Brassed Off

Chris Morris’ spoof of moral panic on TV news infuriated a nation and redefined satire

“If this were really happening, what would you think?”

So asked Christopher Morris, host and creator of the U.K. television program “Brass Eye,” at the start of an episode. He’s saying this as a TV monitor behind him appears to show him having sex with an actress in a porn film. As the cast of the show probes the topic of sex in present-day Britain, we are told that Bono has publicly offered to fellate anyone from the former Yugoslavia. We also learn the difference between “good AIDS” and “bad AIDS” (the former resulting from a blood transfusion, which inspires sympathetic ribbon-wearing in right-thinking people, and the latter resulting from gay intercourse, which inspires revulsion in those same people).

Satire is one of the trickiest of the literary arts.
Satire is one of the trickiest of the literary arts. In order to succeed, the satirist needs a ripe subject, he needs to strike a balance between depicting the subject accurately and depicting it as illogical, and he must have a clear goal: stinging criticism, light humor or both. Even a satirist who’s assembled all of these elements can fail if his message comes out garbled, or simply if nobody finds it insightful or funny. As such, top-quality satire is very rare, especially on the normally literalist medium of television. Over the past 10 years, Chris Morris, co-creator of the BBC’s short-lived newscast spoof “The Day Today” and the radio program “Blue Jam,” has proven himself a master of satire, both stinging and hilarious, and his crowning achievement to date has been the seven-episode TV series “Brass Eye.”

“Brass Eye” aired on the independent (that is, non-BBC) television station Channel 4, which produced six episodes in 1997 before Morris decided he wanted to retire the show. “Brass Eye” was a parody of the sort of TV journalism that became common on both sides of the Atlantic in the early ’90s, which substituted sensationalism and bluster for objective, factual reporting — think “20/20” or “Dateline NBC” combined with the are-you-as-safe-as-you-think-you-are tabloid shriek of “Hard Copy” or “A Current Affair” and the muscle-headed, “no-nonsense” swagger of “The O’Reilly Factor.” Morris aped these formats with striking accuracy, from the out-of-control onscreen computer graphics to the overuse of black-and-white freeze frames, and from the frightening-but-meaningless statistics to the bombastic minor-key theme music and the clueless “expert” guests making over-simplified judgments (although on “Brass Eye,” they adjusted a dial labeled “RIGHT” and “WRONG” to lend moral clarity to any situation).

Naturally, the media establishment was up in arms over “Brass Eye” — partly for the occasionally offensive nature of the show, but often just as much for the mockery that Morris was allegedly making of well-meaning public figures. This was Morris’ masterstroke: inviting well-known radio DJs, activists, comedians, TV stars and legislators onto the program, leading them to believe that the show was a legitimate news broadcast, and tricking them into pontificating on phony issues and pledging their support to bogus causes. As in “Da Ali G Show” (which Channel 4 began airing three years after “Brass Eye’s” original run ended), this added another level to the satire; rather than just taking stabs at the nebulous concept of “the media,” Morris also took aim at a more concrete archetype, the television personality.

For example, in the “Drugs” episode, Morris tells viewers about a new legal club drug from the Czech Republic called “cake” — which looks like a yellow aspirin tablet about the size of a hatbox — and a montage of celebrities vow to get the word out to young people about the dangerous substance. Comedian Bernard Manning explains with a straight face that cake is “a made-up drug … It’s not made from plants, it’s made up from chemicals.” Longtime kangaroo-tying advocate Rolf Harris talks about one side effect, called “Czech neck,” where the cake user’s neck retains so much water that it swells up and smothers him. Parliament member David Amess actually proposed a bill to ban the substance during a debate at the House of Commons. When Amess learned he’d been duped, he was so furious that he won from Channel 4 the promise to air a disclaimer with every rebroadcast of the episode. Other celebrities threatened litigation after they discovered they’d been similarly pranked.

Another example of “Brass Eye”’s brilliance was the “Science” episode. Playing off the mainstream news media’s uninformed and usually ultra-alarmist treatment of issues like genetic engineering and cloning, the show decries “bad science” such as mutant clouds that eject rain upwards into space, a physics experiment where researchers isolated and blew up a fortnight (recalls one shaken witness, “The clock on the wall, well, it was throwing up”), and the threat of “heavy electricity” from high-voltage wires. We are told that this last one is a phenomenon caused by “sodomized electrons” reverting to their primitive state and spilling out of power lines to crush people and buildings like “a ton of invisible lead soup.”

After being off the air for four years, “Brass Eye” achieved new notoriety in July 2001 with the airing of a one-off Special Episode sending up the British media’s hysteria over pedophilia. In the months prior to the broadcast, the notoriously sensationalistic British tabloid media, following a few isolated but widely reported incidents of child abuse, had stirred up a public frenzy against “kiddie fiddlers,” publishing names and addresses of accused pedophiles. Vigilantes rioted in at least 11 communities, firebombing houses and assaulting people mistakenly believed to be pedophiles. The “Brass Eye” Special set out to demonstrate that the danger of this sort of misinformation far outweighed any actual danger posed to children. This goal was clear to the critics who praised “Brass Eye” for its sharp wit, but Morris received death threats from people who thought he was making light of child rape.

First, Morris appears in the TV studio as the host, and the cast vows to plumb the depths of the pedophilia crisis. Then, we cut to a “live bulletin” with a newsman (also played by Morris) reporting on a mob gathered outside a prison to oppose the release of a notorious pedophile. Although the criminal is now quadriplegic and comotose, the cameras show the bloodthirsty rioters chanting and burning effigies, and Morris tells the audience, “I’m not sure if you can sense the air of aggression out here, but 10 minutes ago we threw this crowd a dummy full of guts. It lasted just eight seconds. This is very much a protest that’s swallowed a bomb, and given the detonator to a monkey.” Morris goes on to anticipate confusion over how a fully paralyzed man could pose any sort of threat to children by theorizing that “pervert mechanics” might construct a robotic exoskeleton for the offender, which we see in a “pre-enacted” video clip.

Later, we learn that a man in one town has disguised himself as a schoolhouse in order to capture children, that pedophiles have more DNA in common with a crab than an ordinary person (“there’s no real evidence for this, but it is still scientific fact”), and that sickos lurking on the Internet can make a child’s computer keyboard release vapors making them more suggestible to cybersex (MTV-UK presenter Richard Blackwood takes a whiff of a keyboard and admits, “You know, I really do feel more suggestible already” — apparently not realizing how right he is).

At the climax of the episode, the TV studio is “invaded” by the militant pedophile organization, Mili-Pede. After their leader has been subdued and put into stocks, Morris confronts him, going so far as inviting his own 6-year-old son on stage to bait the offender into admitting that he wants to molest the boy. The pedophile vehemently denies this is the case, and finally admits, “I don’t fancy him … I just don’t find him attractive, I’m sorry.” For an instant, Morris is speechless.

Unfortunately, episodes of “Brass Eye” are extremely hard to come by in the States. The entire seven-episode run of the series is available for sale on the websites of U.K. video retailers, but only on PAL videocassette and Region 2 DVD, both of which are unplayable in most American machines. A few heavily-compressed, bootlegged episodes have circulated the peer-to-peer networks, but even these appear very rarely. There is a very faint possibility — thanks partly to the minor success of HBO’s “Da Ali G Show,” another Channel 4 import — that HBO or another American pay-cable station might ask Morris to host or produce a stateside version of the show. However, even this seems unlikely in the extreme; Morris is surprisingly reclusive, preferring to spend more time with his family than giving interviews or appearing on another series.

But multi-region DVD players and PAL-compatible VCRs aren’t that difficult to acquire. So, if you have a healthy appreciation for great satire and the means to play a British video, there’s no reason you shouldn’t own “Brass Eye.”