Oxide Ghosts: The Brass Eye Tapes
Dir. Michael Cumming, 2017
“It is pleasing, although perhaps not surprising,” opens Michael Cumming, “that Brass Eye’s impact has lasted somewhat longer than the weeks of its transmission.” Cumming, whose strengths lie in the neat parody of visual overstatement, tends towards self-aware understatement as he introduces his film. A few months ago the director of the first and only series of Brass Eye, Chris Morris’s scurrilous news show, stumbled upon the original production recordings in a box of neglected VHS tapes and floppy discs. The accident was a happy one: alert to the enduring appeal of the show, Cumming decided to edit together the salvageable footage, granting fans of the show an unexpected, bittersweet opportunity to revisit this most contentious of broadcasts.
The resultant film, conscious of the limits of its public appeal, plays intelligently to its audience. Assembled from recordings which had either been self-censored or considered nonessential, the director leaves the original timecode of the clips in plain view. Colour bars are cross-faded into shots as a visual nod to the transience of the medium and the haze of memory, whilst Cumming’s own sense of nostalgia is writ large: lines of degraded ferric oxide snake across the screen continually, a reflective motif that grants the film a certain lo-fi sadness. Here, the director’s background as a student of fine art is clearly evidenced; his final product is an amalgam of celebratory reminiscence and filmic experimentation.
Whilst some details have doubtless been embellished over the course of time, the production process of Brass Eye was truly singular in its cheek, and it is a delight to be served up some of the more outlandish tales during the screening. In the film, Cumming recalls how the show’s production office had to be relocated following a visit from an armed member of Reggie Kray’s gang. Kray, still serving time in Wandsworth prison, had been duped into presenting a fake telephone appeal for Karla, an East-German elephant “who’d been so upset by captivity that she’d stuck her trunk in her anus.” Much of the film’s charm is conveyed through its voiceover, which at one point informs us that Morris, in an attempt to protect himself against a potential stabbing, took to the streets of west London in a jacket stuffed with Vogue magazines to demand “triple sod”, “yellow bentines”, and “clarky cat” from perplexed local drug dealers.
The series did not refrain from directing its satirical gaze toward the most provocative social issues of the day. Racism, classism, and sexism are all skewered via the arrogance of their practitioners. “Luckily, the amount of heroin I use is harmless,” quips Morris’s newsreader, “I inject about once a month on a purely recreational basis. Fine. But what about other people less stable, less educated, less middle-class than me?” Another skit in the Oxide Ghosts film shows a “lady parliament” assembled in the most condescending manner to discuss the issue of animal rights. Visibly bored by the women-led debate, Morris sabotages the situation with a display of perfect paxmanning that concludes in each debater being asked individually “Are you silly?” The presenter’s main persona, a vainglorious figure of fake authority, derives visible satisfaction from conceited statements such as “Find out what to think – next.” He bullies, patronises and falls in love with his interviewees by turns, as well as drawing attention to the bizarre mode of address ubiquitous in the realm of television news: “Should we revive our ailing culture? Or should we bring it back to life and then shoot it for letting us down so badly? You haven’t got a clue, have you?”
In almost all academic and journalistic treatments of Brass Eye, little is made of its ironically overwrought visuals. Indeed, Michael Cumming’s name does not appear once in Morris’s biography, Disgusting Bliss. This is unfortunate, given that many of the show’s hallmarks – glitched-out title sequences, vertiginous transitions, and a relentless pace of edit – all fall under the director’s remit. Cumming’s visual style frequently parallels Morris’s acting and Gestus in its parody of news conventions, conforming to our expectations only to be further exaggerated. The very first sequence of the series, for instance, shows Morris standing up from the table at a middle-class supper and opening with a speech to camera in which he describes animal rights as “not just a dinner party punch-up over squealing meat.” As he steps forward, his face a picture of affected solemnity, we discover that the dining room has been attached to an abattoir all along, with the newscaster delivering his next lines whilst beating a hanging pig’s carcass – a conventional “pull back and reveal” gag, a key weapon in any comedy director’s arsenal, de-familiarised to an absurdist end.
News television tropes, including the hysterical misrepresentation of data through graphs, are repeatedly parodied over the course of the series. One graph records surging crime rates along the two axes of “crime” and “crime”, whilst another plots “the number of animals abused against what makes people cruel, versus intelligence of either party”. “It’s so unreadable you might as well draw in fox heads on sticks,” concludes an indignant Morris. Cumming’s graphics prompt reflection on the constructed nature of media outrage: indecipherable and surreal, his graphs reveal the hollow authority granted to the broadcaster supported by an often-crude technical device. The visuals of broadcast news are not simply mimicked in the show, but frequently stretched to absurdity. The viewer is treated to a burlesque sequence of images, presented in the sober visual style of the Panorama special. Morris’s face chroma-keyed onto the tip of a syringe, a full-scale production of a Peter Sutcliffe musical, and a mandrill collecting drug money from the residents of a housing estate all fall somewhere at the centre of the show’s insanity spectrum.
Perhaps Brass Eye’s most memorable moments are to be located in its wilful deception of celebrities and their coercion into raising awareness for fake campaigns. The inauthenticity of the six causes highlighted over the series was never registered by the subjects, who all display an acutely affected moral sensitivity when placed in front of the camera. Morris’ animal rights campaign, for instance, was given the extraordinary initialism A.A.A.A.A.A.A.Z. (Against Animal Anger And Autocausal Abuse Atrocities in Zoos). In spite of such ridiculousness, the false premise was lost on every candidate including Britt Ekland, who, with an earnest expression that so neatly controverts the plain silliness of her statement, affirms that “Last year, they stopped penguins catapulting each other through the glass roof at Sydney Zoo. Last month, they stopped a pig throwing itself out of a tree onto a python in a two-way death-pact in Chester. Now they want to help Karla, an East German elephant who has got her trunk jammed up her own guts.”
By asking its victims to “talk bollocks with apparent authority”, Brass Eye skilfully drew attention to the vanity of celebrity image. At the time of filming, the show’s production ran the risk of breaching ITC regulations, which indicated that participants of such fake campaigns should be made aware of the hoax before lending their voices. Morris employed an original defence in order to circumvent the guidelines: by highlighting the journalistic merit of his tapes, which had laid bare the ignorance and naivety of several MPs amongst others, the Broadcasting Standards Commission deemed the show to have “raised serious issues, in particular the dangers of people in the public eye speaking with apparent authority about matters they do not understand.” To the chagrin of many public figures, the fake campaigns stayed in the show.
Today, it will hearten many to see that some of Morris’s techniques are being repackaged and championed twenty years later by the likes of The Eric Andre Show, Adult Swim’s blunt-edged Brass Eye counterpart. Like Morris, Andre’s comedy tends towards the surreal: destroying his studio set at the start of each show and cutting to shots of his crew members smoking in the wings are just two of his idiosyncrasies. In his show the manipulation of celebrity guests also plays a large role, often bordering on that self-same “punching down” cruelty of which Brass Eye was accused. Something of Brass Eye’s unapologetic anarchy has survived in television, a torch that has been taken on by American comics operating in the free waters of internet broadcasting.
Brass Eye is now recognised as a unique piece of television, perhaps increasingly so in a sterile commissioning atmosphere. Indeed, its uniqueness is in part guaranteed by the changes it brought about in British broadcasting regulations as a consequence of its subversion. In forcing the hand of the regulator, Morris and Cumming must have understood the legacy of restriction that the show’s airing would entail. This was not a simple case of publish and be damned, but rather an active choice to stretch the elastic limits of ITC guidelines, knowing that they would snap back into a far more constricting shape soon after the echoes of reactive media voices had died away. There will never be another show like Brass Eye broadcast on British public television, and so Cumming’s film proved an enjoyable invitation to reflect on what the cult broadcast stood for, and why we should be grateful that it ever made it to our screens.
Felix von Stumm  is studying for a BA in Modern Languages at the University of Oxford.