Brass Eye Review
Against all the odds, Chris Morris’ unrivalled satire on the media and moral issues Brass Eye is finally out on DVD. A comedy series which became genuinely legendary overnight (the question “When will Brass Eye be repeated/released on video” was never off Channel 4’s Reach4 discussion forum since the show’s first run finished), it had a fanbase so strong and dedicated, and such a reputation, it has never really been out of the public eye since.
Its legacy remains with us five years later – “cake” has become practically a household word, Ali G, Iain Lee and Dom Joly owe a great deal of their careers to the show and it became the most sought-after pirated video of a television programme since Ghostwatch (which, incidentally, is also getting a DVD/video release this year).
A huge fan of The Day Today from day one, I waited patiently for his next series. Back in 1996, when it was announced his new show was to be postponed and re-edited, Morris fans wondered whether it would ever see the light of day. Then in 1997, we were told that it would be screened, but only once, then most likely to be locked back up in the archives where it could cause no further trouble. It had already been a great source of aggravation for the then-head of Channel Four, Michael Grade, especially when he was forced to remove a sketch on the Yorkshire Ripper (included on this DVD).
Being me, I missed most of them, but the snippets I did see were absolutely magnificent. It was some years before I downloaded them all from the finest Morris site on the internet, Cook'd and Bomb'd (don’t bother looking, the episodes aren’t there anymore), and almost choked with laughter non-stop.
Now, all the episodes have been repeated on television (with some originally censored footage restored in Crime and Decline) and officially released on DVD looking and sounding as good as they could hope to, it’s like some strange wonderful dream come true. With the dozens of famous faces hoaxed during the series, I’m surprised it didn’t get tangled to the point of strangulation in the legal web by one humourless C-list celebrity, convinced his/her reputation had been “shattered” or “irreversibly damaged”. Perhaps they’ve all come round since then, or signed something they perhaps shouldn’t have, but I’ll leave that side of things to the barristers. All I know is my favourite comedy programme of the 90s is here on my favourite format.
Brass Eye is Morris at the top of his game – his technical precision in the presentation of his material, his inspired lunacy (along with co-writer Peter Baynham) and his chameleon-like presence as a performer are all polished and gleaming brighter than they’ve ever been.
The rapid-fire non-stop humour approach runs the very great risk of simply being too much so no one joke stands out, but it’s the sheer variety of jokes that make the show so relentlessly hilarious. Whether it’s a subtle change in Morris’ performance, one of his mangled grammaticisms, the wildly overdone graphics, visual gags or a celeb reading out something so preposterous and with such stern solemnity even a drunk, homeless drug-addict couldn’t fail to spot the irony (more on that later), it’s hysterically funny.
Because hoaxing famous-but-useless personalities plays such a key role in the series, the enemies of the show are numerous and well-documented, but it’s nice to see some of them now beginning to see the comical side. Call me soppy, but I was almost touched by this quote from Claire Rayner from a recent TV interview: “I was pissed off when he made a fool of me but I'd fight like the devil to make sure that he had the right to do his programmes. We need people like Morris.”
One of Morris’ biggest assets is his complete and utter faith in guttural, instinctive comedy – jokes that might be deemed off-colour, too surreal or too obscure somehow make us splutter with laughter because of the absurd subject matter presented as fact. It’s simultaneously incredibly stupid and brilliantly pointed.
Speaking of pointed, we must not forget that this isn’t simply a sketch show, but a vicious satire. It seems many of the segments have a barely repressed air of anger about them – reports dealing with racism, AIDS, religion, paedophiles and other hot potatoes provoke as much as they entertain. His animosity at the way the media bluntly and insensitively handles victims of all kinds (demonstrated most clearly during the Sex episode) almost threatens to swamp the comedy, but happily doesn’t.
There are few things more dangerous or potent than a great comedian with a point to make, but Chris Morris thankfully doesn’t try to suck up any of his audience, wink at the camera, nor does he ever just stop short of what he wants to say. He makes his points, stands back, and let’s everyone else do the fighting.
However, I don’t want anyone to think the show’s structure is comedy/preachy/comedy/preachy, because it’s all completely hilarious – I have to be in the proper mood for some extreme silliness, but once I am, I’ll just be a useless heap of chuckles of the floor.
And, what’s better, you can’t really predict what you’ll laugh at each time – jokes I found mildly amusing last time will have me guffawing and convulsing like a mule at a rodeo and vice versa. The show has a spectacularly high rewatchability factor – as I said before, there are so many laughs, there’s no hope of remembering them all, even after viewing the show several times. Literally every second counts in Brass Eye – no sketch goes on a moment longer than necessary and each programme is so crammed full and finely crafted, it’s like every episode is a best-of compilation. I thought about listing some of my personal highlights from the series, but I couldn’t really do it in under 1000 words.
Brass Eye is one of the great landmarks of television in the past decade, and one of the finest and most significant comedy shows of all time. It’s controversial, it’s not for your under-10s, but it does offer an excellent and intelligent alternative to the flaccid satire and witless comedy so often served up as light entertainment, equally addressing the thoughtful as those with funny bones intact.
It looks every bit as good as DigiBetacam should look on DVD. It’s entirely crisp, clear, colourful and free from artifacts. There are no compression problems, despite the three hours of material on the disc. Everything looks as good, or as accurate as it could, given the amount of outstandingly faked stock footage or VT inserts used. The first six episodes are presented in 4:3 non-anamorphic, and the 2001 Special is in full anamorphic 16:9. An excellent job by VCI.
Since starting his career in radio, music and sound is every bit as important to Chris Morris as the visuals, and this is an outstanding stereo track, sounding full-blooded and precisely detailed. The music composed by Morris and Jonathan Whitehead comes across excellently, and the fantastic theme music sounds far more intricate and varied than my old VHS copy. You couldn’t really ask for better.
This is where it gets controversial. Some have praised them, some have accused them of being a waste of space. Personally, I liked them all a great deal, though they aren’t exactly bountiful.
First, the commentary on the Drugs episode is quite extraordinary. It consists of six homeless men, some drug-addicts, some alcoholics, all drunk, with Chris Morris interjecting once in a while. They complain at the stupidity of the celebrities and politicians being hoaxed, discuss their daily lives and backgrounds and discuss the irony of the show. Occasionally, in a drunken stupor, they get a bit confused – one bloke comments that “it’s cruel” to make a dog smoke marijuana while the spoof “Cani-bliss” Japanese commercial is on-screen, and another is convinced that Chris Morris, while in his balloon-head costume pestering drug dealers, is a woman.
There is a mini-commentary on the Paedophile Special – just after the “End of Part One” title card, press Enter when you see “Focus Group” come up in the bottom left hand corner and you’ll be treated to a very funny discussion with Chris Morris and a group of parents about under-16s lusting after children.
Three trailers – one for Science and two for the 2001 Special – are available, all anamorphic. There is a sound bin of four songs from the series presented in uncompressed PCM stereo – they are “Cake Music” (the weird music played to David Amess during Drugs), “Little White Butt” by JL-B8, “Funny Eyed Guy” (featured over the end credits of the paedophile episode), and “Me Oh Myra” (the pastiche of Pulp featured in Decline). They all have accompanying stills (screengrabs, really).
Finally, two deleted clips from Animals are presented. One involving Peregrine Worsthorne and David Jatt discussing the morality of breeding hippos and sloths for domestic chores and the other featuring Chris Morris trying to get Ronnie Kray from Maidstone Prison to join in the campaign for Karla the Elephant. Both are priceless gems.
I have seen other deleted clips from the show – one from Decline involving a family concentration camp board game called “Horrorcaust”, where the object of the game is to “process as many prisoners as possible”. Chris Morris, playing the inventor of the board game, claims “Anyone who says the Jews are going to be upset by this is making a racial distinction that puts them on a par with Hitler.” They may still be floating around on the internet, though I have no idea where (and I, sadly, no longer have them).
The menus are outstanding – animated with theme music just like the graphics in the actual programme, they are exactly what is required. There is a ‘Play All’ option which is good news, as well as the choice to play individual episodes. There are between 7 and 9 chapters in each programme, but these are not indexed anywhere, unfortunately.
The packaging is a montage of stills from the show, both inside and out of the clear Amaray case, and the foldover booklet is, pointlessly, the front cover, the inside cover and a variation on the back cover.
Tantalisingly, if you look closely, there are two website addresses that were at one point running to lure celebrities to appear in the specials. Both, sadly, have been taken down since.
A truly great show presented very nicely on DVD. The video and audio are as good as you could hope for, even if the extras are perhaps lacking for some. But the very fact that the show is out officially to buy is enough cause for celebration in my opinion. Very, very highly recommended.