‘Drug use among children has for many an education and with obvious alarm for both parents on the increase almost yearly.’ Try reading that again. Maybe in the style of Huw Edwards. By all means, try it a third time but it’ll only give you a headache. It has the appearance of sense. It makes the same noises as normal sentence. But it’s not normal. It’s a Brass Eye sentence.
Last night, at the Curzon cinema in Soho, 20 years after Chris Morris’s comedy masterpiece was first broadcast, there was a sell-out crowd who wanted more. And another sell-out crowd at 9.15. They were there to see Oxide Ghosts – 60 minutes of unreleased Brass Eye material screened by director Michael Cummings with the permission of Morris.
I remember the first time I heard that Brass Eye sentence in January 1997, delivered by a darkly-lit Paxman-esque anchorman with all the boyish vim and optimism of Macbeth in Act V. I wanted to rewind it instantly. What the hell was that? Did that even make sense? Who is the joke on here? It captures the destabilising way in which Brass Eye works. Broadcast journalese – so crashingly familiar, bathed as we are in its hackneyed rhythms and clichés from the womb – is taken apart and re-assembled in a kind of Dadaist cut-up, so that it is both instantly recognisable and jarringly meaningless at the same time. Our innate linguistic programming immediately tries to wrestle sense from it – and there’s the rub.
This is where we are led by the uncanny authority of televisual diegesis. In that moment, amongst countless others in the series, Morris gave teenagers like me a new, clearer lens through which to look at television and a concomitant epiphany: that so much of it is silly nonsense. That is what Brass Eye does with the grammar of everything. Famously, it re-cast scores of celebrities as agents of self-satire. The fragment is taken from Brass Eye’s ‘Drugs’ episode – better known for Rolf Harris earnestly warning the public about the dangers of partying on ‘Cake’, a non-existent amphetamine which, as Bernard Manning solemnly tells us, makes you cry all the water out of your body. Tory MP David Amess duly asked about Cake in parliament – check Hansard.
Introducing Oxide Ghosts, Cummings focused less on celebrities than on other aspects of a fraught production process, such as the meagre precautions Morris took to get the famous night-time footage on the All Saints Road in which he repeatedly asked real drug dealers for ‘Clarkey Cat’, ‘Triple Sod’ and ‘Yellow Bentines’. Under his costume (a hat made out of a space hopper and a giant nappy) Morris strapped a copy of Vogue magazine in case he was stabbed.
And there’s some golden footage, in particular the extended interview with West Ham chairman David Sullivan. Better still, the parody of Newsnight panel discussions, ‘Lady Parliament’, in which Morris sits in a studio model of the House of Commons with four women and quizzes them about the morality of eating a cow with no face.
This is particularly welcome in the week real life Newsnight tried to cover the post-Weinstein landscape by sending Evan Davis to a farmyard, via some gorillas, then back to the studio for a debate called ‘The Problem With Men’ in which three thoughtful women were outnumbered by a dismal platoon of blokes-down-the-street and one half of Rizzle Kicks dressed as The Age of Aquarius.
I think that’s why there’s a little sadness about last night’s screening. The media world Brass Eye mocked has arguably gotten worse, and there’s no way a programme like it could be made now. As the moral panics Morris satirised swirl around us, a package of Brass Eye off-cuts provides some succour, but not much.
Oxide Ghosts will be screened again at Curzon Soho at 4 p.m. on Sunday 19 November