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The Chris Morris Music Show

Radio 1
Weekly (with occasional absences — see below), June to December 1994.  Probably 24 shows in total

A ‘dangerous’, cutting-edge comedy show which, for once, entirely lived up to its hype.  The Chris Morris Music Show was, quite genuinely, an outrageous, sick, twisted programme which constantly put its own existence in jeopardy.  It was also — for those prepared to tolerate its approach — virulently funny.

The decision to grant the comedian Christopher Morris a regular, hour-long comedy and music show followed the great success of BBC2’s The Day Today (early 1994), the television adaptation of Radio 4’s On The Hour.  Morris had fronted both of these shows and was by this stage a recognisable figure.  But, although these series were strongly imbued with his unique presentational style, and contained deliberate hoax features and the occasional controversial item, they actually represented the comedian at his most restrained.  A quick glance through the Chris Morris track record of work at various student and local radio stations would have revealed the dominating presence of the word ‘sacked’.  There is a proliferation of stories and legends concerning Morris’s early career: his misdemeanours apparently include filling news studios with helium during the broadcast of serious bulletins and making one or two subtle emendations to a tape of the Queen’s Speech.  He had apparently been contracted to present a Radio 1 series once before, beginning with a two-hour special on Christmas Day 1990; a carefully-constructed Myra Hindley joke transmitted on the early-evening programme secured his instant dismissal.

The Radio 1 executives who commissioned the new series must have been aware of all this when they approached the man who was now a rising young telly comedian; in interviews around the time the show first aired, Morris himself suggested that the practicalities of the situation would probably force some sense of restraint upon him.   But this was not to be: in The Chris Morris Music Show, the listening public got its first real taste of the full-on Chris Morris aural assault.

As the name suggests, the Music Show contained song tracks, which (as in every other Radio 1 comedy from this period) were interspersed between the comedy items.  Morris chose and introduced all the tunes himself: although the show was a Light Ent production he was happy to be represented, in contrast to the station’s other comedy stars, more as a kind of twisted DJ than as a straightforward comedy presenter, and this role was reinforced by the show’s scheduling (it was granted a permanent Wednesday night slot for the whole of its seven-month run; the equivalent Monday-night slot at this time housed more traditional comedy shows which were transmitted as series of four to eight episodes).  Morris succeeded in making the music an integral part of the show, embellishing it in his own inimitable style (inserting obscure samples, playing along over the top with a variety of ill-tuned instruments, indulging his talent for pastiche, and broadcasting exceptionally offensive ‘pop facts’ about some of the artists involved which only fell outside the laws of libel thanks to their obvious untruth).  The music itself was a potential source of controversy, owing to Morris’s predilection for gangsta rap and his absent-minded tendency to play the wrong (non-radio-) edits of songs, but the volume of flak drawn by the rest of the show prevented this from becoming much of an issue.

The speech element also seemed to be influenced by the format of a typical Radio 1-style DJ-driven show, consisting mainly of monologues, phone-ins, interviews and studio discussions.  Chris’s regular collaborator on the show was Peter Baynham, the Day Today co-writer also known for his work with Armando Iannucci and Lee and Herring.  In the show’s more restrained moments — which were still wildly surreal and faintly disturbing — the two would have cosy, semi-scripted chats on all manner of subjects (a typical episode involves Peter as a character explaining new ways to obtain a ‘legal high’, which include smoking a spider-plant through a saxophone filled with honey and inserting your head into a flesh wound on the underside of a cow).  Some of the phone-in quizzes (which were pre-recorded, but in most cases entirely genuine) caused more trouble, however: the ‘Sock Quiz’ was a thinly-veiled attempt to coerce young children into pronouncing the word “fuck”.

Several elements first heard in On The Hour were resurrected, including the report features in which Chris went out with a roving microphone, asking ridiculous questions in silly voices and receiving earnest replies from the public, and the gormless DJ character Wayne Carr (voiced by Chris himself), now cast in the role of celebrity interviewer.  As in Morris’s later and even more incendiary work, the Channel 4 series Brass Eye, bogus interviews with the rich and famous played a significant part in the show, whether face-to-face or as a part of another regular phone-in feature, ‘Call Peter Hammill’.  Morris, or the character he happened to be inhabiting at the time, would always do his best first to confuse, and then to offend, the hapless interviewee, often with memorable results.  More generally, Morris was, like Radio 1’s original shock-tactics comedian Victor Lewis Smith (with whom he actually became involved in a priority dispute), a master of the wind-up phone-call, greatly given to ringing up innocuous service providers or members of the public and giving them a hard time.

Several shows in the series (mainly towards the beginning of the run, for reasons which will become clear) featured some kind of narrative progression, relating events that (supposedly) happened in and around the studio in the course of the show.  In one programme, the hapless Peter Baynham was sent out to steal a baby; in another, Chris was sent a tortoise to autograph and, with appropriate sound effects, removed it from its shell (cue worried phone calls to several surprisingly ill-informed vets, one of whom advised him to put the creature out of its misery by leaving it in the freezer); in another still, Chris and Pete found the corpse of DJ Johnnie Walker (Chris’s former radio-station boss) in a neighbouring studio and telephoned a French taxidermist to ask if he would mind stuffing it for an exhibition on the history of radio.  All these episodes drew complaints; the most notorious themed programme of all, however, was the sixth show in the run, commonly referred to as “the Heseltine Death Episode”.

This transmission quickly became, in the words of John Peel, “famed in folksong and legend”.  Many people have gained the impression that Morris interrupted his show to broadcast a hoax announcement that Michael Heseltine, the senior Conservative politician, had died following a second heart attack.  This is somewhat inaccurate: as the best-known incident in Morris’s radio career, the transmission has attained a kind of mythological status, with the result that many accounts given in the media provide incorrect details (some even attributing the episode to On The Hour rather than the Music Show).  What Morris actually did was more subtle, broadcasting at the start and end of the show a highly ambiguous message: “This is BBC Radio 1FM, and if there is any news of the death of Michael Heseltine in the next hour, we’ll let you know.”  Anybody actually listening to the show — which also included a discussion with Bruce Foxton of the Jam as to which bassline might make a suitable epitath for Heseltine,  a hoax phone-call to the MP Jerry Hayes asking him to provide a quote for a supposed Heseltine obituary being compiled in advance, and a genuine news report making no mention of the ‘death’ — could not have been fooled by the announcement for more than about ten minutes.  (In all fairness, it should be pointed out that Morris later went on to announce the death of Sir Jimmy Saville).  Nonetheless, the stunt was judged unacceptable by Morris’s superiors, and the show received a two-week suspension.

The non-apppearance of episodes soon became something of a regular occurrence.  After the Heseltine episode Morris was no longer allowed to present the show live (although, even in the early shows, some of the features which were meant to sound ‘live’ had been prerecorded anyway), and had to have each show cleared by the censors before it could be transmitted.  Pressure of time often meant that rejected shows could not be re-edited, so repeats of earlier shows or other programmes were substituted.  Towards the end of the run, things got increasingly chaotic as a result of rushed assembly, with noticeable effects on the presentation quality of the shows.  As the series closed, Morris claimed to be clearing his shows with the censors and then secretly re-editing the tapes prior to broadcast: the fact that he chose to make this claim in the Radio Times billing for his own show (which was duly printed) is as good a demonstration as any of the Morris mindset at work.

It would be churlish to conclude this article without some mention of the man who, surely, has suffered more in the name of radio comedy than anyone else in the world: one Paul Garner.  Garner’s role in the show was, basically, to go out and engage in stupefyingly childish acts liable to jeapordise his personal safety, as instructed by Chris via a mobile phone.  There were three basic situations: in his first few appearances, some of which were hence genuinely live, Paul would go into a shop to buy something; he would then be directed to make some complaint about his change.  The complaints started off fairly surreal (“These coins are too shiny…”) and got worse (“Say you can’t take the coin because it’s got a Harris on it” ordered Chris, helpfully advising Paul to “point at the Harris”).  When the ‘shop-bothering’ routine became stale, the duo turned their attention towards Heathrow Airport, with Garner requesting messages to be read out over the tannoy asking fictitious individuals with with amusing or obscene names to contact the Information Office.  It was soon established that any vaguely foreign-sounding collection of syllables would be read out, leading to paired phrases (“Avjezbhin Fayed and Babaiev Rjiboadi”) and ultimately entire sentences which became increasingly obvious: on one of the last shows, travellers at the airport can be heard hooting with laughter as the names are read out, and Garner was ultimately found out and forced to switch operations to Gatwick.  All of which pales into insignificance beside the third set-up, in which Paul would be sent into a hotel lobby to abuse a randomly-selected passer-by (“Tell him he has to leave the building because he’s the wrong shape”): this routine tended to bring the adrenalin-crazed Garner within an inch of suffering serious physical violence.

Perhaps surprisingly, the Music Show was not cancelled before reaching the end of the run originally agreed, and culminated (ironically enough) in a two-hour Christmas special made up largely of series highlights.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, Radio 1 did not commission any more of the same — although, intriguingly, it has since retained Mr Morris’s services (in the form of Blue Jam, a show which also mixes comedy and music but in a radically different style) while dropping all other comedy shows from its schedules.  Morris’s passion for confrontation, meanwhile, has since been expressed even more explosively in Channel 4’s 1997 mock-documentary Brass Eye, the last transmission of which included an obscene subliminal message concerning the station’s then controller Michael Grade, inserted by Morris at the last possible moment.

External links: Glebe’s Thrift Funnel, featuring a wealth of Morris-related material
The Rethink site (“Christ’s Fat Cock!”), covering similar ground and with numerous samples from the show here, plus probably the most comprehensive links page to other relevant pages
A full set of summaries of the contents of each Music Show
[Editor’s note: the compiler of this last item is a noted frank sidebottom fan and as such beyond reproach]

© JB Sumner 1998. Modified 15/11/98