The distorted world of Chris Morris

A rare interview with the reclusive agent provocateur of comedy
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The Independent Online

Chris Morris does not give interviews. At any rate, that is a truth pretty much universally accepted in the media. Where the idea came from, nobody knows: Morris thinks he may have started the rumour himself in one of the interviews he supposedly doesn't give. It isn't true: personally, I've interviewed him twice before, though the last time was five years ago and we haven't heard much from him since.

It's certainly true that he is elusive - it took me five days to get him to answer any of my calls - and that he has never actively courted publicity. So much so that almost none of the press seems to have noticed that in his latest project, Jam, he has created the most radical and original television programme broadcast in years; and none of the press at all has bothered to ask him about it.

Jam, for those who have not seen it, could loosely be described as a comedy sketch show, but it is unlike any sketch show ever broadcast. A fairly typical sketch involves two loving parents explaining to their son's godfather that they have both been submitting to the attentions of a local pervert in order to divert his attention from the boy; now they're hoping that the godfather will step in to allow the boy's father to take a couple of weeks off. Another involves a man in an armchair describing in tones of muted apathy how he watched a man trying to kill himself by jumping off a tall building: but since he was too lazy to climb to the top, he just jumped off the first floor balcony again and again, becoming progressively more bloodied and uncoordinated under the eyes of a growing crowd of onlookers.

The material is undoubtedly disturbing, not least because nobody ever seems to fight against the horrible things being described - in the sketch about the parents having sex with the pervert, it becomes clear that at no point has the man expressed any interest in their son; they've dreamed up the scheme themselves. And the atmosphere of passive horror is emphasised by the bizarre way the sketches are filmed: voices are muffled, slowed down, out of sync; pictures are viewed as if through a gauze or a distorting lens; and a lulling, gentle pop soundtrack underlies the whole thing.

Critics have complained that Jam isn't funny enough; but funny isn't the point. When we spoke earlier this week, Morris was at pains to point out the distinction; that many of the ideas involved are "things which if you wrote them down in two lines you would describe as humorous. But they've travelled."

The point is to create what Morris defines vaguely as "a certain atmosphere" - something most easily explained with reference to Blue Jam, the Radio 1 series that preceded Jam. This was designed to be broadcast at three o'clock in the morning and, Morris says, "was about how your mind works in the middle of the night": the assumption was that jokes and low-ambient music would creep up on the half-asleep listener. Jam attempts to replicate this effect for the very different medium of television. "It's designed to be hypnotic," he says, "so that it weaves itself in, and compelling, so that you stay with it. And quite often the jokes are going off underground - normally you're given a cue to laugh at things, and here there aren't any cues." In some respects, then, Morris's aims seem closer to experimental artists such as Douglas Gordon, who slowed down Hitchcock for his 24-Hour Psycho, than to The Fast Show. And some people just don't get it.

The other charge levelled at Morris is that he has an adolescent urge to shock, to épater les bourgeois. In The Times a couple of weeks ago, reviewing Jam, Paul Hoggart wrote: "Jam is adolescent in three ways. 1) Morris wants to shock us by breaking taboos and including some really sick jokes; 2) he thinks it is dead cool to be really depressed and cynical and alienated from modern culture, man; and 3) he loves posy, pretentious film and sound effects, like any good art- school student."

A glance at his cv certainly seems to support that idea. After Bristol University - where he read zoology - and some time spent messing around in bands, he drifted into local radio, where he amused himself by reading out running commentaries over news bulletins. He was sacked. In 1988 he got his own Saturday morning slot on GLR, the BBC's London station, where he broadcast such items as "Kiddies' Outing", in which a small child would name some public figure as a homosexual. He was sacked. There followed the immense success of the Radio 4 spoof news series On the Hour and its television successor The Day Today - though even here he got into trouble over bogus phone-calls to tabloid newspapers. An evening slot on Radio 1 followed: after a casual reference to the death of Michael Heseltine (he didn't announce it as such, just said that he would if it happened), he was suspended. Next came the Channel 4 current affairs series Brass Eye: he persuaded Noel Edmonds to go on camera and explain to kids the dangers of the (fictitious) drug "cake" ("It stimulates the part of the brain called "Shatner's Bassoon"); and even got a question asked about cake in the House of Commons. After angry complaints from the hoaxees, the programme was postponed, an incident which led to a serious falling out between Morris and Michael Grade, C4's chief executive at the time.

"When I arrived back at Radio 1 to do Blue Jam, they were not unnaturally suspicious," he says. "It was enshrined officially as a kind of abuse relationship." The station was very vigilant during the first series (there have been three altogether), so that Morris had to adopt subterfuge to get the show the way he wanted: he recorded items so offensive that Radio 1 would be bound to ask him to cut them, and this gave him the chance to put in things that would normally not have got through. Pressed for details of these unbroadcastable items, he can only come up with "something about a saint's cock and the Archbishop of Canterbury".

In the event, Blue Jam attracted few brickbats: "Most complaints were sort of 'Can you imagine how I felt sitting through this with my daughter?', and that's not going to happen in the middle of the night on Radio 1, unless you're helping your daughter through her first steps with drugs."

Last year, he wrote a series of columns for The Observer, purporting to be the diary of a young journalist called Richard Geefes who, having messed up his life, was planning to kill himself. Many readers complained - according to Morris, they seemed to feel it would have been more ethical to publish a genuine account of suicide.

Jam, too, has had the finger of controversy pointed at it, after a newspaper claimed last week that it was being broadcast without an advertising break because no advertiser would touch it. In fact, Morris says that he asked Channel 4 to broadcast it without a break in order not to spoil the atmosphere.

It is hard to reconcile the shock-merchant of newspaper nightmares with the pleasant, urbane chap he seems to be in the flesh: tall, with dark, slightly shaggy hair, dressed in smart-shabby clothes - he has been known to wear bow-ties in the day time - he is cheerful and deliberately charming. There seem to be few demons lurking in his private life. He lives with the comedy scriptwriter and actress Jo Unwin (probably best known to TV-viewers from the Sixties-set RAC comedy The Last Salute) and their two small children in south London. A psychiatrist might take an interest in the fact that his parents were Cambridgeshire GPs, given that a high proportion of the sketches in Jam concern doctor-patient relationships (inevitably, abusive ones), or the fact that he was educated at the Roman Catholic boarding-school Stonyhurst. And perhaps you could read indications of an unconventional family dynamic tendency from the fact his brother is Tom Morris, broadcaster and artistic director of the Battersea Arts Centre.

Morris himself is at pains to deny that he has ever set out to be naughty - or at least not after his first couple of years in broadcasting, when he got it out of his system. "It palls. I just feel tired now if people are shocked. If it's not for you, just don't bloody watch it." He does offer a post-facto intellectual justification for taboo-breaking: "If you make a joke in an area which is for some reason - normally random - out of bounds, then you might find something out, you might put your finger on something." But it's a matter of finding yourself in that area rather than setting out to look for trouble."

In fact, he's keen to quash any suggestion that he has any sort of agenda. He has been called a satirist, and satirical impulses do emerge from time to time in Jam - as in the sketch about parents so eager to get their five-year-old into a desirable local school that they start nobbling the competition, getting them drunk and distributing T-shirts with obscene slogans. But the idea of setting out with a political or moral hit-list repels him: "Down that route lies Tariq Ali, and the most lame-arsed, unamusing botched attempts at satire." Vagueness is all: "You have to be at best only half-aware of what you're trying... if you know what you're looking for, there's no attempt to do some real work." His only criterion for the sketches in Jam is that "they have to feel right, not wrong".

This needs correcting: most of Jam feels hideously, frighteningly wrong. But that's what makes it so right. The word "genius" gets flung around pretty casually; but if you accept that a good definition of a genius is somebody who creates something thoroughly new, utterly unlike what has gone before, then Chris Morris is a genius.