grief is gone or not-gone. Because whether or not we believe in a god or an afterlife, we can’t help but believe in the maddening but seductive and helpful power of memory. It is why, for both Joanne and I, in our different but sometimes similar ways, Augusts will always be tense months.
Joanne Limburg’s Small Pieces: A Series of Lamentations is published by Atlantic Books, as is her equally great account of OCD, The Woman Who Thought Too Much. Her brother’s death also inspired a series of poems in her collection, The Autistic Alice, published by Bloodaxe Books. Further information at http://www.joannelimburg.net
As it is 40 years since that crazy 1977 summer of punk rock, I thought it was high time to exhume my diaries from the time to give you a sense of just what it was like to be at the epicentre of youth culture and fashion. It was quite literally a summer in which I was writing a diary, sometimes, if it was raining. From the very HQ of punk’s capital city: yes, a few short miles from Swansea. Here are some choice highlights. Strap yourselves in!
Andrew O’Hagan’s new book, The Secret Life, consists of three essays. The first of them, ‘Ghosting’, is itself about the process of writing, and his experience of trying to ghostwrite Julian Assange’s autobiography for Canongate Books, only to find that Assange cannot or will not commit to writing or exposing his real thoughts and feelings, who long ago gave up any professional and objective integrity for self-absorption and a studied cult of personality. Leaving aside everything else about Assange (and there is a lot of everything else about Assange), I keep picturing him as a man who spends a lot of his time staring in the mirror, stroking his hair while fantasising about being interviewed. ‘That was the big secret with him,’ writes O’Hagan at one point, ‘He wanted to cover up everything about himself except his fame.’
On Monday, I went to see Andrew O’Hagan speak about this new book at the London Review of Books Bookshop. Just minutes before the talk began, I learned of the death of a man who – while very famous in his day – never seemed to want to hog the limelight for its own sake. Brian Cant, truly I would say, was a hero to millions of us children who watched television between the 1960s and 1980s. On long-running programmes like Play School and Play Away, Brian – it would feel wrongly impersonal to refer to him by surname – felt like your television dad. With an eternal twinkle in his eye, he was the warmest, most generous and reassuring of TV entertainers.
There were some people on television in those days – we all know who – whom we felt we had to tolerate, mostly down to lack of other options. You never imagined Brian could be one of these bumptious, drunk-with-fame screen obstacles. Nor did he ever seem trapped by children’s television. In later years, when fleetingly interviewed, he expressed only gratitude and love. But it feels a shame that his full story remains mostly untold.
As I mentioned in last week’s blogpost, very little children’s TV was on offer in the 1960s and 1970s, and what there was existed in isolation. Often it was a single programme, a lifeline, a tiny island in an ocean of closedowns, interludes and testcards. Brian was often an inhabitant on these islands: Play School in the mid-morning on BBC2; Play Away the only children’s programme on Saturday afternoon while other channels broadcast hours of sport; lunchtime broadcasts for pre-schoolers, entertainment lasting just fifteen extremely precious minutes. In those latter lunchtime slots, Brian’s voice accompanied the action of Gordon Murray’s trilogy of stop-frame animated series, all set in the fictional county of Trumptonshire: Camberwick Green (1966), Trumpton itself (1967) and finally Chigley (1969). It was disappointing to hear on Radio 4’s Last Word this week that Brian was reportedly only paid a flat fee for his original voiceovers, and did not receive any royalties for their many repeats.
Brian began to fade from children’s TV in the mid-1980s – his last remaining link, Bric-A-Brac (1980–82), in which he played a shop owner who only stocked items beginning with the same initial letter, was repeated until 1987. Thereafter my encounters with Brian became sparser but each one was a delight, nonetheless. I reacted with surprise to his cameo in the final episode of the Esmonde & Larbey sitcom Ever Decreasing Circles (1989), having almost forgotten he was primarily an actor. (As well as a lot of theatre, his many TV acting credits also included Doctor Who, Dixon of Dock Green and Z Cars.)
I never really saw Dappledown Farm, Brian’s subsequent breakfast TV series for young children, but his self-parodic narrations of ‘The Organ Gang’ on Stewart Lee and Richard Herring’s This Morning With Richard Not Judy in 1998 were hilarious. ‘The Organ Gang’ was a consciously cheap cartoon about a cast of disembodied innards with faces (Barry Bladder, Beryl Brain, Lily Liver) – imagine a cross between Mr Benn, The Munch Bunch and indeed Camberwick Green. I enjoyed the way Brian gamely pretended to express apathy and even annoyance with the formulaic, threadbare scripts: in the last episode, he couldn’t even be bothered to sing the theme tune properly. I hope he enjoyed doing them, because his infectious sense of fun was still very much in evidence.
And then a few months later, early 1999, I heard the track ‘Fish’ by the artist and DJ called Mr Scruff on Chris Morris’s late-night Radio 1 series Blue Jam. It sampled Brian’s voice from two different sources, both records I had been given when very young. One came from the Camberwick Green story album, just straight transfers of Brian’s narration and Freddie Phillips’ music from the TV series, and it was specifically from a story where Windy Miller went fishing. The other, which took me a little longer to identify, familiar as it was, came from a 1972 compilation album of Play School stories, an item called ‘All the Fish in the Sea’, written by Janet Lynch-Watson, and told by Brian and co-presenter Carole Ward:
CW: ‘Why should it be that the fish in the sea are all unable to sing?
BC: ‘Just listen to me, young fellow/What need is there for fish to sing, when I can roar and bellow?
These were my first records, my first awareness (apart from books) of on-demand entertainment, to be played again and again, whenever I liked. Until I was doing research for this piece, I had not listened to the Play School record in many years. The last time I had played it was in 1980, when I was ten, and really much too old to be listening to it – but by then I had started buying pop singles and even albums for myself, and I played it knowing full well that I was about to bid farewell to something.
I last heard Brian Cant on Radio 4’s The Reunion in 2010, reminiscing about Play School itself. Most of his memories seemed to be less about him than his happy experiences with fellow presenters and encounters with the public who loved him. It just enhanced all the affection for this gentle, dignified, generous but fun-loving chap. It would be nice to think that a proper BBC tribute is being planned; I suspect generations of viewers would welcome it.
Brian Cant died on 19 June 2017, aged eighty-three. It would be fantastic if I could link to a
Brian Cant at the BBC DVD here. Make it happen, someone.
Andrew O’Hagan’s The Secret Life is published by Faber & Faber.
As we get older, we cannot help but look back more and more. It’s inevitable – life is mostly about memory, and it’s often not even for nostalgic reasons. We’re faced with endless revivals and reissues and reboots, and Facebook reminding you it’s exactly eight years since you wore that hat, but it’s also that, in the digital age, the present is full of the past. There has never been so much ‘past’ hanging around before, and even if you are determined to keep up with new albums, TV shows, books and films, elements of them will still ping inside your head: motifs, emblems, patterns, that unavoidably hark back to past experiences.
Two recent events I attended found their respective creators also wrestling with memory and how it floods their present day lives. David Baddiel’s My Family: Not the Sitcom, a jet-black but celebratory show about the eccentricities of his family background, has just completed its third theatrical run in London. I saw it two nights before it closed. Baddiel’s mother died just before Christmas 2014, when his father was already in the advanced stages of a dementia illness called Pick’s Disease, and the show finds Baddiel grappling with the dilemma of how to remember and portray those who are no longer ‘with us’, either literally or figuratively. It’s a complex show (but very funny), and it uses a variety of illustrative sources: photographs, documents, footage and correspondence.
I first encountered David Baddiel’s comedy on The Mary Whitehouse Experience in the early 1990s; his stand-up was a combination of pop culture and sport (much of it exhuming the forgotten flotsam of his 1970s boyhood) and a frank, often unflinching gaze into ‘difficult’ areas: death, sex, illness, and even occasional glimpses into his own family life when growing up in North London. I sometimes wondered how his parents might have reacted to this particularly confessional type of comedy, but as he outlines in the new show, they seemed fine with it – after all, they came to lots of recordings, especially his mum. But I also found myself thinking about how pop culture is not mere nostalgia in our formative years – it’s a kind of furniture around us, a way of connecting us to the wider outside world.
The night after I saw David’s show, I saw the pop trio Saint Etienne perform live at the Royal Festival Hall, the same day that they released a new album, Home Counties. As ever, they continue to blend the contemporary (glossy, tuneful, often danceable) with elements that yearningly evoke the past. In their case, they use folk elements, mood music, what used to be called ‘easy listening’, and a smattering of references to TV, film and trivia. The effect can be both delightful and haunting.
Like Baddiel, Saint Etienne also use evocative visual accompaniments in their live act: archive film, animation, montages and graphics. During one song, ‘I’ve Got Your Music’, complete with period footage of Sony Walkmans, I kept giggling – sometimes a little nervously – at the recurrent use of Cliff Richard on rollerskates from the ‘Wired for Sound’ video. You can’t get rid of memories, not even – in fact, least of all – trivial ones. Least of all trivial ones. They keep nudging and distracting you.
On Home Counties, there are some short interlude tracks which allude directly to broadcasting that celebrates the past: The Reunion (a Radio 4 discussion about a past event) and ‘Popmaster’ (Ken Bruce’s enduring phone-in quiz on Radio 2). But on some earlier records in the 1990s, they used lo-fi samples from television and film: Peeping Tom, Billy Liar, Brighton Rock, House of Games, a Chanel No. 5 TV advert from 1970, a record about understanding decimalisation, and a pioneering fly-on-the-wall documentary called The Family, about an ordinary suburban family in Reading.
The effect of these extracts was disorientating. It evoked the feeling of how, as young children, our encounters with popular culture – the world at one remove – are often accidental and out of our control. At some point, I suppose when school enters the picture, when we have to start remembering things, we progress beyond a few snapshots and start to find ourselves living a more or less linear experience. From there on, it’s not that we remember everything; it’s just that we start to piece things together, and try and make sense of our surroundings.
For me, this point would lie in the summer of 1974, the long break between nursery school and actual school. I had just turned four years old, an age when you’re still mastering the basics of early life and so you’re forever in the present. You have no idea what is going to register so strongly in your subconscious that you will never forget it. Quite often, it’s not the big events, but the trivia. Forty-three years later, I can isolate actual moments in my memory. And they’re nearly all related to television, or at least contexualised by television. Yet they’re not the big events. No memory of the World Cup in Germany, or a US president forced to step down in disgrace, or either of the two General Elections. I’d like to be able to claim that I recall Victoria Wood winning the talent show New Faces, or Abba winning the Eurovision Song Contest – but I don’t. And I didn’t see The Family either, at least not till the repeats in the late 1980s.
So I was fascinated by television – indeed, I cannot remember a time when I wasn’t watching television, just as I cannot remember a time when there wasn’t music in the house, or a time when I wasn’t reading books. And so, my early memories – even if they don’t feature TV or pop or books – are determined by those contexts. For some reason, I have an unusually vivid memory for date recall – not faultless, but I can usually work out to the day when something happened. And because the Internet now exists and there are sites like the remarkable BBC Genome project, which has every BBC TV and radio schedule between 1923 and 2009, it is actually possible to cross-check these kinds of early memories to the exact day. (If I were a child now, in the on-demand world, this would be practically impossible to monitor.)
It was relatively easy to be obsessed by television in the first half of the 1970s as there wasn’t that much of it. There was no CBeebies or Nickelodeon. There were three channels, there was at most about 12 hours of children’s television a week, mostly in the late afternoon, and there were lots of intermissions and interludes, a lot of waiting. You even had to wait a few minutes for the television to warm up when you switched it on.
I felt like I wanted to own television, the way I owned books. And, in the days before video, not everything had a spin-off book or LP record. So how did I do that? Well, the answer is obvious: I tried to reproduce logos, graphics from TV shows and station idents. (I did play with Lego as well, honest.)
My favourite programmes were mostly visually driven: cartoons, Sesame Street on Saturday mornings, and a lunchtime show on ITV called Pipkins, which was like a comic serial for the under-fives featuring actors and puppets, and which on 5 August that year dealt with the death of the programme’s lead actor George Woodbridge by confronting the death of his character head-on. Quite groundbreaking. Did I watch that one? Frustratingly, I’m not sure – that memory is not there.
But my very favourite programme was called Vision On, ostensibly for hearing-impaired children but which appealed to them – and consequently a wider audience – by disregarding verbal content and concentrating on visuals: short films, animation, mime, surreal and comic sketches, and art demonstrations by the brilliant Tony Hart. Any speech that did remain was accompanied by sign language from his co-host Pat Keysell.
At the heart of Vision On was, I guess, was an early exercise in interactivity. ‘The Gallery’ was an invitation for young viewers to send in original artwork to the BBC and be rewarded with five vital seconds or so onscreen. The accompanying music is now an obligatory soundtrack to anything to do with painting: to those of us of a certain age and above: ping, Vision On.
I wasn’t particularly good at drawing, but I was already somehow skilled at lettering – and I was fascinated by the Vision On logo. Tony Hart, who created it, named it ‘Grog’, a symmetrical cross between a grasshopper and a frog. I could have just painted Vision On on some paper or card, and then folded it over to get a mirror image, but that would have been much too straightforward. Instead, I actually tried to copy the Grog from memory, without the image in front of me. I now realise that trying to copy something exactly can be harder than creating something. I was so committed to getting it right that I momentarily considered sending my best result off to the programme, before reasoning that they probably wouldn’t have needed it. Vision On already have their own Grog, Justin. It’s a big one, on their wall, behind them, every week.
Sometimes I found television funny; sometimes it made me feel funny (Samantha off Bewitched, that woman off Hickory House, and a classical violinist I kept seeing on BBC2 – probably the young South Korean virtuoso, Kyung Wha-Chung). At other times, in the blink of an eye, it could turn into something utterly anxiety-inducing. There were public information films straight after children’s programming which alerted you to a world of road accidents, rabies, drowning in lakes full of shopping trollies, glass on the beach. There were other alarming things in the world: people also seemed to find The Osmonds dangerous and kept screaming at them on TV. (You remember that public information film: BEWARE OF OSMONDS.) I didn’t like the look of the ATV logo at all, and it was hard to draw. The dubbed monkey shrieks on Daktari – horrid.
Furthermore, there was some frightening regional thing after Sesame Street on Saturdays called Orbit, in which a doubtless well-intentioned announcer called Alan Taylor pretended to be in space (rather than a weather forecast studio in Bristol) with only a buzzing gonk called Chester for company. Alan Taylor, for reasons I have never quite processed, absolutely put the fear of God into me. The three minutes of Orbit that survive here – and I defy you not to sing along with the opening theme – provides no clue about what they might have filled the rest of the half hour with. Cartoons from Spain? Showjumping highlights? It’s going to be birthday greetings, isn’t it?
This was all disorientating and scary and yet I couldn’t back out. I had joined a story I didn’t yet begin to understand, but was determined to make sense of. Is that Bernard Cribbins singing the Wombles theme? Why do we keep being told ‘watch out watch out watch out watch out there’s a Humphrey about’? Why is television closing down now with some music – is it tired? Why is Alan Taylor doing this programme as well? Does he ever go home, and please can he do that? And oh god, why ‘The Laughing Policeman’, at all, ever?
And then, somewhere in the background which perhaps should be in the foreground of these memories, there was real life. And I strangely don’t remember much of that. I’m sure I went to the beach a lot with my family, and shopping, and played games with my brother and so on. My twin cousins were born that summer – they lived nearby but I don’t remember the event itself. Maybe I was too busy watching Wait Till Your Father Gets Home to notice.
But all my early hazy memories have television in there somewhere. The first definite early memory I have is of my nursery school teacher, who owned two Labradors, telling us it was time to watch Play School. So that can’t be later than about June or July 1974. I can remember being on the back seat of a relative’s car snoozing while they went into a shop, and for some reason I can remember it was a Wednesday, and for some even stranger reason I remember that I’d just watched an episode of the stop-frame animation series Barnaby. (Summer 1974, but no later.)
In late August 1974, one week before I started school, we visited Birmingham, partly to stay with friends of my parents, but also probably because my paternal grandfather lived nearby, in Sutton Coldfield. I remember arriving in Birmingham on the Sunday afternoon: 25 August 1974. You must remember!: The Golden Shot was about to start. Three days later, on Wednesday 28 August, after Teddy Edward and Derek Griffiths’s Ring-A-Ding and that’s how I can be sure, we visited my grandfather. Or at least we visited his house. I do not remember my grandfather – I just remember a rather messy house. I sat in some kind of living room area – the decor was brown as most things in the seventies were. My brother may have also been there. My mum definitely wasn’t. I don’t remember much else – perhaps it was because the television wasn’t switched on.
This is all a bit embarrassing. Maybe I had tunnel vision, and didn’t like people very much. Or maybe it’s just that it’s harder to put a timeframe around real life. Unless you were diligent enough to put a date on the back of a photograph back then, you’d have to guess, and that’s not always easy. But in fairness, television is a powerful medium: colourful, urgent even in those more languid days, and yes addictive. But it taught me a lot, and one thing it did was start to explain things to me. Like music, it has frozen memories in time, a counterpoint to everything else that was going on.
I started school on Monday 2 September 1974, but I still went home at lunchtime to watch Pipkins. My grandfather died on Saturday 19 October 1974. But I have no memory of that.
Saint Etienne’s Home Counties is out on Heavenly Records.
David Baddiel’s My Family: Not the Sitcom has completed its London run, but tours the UK in 2018 and 2019.
This week, BBC Radio 3’s always diverting Between the Ears series opened up an inventory of cassettes packed with the life and work of a man named Mark Talbot. For decades, Mark made his own radio shows, usually called ‘Second Side Up’, complete with records, phone-ins and interviews. But while the clips suggested him to be an articulate and slick host, he never became what you might call a ‘professional’ presenter on a national or even a local station. Instead, his programmes were specially and even individually made for members of his family, his friends and partners. It’s a melancholy but compelling half-hour about how the very act of communication can become an obsession. A kind of dialogue at one remove.
One piece of music I keep going back to is called “I’m 49” by Paddy McAloon, the songwriter and frontman with the group Prefab Sprout. It lies somewhere between electronic and orchestral music, with a yearning but resigned quality to it, but what gives it an extra devastating edge is in its use of speech samples, taken from late night radio conversations and phone-ins. The callers are unhappy and even desperate. At the close of the track someone (Paddy?) almost whispers ‘Just hold me’.
The genesis of the track, and indeed of the whole record, I Trawl the Megahertz, had come from a period of convalescence for McAloon; after eye surgery, he had to rest his sight, and so relied on radio and sound which sparked his creativity into making a solo record (his only one to date).
It’s a given that many radio listeners are lonely, especially at night. I find it a shame that more and more night-time radio is now automated or pre-recorded, even on a national station like BBC Radio 2 which recently dropped the much-loved Janice Long and Alex Lester. There’s no shortage of stuff to listen to in the dead of night, but little of it is live and interactive. And in the small hours, people often need company. Even if it’s just to say hello to someone.
What the life and work of Mark Talbot suggests is that, sometimes, it’s not just a listener that needs support and an outlet. Sometimes it’s the presenter that might need it. And of course, you can’t award everyone national exposure but what ‘Second Side Up’ underlined is that everyone needs at some level to express themselves somehow and somewhere.
Thirty years ago or so, in my teens, I worked in radio for a bit, firstly as a volunteer at hospital radio and then at local radio. In the early stages of learning the ropes of broadcasting, you were advised to imagine you were addressing just one listener. At the time, I presumed this was to calm a novice’s nerves, but over time, I realised it was probably also to banish any delusions of celebrity that a budding presenter might be hoping for.
When it soon became clear, at least on hospital radio, that I had very few or indeed no listeners, I would occasionally amuse myself by making and recording programmes for my friends. Back then, I wasn’t sure why I did this, but I think I did it to sound more confident, or at least to find a context which gave me a reason to communicate. If it was just me, with no records or microphone, it felt like it wasn’t enough.
I was about to say that I don’t do that anymore, that those lonely years were a long time ago, but are they always? There are times when all that’s changed is the medium. Tweets have the concise economy of radio links, and you can be serious or silly, but sometimes I strain to come up with them because behind it is a terrible feeling of not being good enough, that everyone else is having a better time.
In a sense, on social media, we front our own shows: linking to playlists and video clips, announcing events, reacting, commenting. But what if we wake up in the morning and we have nothing to say, or nothing we can face admitting? You might be able to unleash one plaintive status update on Facebook, provided you offer the disclaimer that you’re over the worst now. But you can’t do it again. No-one, you assume, will want to read that.
At least with Twitter, you can do that a bit more often, but you feel it’s on the condition that you have to think of some witty metaphors along the lines of ‘I am wearing a grey hat made out of screaming wasps’. In other words, something that might distract people while you wear yourself out.
Maybe you need to talk to someone. In real life. Where ‘it’s really complicated’.
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.
I 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.
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.