TELEVISION / And some ultranews just in . . .: Newscasters will wince at the sight of Chris Morris on The Day Today. Mark Wareham meets the sly anchorman
Tuesday 18 January 1994
Press BBC2 instead of BBC1 at 9pm tomorrow night and you might think the news has suddenly become interesting. Not only will The Day Today lead you to a greater understanding of the news, but you'll actually be able to 'feel the reality of news'. More than mere news, this is 'ultranews', where the news is the news. The programme will operate under the simple credo: Fact x Importance = News. And Peter Sissons, on the other side, may never look or sound the same again.
The anchorman and undisputed king of the newsmosphere is 'one- man news channel' Christopher Morris who, the programme notes tell us, 'was fired from the BBC in 1989 for using make-up on victims at the scene of a disaster and hired by The Day Today for precisely that reason'. You may know him as the dynamic force (with Armando Iannucci) behind On the Hour, Radio 4's brilliant pastiche of a news magazine which quite literally (as they say) gave the world Alan Partridge, Steve Coogan's celebrated sportscaster.
But while Coogan and Iannucci are familiar names, Morris remains a shadow man. Even the BBC appears not to have heard of him: in this week's Radio Times, the blurb omits even a mention of his name and someone has gone to the trouble of cutting him out of the accompanying photograph, despite the fact that he presents the programme and has co-produced and co-written it with Iannucci. So why is he ignored?
Partly it's because he takes a 'low publicity line' and partly it's to protect his identity as a notorious scam-monger. Morris was the man behind On the Hour's spoof telephone call to the Sun during the last election campaign, which resulted in the paper offering him pounds 2,500 to go on the record about a bogus tape-recording of Neil Kinnock effing and blinding in a hotel bar in Manchester. The Sun reporter only twigged (having already dispatched four reporters to Manchester) when Morris told him, on air, that he had seen Kinnock emerging 'stark naked from his bedroom shouting, 'Forget Paddy Pantsdown, I'm Neil Kingcock' '. Not even Conservative Central Office saw the funny side of the wheeze: one of its campaign managers was heard on air confidentially advising Morris to contact the Tory tabloids with his story.
'Coming up . . . Bosnian old woman.'
Two years later, this same mix of inspired prankery and reckless burlesque returns in the guise of The Day Today. The programme's premise is the news as showbiz, a format which takes the viewer just a small step on from some of the more vulgar news programming seen on the satellite and terrestrial networks. Morris believes there's a good deal to mock about the news.
'The whole thing's so bogus and right now it's so lauded . . . These macho terms are coming in, it's 'The Nine' and 'The Six', and Peter Sissons is quoted as saying something preposterous, which he is most of the time, like 'I certainly don't intend to play with the bloody computer at the end of the programme. I aim to have no mannerisms at all. I am FACT from head to foot. I am BIO-FACT.' There's a huge degree of self-importance which may not exist in terms of their personal life. They may not self-importantly get a cake out of the fridge at tea-time, but on screen they have to project a self- importance which, if you catch it on the wrong mood cusp, is riling to say the least.'
Michael Buerk is another favourite. 'He's like a priest and he pulls serious faces in a hammy way. It's like Russ Abbot saying to himself, 'I know this can get a laugh.' Michael Buerk's probably saying in the newsroom, 'I know this can get a tear . . .' '
'Unnamed woman pierced by shaft of frozen urine.'
But while The Day Today cruelly lampoons such bastions of truth as Sissons and Buerk, the programme is more than straight parody. 'We may be saying, 'Anna Ford is Diana Ross crying at the same place in the same song every night in a whole season at Vegas,' but there's equally an element which says, 'Here's a stupid idea . . . now let's use the language of news to substantiate bollocks.' '
Inevitably, there will be viewers who fall victim to the sucker punch. Or, quite possibly, critics. When On the Hour ran a story about Liverpool St tube station coming unbolted and slipping round as far as Holborn, an Express columnist denounced the programme as 'grossly irresponsible'. He had cancelled his journey into work on the strength of the report.
Another probable effect of The Day Today will be to make it extremely awkward for Morris to continue his blag and hoax tactics, since he is likely to have his cover blown away by television's all-seeing eye. Innately suspicious of the publicity machine ('Nobody has been able to prove with anything other than their own fear that a good programme won't get noticed if you say nothing about it at all beforehand'), Morris goes to endless lengths to make sure his face never appears clearly enough in photographs for him to be identified. Even his talking head on The Day Today is not easily recognisable as the Morris his mother knows, such is his desire to avoid having to adopt Beadlesque disguises in pursuit of future quarry.
'Portillo's teeth removed to boost pound.'
Morris's radio background has also meant having to adapt his modus operandi for television, accustomed as he is to sneaking potentially hot snippets into his broadcasts just before deadline. (Only last week he was at it again in a series of interviews with Peter Cook as Sir Arthur Streeb Greebling, slipping in a section where Sir Arthur discovers the fossilised remains of Christ as an infant - 'that's not going near anybody until seconds before transmission'.) Previous airwave terrorism has seen him fill a news studio with helium, seconds before an announcer reported a motorway pile-up, and perform a routine running commentary over a live news bulletin at Radio Bristol (for which he was sacked). Does he anticipate problems ahead when he starts a new Radio 1 show later this year? 'Matthew Bannister fired me at GLR, so he knows what I'm made of.'
The hardest thing for a radio newsreader making the switch to TV, says Morris, is to keep still. 'I've always found television news fantastically distracting because of people's mannerisms. If you're watching Peter Sissons, you're always thinking, 'Why's he got a nuclear missile up his arse?' On Question Time particularly, he was always shuffling around. Michael Buerk is pulling this po-faced 'Hey, we're all in church' act, Martyn Lewis looks inescapably wet, Peter Snow is on fire, Jeremy Paxman is playing some kind of extraordinary game with his facial anatomy . . .'
Ah yes, Jeremy Paxman. If anyone, it's Paxman upon whom Morris bases his newscaster. When Morris starts striding about the Day Today studio, you feel it's only a matter of time before Paxman starts doing the same on Newsnight. So why Paxman? 'Because,' says Morris without hesitation, 'I'm naturally a cruel bastard.'
'The Day Today' 9pm Wed BBC2
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