Prank master: Chris Morris's announcement of the death of Michael Heseltine on Radio 1 was just one among many notorious japes. His satire is big with the media, but how popular is it with listeners?
Sunday 21 August 1994
Chris Morris doesn't prattle; he pranks. Three weeks ago, he lured Cliff Richard on air with a genuine phone-in on Christianity and pornography, let him praise Jesus for a while, then guided him, question by question, into discussing the sadomasochistic potential of the Crucifixion. The next week, exuding journalistic urgency, he conducted a real interview with a man in the street about 'the recent fur-ball atrocities', and extracted a strong condemnation.
The Chris Morris Music Show has a banal name, but, after only a couple of months on air, it has acquired a fearsome reputation. Last month the BBC suspended it for two weeks after Morris announced that Michael Heseltine had died, shocking Tory MP Jerry Hayes into an improvised and embarrassing live obituary. After a ticking-off, the BBC let Morris back on, pre-recorded and pre-checked rather than live. His reaction? 'I'd do it again, only better.'
At 31, Morris has become famous as the thinking person's Jeremy Beadle - with a strong hint of TV's other celebrity Jeremy, Paxman. The Heseltine scam brought newspaper profiles, a mention in Private Eye, and an Evening Standard guest column - which he promptly stuffed with phrases like 'cock- naked'. Morris has a history of messing about: sackings from Radio Cambridge and Radio Bristol, a row-punctuated stint at GLR, an offensive Christmas show at Radio 1 in 1992. Even his relatively uncontroversial work - as the demonic host of the news satires On The Hour and The Day Today - has been risky, involving addressing ordinary people in the street as 'peasant', and continually biting the BBC hand that feeds him. His career seems to progress as a series of planned escalations. 'At some point he'll actually kill someone like Heseltine,' says BBC comedy producer Armando Iannucci, who has worked with Morris for a decade. 'He'll tape it, then broadcast it.'
MORRIS cultivates a convincingly spiky off-air persona too. He makes a fuss about being photographed (supposedly to avoid being recognised when he's doing pranks), attacks whoever his current employers are in interviews, never does benefits, and nearly always works on his own. But the Morris I meet isn't very scary: tall verging on gangly, checked shirt flapping, unkempt longish hair - not the Bela Lugosi slickback of his Day Today persona - and a wide, amused mouth. His broadcast voice is gone too - replaced by an unbuttoned middle-class half- mumble, free of comedy blokishness.
Far from acting the enigmatic enfant terrible, he is ready with whole paragraphs of explanation for his scams, sentences enthusiastically rushing on and on. 'There is something very exciting - rather weirdly - about editing (which is how he achieved much of his earlier on-air mayhem). The first thing you do is try and decontextualise everything, so you make nonsense . . . But then I just started thinking it's a bit more of a challenge to get people to talk this rubbish without actually editing . . . And it's a risk. It's a fantastic risk - the risk of somebody just saying 'You're talking bollocks' is huge, and it's quite . . . scary. It really gets your adrenalin going.'
After agreeing to an interview on condition that we don't talk about pranks, Morris doesn't want to stop. 'It can be quite amusing if somebody knows there's something awful going on but doesn't know how to escape, is constricted by manners. It degenerates into a siege, whereby you fling ghastly suggestion after ghastly suggestion at them, just to see when it's going to break.'
He's just done such a scam: 'I was interviewing Nick Ross. He was down the (phone) line, and I said, 'Keith Richards is in the next room, doing another interview. D'you mind if I get him to talk to you?' Then I left the studio for a bit, then sat down again, and started talking to him in a Keith Richards voice - and he completely believed it. He was going, 'Hi Keith. Yeah, yeah. Right. OK.' It is odd what you can get some people to do.'
But what's the point of making Nick Ross look stupid? Morris vacillates. First, he says it's 'amusement, really, and excitement'. Then he talks about exposing the way 'the media confers authority' on undeserving journalists and politicians. Then he switches back, laying into a 'Guardian-reader N1 mentality' that approves mocking the great and good but not ordinary people. 'In the end, you're just creating a bit of mischief. You're not destroying the world, or smashing somebody's face in.'
Could this be Beadle talking? Morris is ready for this one: 'It's not what Jeremy Beadle does, so much as how he does it - the ghastly, chuckling pre- and post-stunt revelling. Also, his set-ups are totally implausible. You imagine that the only way they make it to the screen is through being vigorously edited.'
Morris works hard. While his stunts seem dashingly spontaneous, they're painstakingly put together. Last week, he broadcast a spoof of a song by REM, famously environmentalist rock stars, advocating the joys of hunting and eating whales for a secretly recorded Japanese TV ad. A nice idea, but carried by its execution - authentic ringing guitars, harmonies, and lyrics like 'shiny happy meaty creature'. He spent hours studying and mimicking REM's elliptical lyrics and assonances beforehand: 'I feel I'd let myself down if I didn't'.
Morris may be a bit of a naughty schoolboy, shouting 'Christ's fat cock]' at Cliff Richard on air (Cliff just kept on talking), then trying to justify it by insisting that 'the best state of mind is really being juvenile', but this has always been mixed in with a nerdy love of gadgetry. After Jesuit public school, he went to Bristol University and messed around in a band ('I was constantly trying to trickle in bits of weather forecasts'), then became a news trainee at Radio Cambridge. 'The trainer said: 'The first thing you've got to do is stop sounding like Prince Charles.' ' Morris ignored him, learnt editing, got his own show, and got sacked for filling the newsroom with helium during a live news broadcast.
He got his next job, at Radio Bristol, precisely because he was a troublemaker. 'He used to wear stupid clothes - golfing trousers and always a bow-tie, and a scruffy white shirt with holes in it,' says Steve Yabsley, who was working there as a reporter. 'He used to have a corner of the office, a glass of wine in one hand, making notes in the other. But he would spend all day doing a one-minute trail for his show.'
Morris rewired the studio desks to get sound effects, assembled his one-man armoury of fake news, mocking vox pops and phone-ins, and intimidated people by his vocabulary and garlicky breath. ('He cooked a chicken with 20 cloves once and came to work . . . he had to go outside.') He got fired again - for crunching apples and making comments about newsreaders on-air, during their live bulletins after his show.
It's not hard to see a vein of news-envy running through this. But, after a spell at GLR worrying the bosses and widening his audience, Morris got his own news programme - of sorts.
On The Hour, which Morris devised, wrote, presented and produced with Iannucci, Steve Coogan, Rebecca Front, Doon MacKichan, Patrick Marber and David Schneider, was a chance to let all his comic ideas - previously squeezed in between playing records - run riot. It was funny, for its grasp of the empty pomp of news cliche ('The main story today is the continuous unravelling of events'), its tastelessness ('first on the scene of major disasters'), and its close-to-the-wind mocking of every BBC institution from Thought For The Day to The Money Programme. It went from critics' darling to award- winner, Radio 4 to Radio 1, and quickly bred spin-offs. 'You get the opportunity to milk an idea until the udder's run dry completely, and you just start sucking the cow's guts through the teat,' he says with the sort of grotesque flourish - his parents are doctors - he loves to throw out on the radio.
Next, Morris was asked to do a Christmas show on Radio 1. 'I said to them, 'You're putting me on at three on Christmas afternoon. I'm going to say things that you're not going to like . . . Johnny Beerling (then the controller) said: 'Oh, I think you rather underestimate us.' Maybe I just didn't recognise the sound of someone handing me a great big lump of rope . . .' Morris told the festive listening millions that the Pet Shop Boys, who were making a habit of performing with older women, were about to record 'Little Children' with Moors Murderer Myra Hindley. He wasn't asked to do another show.
AS USUAL, he had other offers. BBC2 commissioned a TV version of On The Hour - The Day Today - which forced him to give up his comfortable radio invisibility. On camera he was 'a grinning nut. . . staring eyes and over-adrenalised' - perfect for his part. He stalked the studio, eyes blazing into the camera, shouting headlines; played a dishevelled Kurt Cobain singing dolefully for a tampon ad; and persuaded a florid-faced man in the street to quantify his enthusiasm for 'tightening up the law' by stretching a rubber band.
Like its parent, The Day Today was satire dizzy with cultural references. 'The Day Today was well embedded in the colon - a sort of auto-colonic headcharge,' admits Morris. 'It got rather an embarrassing clutch of reviews, but only 3 million people watched it in the end, and I bet most of those were in the south- east.' There is a wider point here. The media like On The Hour, The Day Today, offspring like Steve Coogan's Knowing Me, Knowing You, and shows like Harry Enfield's Television Programme, because they're mainly about the media. Their rise, however, has coincided with a plummet in the BBC's audience share. Is the BBC mocking itself into a metropolitan corner, while new irony-free rivals like Carlton and Virgin 1215 take away its wider public?
Morris thinks this could be happening at Radio 1, where Matthew Bannister (the current controller) has brought trendier music and riskier comedy - not just The Chris Morris Music Show, but the rowdiness of Steve Wright's morning show, and the whims of Danny Baker mid-afternoon - and lost a quarter of the station's audience in a year. He says he wants to escape 'from the inverted commas of the spoof format'. He even praises Tony Blackburn for his unembarrassed DJ prattle.
Yet he has no doubt that he himself will continue to get into trouble, and is ostentatiously blase about it. He says Bannister 'is quite schizophrenic' about him. 'He appreciates fooling around but is constantly having to stop himself approving.' And he claims that Heseltine enjoyed his mock obituary: 'The father of a friend of somebody who works on my programme said to him: 'I know a guy who worked on that Radio 1 programme.' And Heseltine said: 'Really? I thought that was rather amusing.' '
He's already wriggling away from supervision, handing over copies of the tape of his programme, then adding things afterwards. Iannucci suggests, tongue-in-cheek, that Morris's whole (in)disciplinary history has been an arrangement: 'He normally works a long-term contract. The sackings break it up, and they keep hiring him back. One of the governors probably went to his public school.'
Really, Morris is rather old-fashioned. With his love of radio, his Reithian belief in using it to provoke and demystify, his refusal to do ads, and his devotion to detail, he's not that different from the absurdly serious radio announcers he imitates. And he's part of a long tradition of adults sniggering on the BBC long after they should have grown out of it, from The Goon Show to Steve Wright (his main influence). 'You can imagine Chris being on Call My Bluff when he's 20 years older,' says his old GLR boss Trevor Dann.
In the meantime, The Chris Morris Music Show continues until Christmas, and another The Day Today series is likely. Morris will stalk our high streets, tall and suited, his 'congested brain' churning and his microphone eager for people for him - and us - to laugh at. Don't talk to him.-
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