TV UK, 3 August
Chris Morris' characters behave as if their behaviour is perfectly normal. He seems to be asking, What are you so hung up about?
Well, who knew last Thursday that there would be such a hoohaa about the Brass Eye Special satirising paedophile panics? (Channel 4, Thursday 26 July) Everybody in the world, actually. Never mind – I am now in a position to reflect on the matter in the serious and intelligent fashion that my readers have come to expect.
On Late Review the night after Brass Eye went out, Oxford don John Carey expressed a concern that Chris Morris does not seem to express an opinion about his subject. You can’t have a neutral attitude to paedophilia, he protested. Actually, I took it for granted that Morris thinks it’s a bad thing; most of us do. Instead of reassuring us, though, perhaps by coming over all serious and putting a helpline number at the end of the programme, Morris leaves us alone with our own judgement.
This can be unsettling. Morris’ last series, Jam, shown last year, was much more shocking than Brass Eye. I still can’t forget the couple who wonder absent-mindedly where their six-year-old has been for the past few days, and then take the news of his murder with casual disinterest.
Or the couple who negotiate the price of a house by offering the vendor sexual favours. They haggle over what each of them will or won’t do for how many hours a week, for how many weeks. Eventually, they agree on regular sessions with the husband’s mentally disabled younger sister.
After writing that down, I’m wondering if I really did see it on TV, or if I just had a bad dream. I certainly didn’t find it funny, but you can see what the guy was trying to do. Morris’ characters behave as if their behaviour is perfectly normal. What are you so hung up about?, he seems to be asking.
Talking about Brass Eye on Newsnight this week, novelist and journalist Will Self noted that there was something funny going on with the government’s response to the programme. He argued that New Labour was afraid, not of political satire (we all know that Rory Bremner is part of the family, and Mark Thomas is just too boring to frighten anybody), but of Chris Morris in particular.
There may be something in this. A government that places so much importance on its own decency and morality, while having so little sense of what those things actually mean, cannot help but be disturbed when somebody publicly ridicules society’s deepest taboos. Those of us more self-assured about these things can afford to be more relaxed and enjoy what gags there are. And to be fair, Brass Eye had its moments, but really Morris would do better turning his peculiar talents to horror films.
Short Stories: Men in the Woods (Channel 4, Monday 30 July) also explored horror, while trying hard not to be funny. Jane Treays was flashed at twice as a child, and made the film partly to find out what happened to flasher number two, who was arrested. The pesky Data Protection Act scuppered her investigation, but in fact Treays’ main concern was to argue that we should take the crime more seriously.
Treays always referred to her experiences as ‘assaults’, and her interviews with other victims made it clear that being flashed at can be a pretty horrible thing, especially for young children. Unfortunately, Treays’ insistence that flashing is no joke was undermined by the constant use of the word ‘huge’ in all of the accounts. And the spectacle of two earnest policemen trying to convince the nice lady that they are very concerned about flashers had a whiff of spoof about it.
Still, Treays was on to something when she talked about being followed by a man in a car when she was a girl. She wondered why she hadn’t knocked on a random door and asked for help. ‘He was a stranger and they were strangers’, she said. How did she know that her neighbours weren’t all rapists? Now there’s a premise for a Chris Morris horror film.
Sadly he’s been beaten to it by Michelle Elliot of the charity Kidscape. Elliot, who has a huge media profile and is pretty scary herself, warned Treays that the most successful paedophiles were the least conspicuous, the most respectable – the people you’d least suspect.
In that case, Ricky Gervais must be all right. Gervais has to be the sleaziest-looking man on TV. One advantage he has over Michelle Elliot and Chris Morris, though, is that he is consistently funny. I always liked the guy, even on the dire 11 O’Clock Show. His new vehicle, The Office (BBC2, Mondays at 9.30pm), is a spoof docusoap that succeeds by satirising manners rather than politics or morals.
Sadly, The Office is unlikely to bring the government down. That’s a job better left to the Antiques Roadshow.
Dolan Cummings is publications editor at the Institute of Ideas, and editor of Culture Wars. He is also the editor of Reality TV: How Real Is Real?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).
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