Arts: Chris Morris is dead... funny

The anarchic 'Blue Jam' show is a blunted sword on stage, but his disciples don't care
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Indy Lifestyle Online
THERE are two schools of thought regarding Chris Morris's scabrous progress through the Nineties.

From his beginnings on the merciless early Nineties current affairs radio satire, On The Hour and its TV treatment, The Day Today, to Brass Eye and most recently Blue Jam, Morris's career, according to certain critics, has been a textbook illustration of a brilliant talent shrugging off the necessary restraint of a sympathetic, but watchful producer.

Armando Iannucci, so the story goes, kept Morris's more extreme stunts in check (the media terrorist left Radio One in 1995 following a show in which he garnered reaction from various politicians to the news of Michael Heseltine's death) and then proved his worth by taking on to huge success Alan Partridge, the creation of Steve Coogan, an arguably less gifted early collaborator of Morris's.

In the view of Morris devotees, however, Iannucci's guiding hand fettered their hero's fevered imagination: a vision in which Morris's early morning/late night Radio One show, Blue Jam, finally delivered him from petty moral codes.

Few who turned up at the Battersea Arts Centre to sit on cushions in complete darkness for a performance of Blue Jam looked as if they were dissenters from the latter opinion.

The first fan into the studio prostrated himself in obeisance before the speakers - given that neither Morris nor his troupe of actors appear, I suppose the reverence Morris seems to inspire had to be aimed at something. As with its radio version, the show bathes its audience in a soporific series of fractured monologues, claustrophobic mini- dramas and spoof radio features, interspersed with snatches of ambient music. Much of it Blue Jammers would have been familiar with: the belligerent driver furious with a garage for apparently shrinking his Vauxhall Carlton ("It's only two foot six high! How am I supposed to drive that?"), the acupuncturist who uses 14- inch nails on her patients ("Otherwise they'd slide off the table").

Blue Jam's best recurring character, a callously manipulative doctor interested solely in humiliating his patients, would seem to provide a rebuke. In one bizarre consultation, the physician cajoles his patient into jumping up and down with his pants around his ankles before joining in.

Quite apart from rubbishing the position of secular sainthood into which popular drama has elevated the medical profession, beyond the absurd deadpan and exquisitely naturalistic production of this and every Morris creation you'll find the peculiarly English instinct to roll over before authority dissected in pathological detail.

Other than as a favour to Morris's brother, Tom, (BAC's artistic director), there seems to be little reason for the inclusion of Blue Jam in the "In The Dark" season, however (this was one of only two shows, though BAC hope to bring it back in the next couple of months). Morris's explorations of the depths of human obsession and neurosis are as chillingly amusing as ever, but the feeling of fan club solidarity that settles on the room, along with the the fact that we've heard most of the sketches before, blunts the most incisive passages.

It's one thing to giggle alone at Blue Jam's sociopathic meanderings at 1.30am. It's quite another to sit with 30 or 40 others listening to his fictional dialogue between a couple considering the fate of their abused and murdered child in the manner you'd expect in reaction to news of a misplaced umbrella.

I first heard this sketch on the radio, but the illicit frisson its breathtaking tastelessness originally brought seemed far harder to enjoy when, by its conclusion, the audience's initial laughter had been replaced by a nervous fidgeting in the darkness.

Chris Morris is a deliciously solitary vice and perhaps he ought to remain so.