Chris Morris – as brave (and deadly) as a lion
Here’s the text of my intro to Chris Morris’ Four Lions, as premiered at Derby QUAD on Tuesday 11th May.
I had a frog in my throat that night, so it definitely reads better than it sounded then…
For those of a certain age, Chris Morris is the great comic mind of his generation, as vital and hilarious as the Goons, Peter Cook or Monty Python were to previous ones. Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, he slashed, scythed and gouged a path of insight and intellect through the idiocy and madness of contemporary life, using the only tools that make sense in such a crazy world: ridicule, satire and absolute fearlessness.
Or to use a phrase from Morris’ great series The Day Today, he’s been slamming the wasps from the pure apple of truth.
Tonight’s film, Four Lions, is Morris’ feature debut and takes on one of the most provocative socio-political themes of the times – the threat of home-grown suicide bombers – by turning it into a comedy. Controversial? Undoubtedly: to some, the very idea of mocking something so serious is offensive and unpalatable. But, although controversy has dogged Morris’ career almost from day one, and despite the outrageous nature of much of his material, he’s never wilfully courted it. Controversy, in Morris’ eyes, is cheap and tawdry; there is always a point and purpose to what he does – even if cultural commentators and arbiters of taste have often missed it.
Morris’ roots are in radio, where he signalled his distaste for orthodoxy by releasing helium during a news report for BBC Bristol. Those antics led him to Radio 4, where he pioneered a stunningly accurate spoof of news radio with On The Hour, alongside equally talented newcomers including Armando Ianucci and Steve Coogan, who debuted his now-iconic sports reporter Alan Partridge on the show.
Garlanded with awards, the team moved into television with the equally spot-on The Day Today, which deployed graphics designed by ITN to exactly mimic the look and feel of the news…but behind the deadpan delivery were reports about the IRA turning dogs into bombs – called ‘terrierists’ – or a punch-up between the Queen and John Major. At the centre was Morris himself, whose Paxman-esque persona as a snarling, suffer-no-fools tyrant was as strong a comedy performance as Partridge. His finest hour? Starting a war on-air, because it’s good for ratings.
But The Day Today’s surreal, faintly silly approach was nothing next to Morris’ next TV project, the dangerously incisive Brass Eye. In outline, it was a spoof of current affairs shows, but Morris’ satire reached new levels of reality by roping in unwitting celebrities and politicians to join fraudulent, patently absurd consumer campaigns, like the quest to abolish the “made-up drug, Cake,” of which questions were asked in Parliament. It was a more overt phrasing of the question he’d asked throughout his career to date: why do we blindly follow the media? If the people we rely on for guidance are so ill-formed as to spout such gibberish, what else might be made-up?
[As a side-note, the Cake debacle was echoed during the recent media scare over Mephedrone. According to Private Eye, the nickname given to the drug by the tabloids – Meow Meow – was never used by users. The source of the information, as reported by The Sun, was a joke entry on Mephedrone’s Wikipedia entry.]
The high-point – or nadir, depending on your level of outrage – came in a one-off Brass Eye special in 2001. In a case of life imitating art imitating life, Morris’ caustic observations about the media witch-hunt over paedophilia precipitated a media witch-hunt against Morris himself, for allegedly condoning child abuse. But as the celebrities queuing up to make fools of themselves would put it, the tabloids were talking “nonce sense.” When one paper ran an editorial criticising Morris directly alongside a salacious story about Charlotte Church turning 16, it underlined exactly the hypocrisy that Morris was targeting all along.
Four Lions would seem a natural destination for Morris’ mindset; indeed, the War on Terror could quite easily have provided material for another episode of Brass Eye. What’s interesting is that Morris’ style has changed considerably over the last decade. While still an agent provocateur, he’s not longer the literally in-your-face frontman of his shows; instead, he’s moved behind the camera to create a more organic outlet for his scorn.
Morris’ first series behind the camera was 2000’s Jam, an adaptation of his dark stream-of-consciousness radio series Blue Jam. Effectively the sketch show unshackled from easy laughs and recreated as disturbing Swiftian satire, it told pitch black morality tales of the awful extremes of human behaviour. Its signature moment saw a grieving mother call a plumber to try and fix her dead baby; he’s having none of it…until she offers him £1000 an hour to try.
Nightmarish and disorientating, Jam was – understandably – nearly as controversial as the Brass Eye special, but it provided the springboard into Morris’ directorial career. His 2002 short My Wrongs #8245-8249 & 117 – a weird comedy again based on a Blue Jam sketch – won a BAFTA, while his 2005 collaboration with Charlie Brooker, Nathan Barley, was less a sitcom than a bleakly funny drama. Just to reinforce how different Morris’s style was developing, he took a recurring role in The I.T. Crowd, about as conventional a sitcom as you can get.
And so onto Four Lions, which would appear to be the perfect synthesis of the two strands of Morris’ career. Like Brass Eye, it’s a topical, media-baiting satire….but told in the more ambiguous, quasi-dramatic style of Nathan Barley. The questions he provokes aren’t getting any easier to answer, but now our expected response is harder to determine. Should we laugh or cry? Morris has been at pains to highlight the diligent research he’s undertook to get the details right about how British Muslims become jihadist killers – but the more he found out, the more absurd those details appeared. Sometimes, buffoons are the most deadly force of all.
One final point, and something I think is particularly interesting, is that Morris is part of a significant generational shift, where writers of television comedy have seized the reins to direct as well. Bar Pythons Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones, there’s really no precedent for this. And yet look at the biggest names in British film comedy today. Blackadder creator Richard Curtis has moved, via Four Weddings and a Funeral, to direct Love Actually and The Boat That Rocked. The Office/Extras team of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant have just released their feature-film debut, Cemetery Junction. Spaced’s co-writer and director, Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright, are a Britflick brand thanks to Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. And, of course, Morris’ long-term collaborator Armando Ianucci got Oscar-nominated earlier this year for In The Loop, the film spin-off of his political sitcom The Thick Of It.
Collectively, it shows enormous ambition and creative nous; with a hand behind the camera, these writers can be certain that their material will reach us fully-formed and undiluted. And yet, for what? There’s little that’s daring or dangerous about the nostalgia of The Boat That Rocked or Cemetery Junction. And brilliant though they are, the Pegg/Wright movies are post-modern genre mash-ups rather than reflections of real life. Fortunately, Ianucci provided a thorn in the to give Morris something to add a further vicious twist to – here’s a guy who doesn’t direct to make things easier for himself, but to make things harder for us. Like Charlie Chaplin did with The Great Dictator, or Stanley Kubrick did with Doctor Strangelove, Morris is using his power and reputation to attack the certainties of the world we live in. Four Lions, like so much of Morris’ work, can be traced back to a single line from The Day Today: “Those are the headlines – god I wish they weren’t.”
(C) Simon Kinnear 2010. Published with kind permission of Derby QUAD.