"The most loathed man on TV" was how one newspaper described comedy's ultimate taboo-breaker, Chris Morris, in the wake of his 2001 Brass Eye special about paedophilia. It's unclear whether it was upset by testy pop dinosaur Phil Collins doing a piece straight to camera in which, on behalf of an imaginary child protection agency, he announced "I am talking Nonce Sense", or the CCTV footage of a paedophile attempting to seduce children by roaming the streets dressed as a school.
Hundreds are said to have complained when the programme was aired. The complainers were probably the same planks that, imagining themselves brave vigilantes, daubed the word "paedo" on the front door of paediatrician in south Wales. Either that or it was Noel Edmonds, masterfully stitched up by Morris in a Brass Eye episode about a fictional street drug called Cake, pulling an all-nighter on the phone to Ofcom.
If the right-wing media liked to portray Morris as a threat to our moral fabric, Raw Meat Radio, a glorious three-hour retrospective on Radio 4 Extra presented by Mary Anne Hobbs, painted him as a merry prankster and satirist who wasn't just pushing at boundaries, he was pole-vaulting over the top of them and gleefully legging it over the horizon.
Morris made in his name on radio on programmes such as Why Bother?, On the Hour and Blue Jam, and amassed an impressive collection of P45s from Radio Bristol, London's GLR and Radio 1. Thus, the programme's delve into the archives yielded all manner of anarchic and rarely heard treasures, from Morris's phone call to a receptionist at United Airlines in which he asked whether planes sniff the building when they pull into the airport gate, to his instructions to his collaborator Paul Garner to douse himself in TCP before hailing a taxi and then insisting to the driver that he check that the indicators were working. It took roughly five minutes for the driver to lose his temper.
Morris was a man who railed against convention, loathed pomposity and piety, and revelled in the surreal. Stories abound of him filling his rivals' studios with helium, though, according to his biographer Lucian Randall, "the vile slurs on Chris Morris's professionalism seemed to be started by Chris Morris."
Even so, his capacity to push a prank into the realms of bum-clenching embarrassment was second to none. "There's something about going through that pain barrier that becomes funny," noted Armando Iannucci, Morris's partner in crime on the spoof news programme On The Hour (sample headline: "Man with glass face too disgusting for trial, rules judge").
A case in point was Morris's interview with the newsreader Martyn Lewis, played in all its excruciating eight-minute agony here, and during which Lewis did his utmost to remain serene in the face of questions such as: "When you do a report on traffic policy, would you have to explain to the viewer what a road was?"
That this was comedy gold was a given. More telling was the overwhelming sense that Morris was a radical who existed very much in a vacuum. On the radio in the Nineties we had Morris plus Iannucci, Steve Coogan and Graham Linehan. Now we have – who? Punt and Dennis on Radio 4, chortling at their own jokes against a backdrop of canned laughter, and Milton Jones prattling on about gardening.
More than merely a nostalgic voyage into the past, Raw Meat Radio reminded us what we are missing. Crucially, it told us how radio comedy has become dispiritingly safe and that, right now, commissioning editors need to seriously up their game.Reuse content