Classic Interviewish: Chris Morris

Chris Morris

I was just listening to the Chris Morris retrospective Raw Meat Radio on Radio 4 Extra and I came across this old piece online that I wrote about Morris for the Evening Standard when his sitcom Nathan Barley was broadcast on C4 in 2005. At the time I was very excited because I managed to bag a rare interview with Morris, who was pretty publicity-shy in those pre-Four Lions days. This was not long after the Brass Eye furore that I suspect made him more wary than ever of the press – and he was always pretty wary. But he then requested that I didn't use any of his quotes. He does not do things the way others do them, as anyone who knows his work will already be aware...


The one thing you can expect from Chris Morris is the unexpected. The merciless comedian best known for whipping up a national controversy with his Brass Eye Paedophile Special in 2001 never fails to surprise. He has done it again twice with his new Channel 4 sitcom, Nathan Barley, which begins on Friday.

The first surprise was that for a while it seemed that the notoriously publicity-shy Morris was going to submit to interviews. Then C4 announced that there would be none after all. As one of the few journalists who has ever interviewed Morris I managed to acquire an email address and he quickly responded by telephone.

He explained at length why he did not want to go on the record. He insists that his London-based sendup on the dotcom-meets-post-Britartmedia-scene - in which he doesn't appear, though he directed, and cowrote with Charlie Brooker - should speak for itself. But his claim that he wants people simply to "bump into" the programme seems disingenuous.

In the absence of interviews, a welter of cut-and-paste profiles and umpteen Channel 4 trailers have ensured that many have already formed an opinion about Nathan Barley before the sitcom has begun. If Morris really wanted to be low-key he should have used a pseudonym.

It is a pity he has demanded that his quotes cannot be used, because he is a fascinating talker, spooling out theories at a rapid rate. He thinks celebrity-fixated PR is one of the worst creations of the modern media. He thinks a lot of comedy is sub-standard because profiteering production companies skimp on development money. And he loved The Office, an obvious influence on Nathan Barley.

The second surprise is that Barley is a straightforward sitcom, completely uncontroversial, with real jokes and believable characters (if you've been to Shoreditch recently). It revolves around the lives of a colourful, contrasting trio: Nathan Barley (a website reporter and DJ, played by Nick Burns); Dan Ashcroft (jaded journalist on style magazine Sugar Ape, played by Julian Barratt) and Dan's sister Claire (aspiring filmmaker, played by Claire Keelan). Their situations may be specific but the themes - oneupmanship, vanity, existential angst - are universal.

It has already been called a "Hoxton spoof" - and, moan some critics, rather after the fact, since Hoxton has already become a parody of itself and needs no further mocking.

In fact, it is an old idea - Morris says that he first suggested it in 2001 and made a pilot in 2003. He also vehemently denies that, although it is set in a place called Hosegate, where Textile Street sounds remarkably like the real-life Brick Lane, his sitcom has no connection with east London.

What is undeniable is that what this latterday Swift has created is a brilliant lampoon of shades-wearing, toting, Japanese import-buying-urbanites personified by Nathan Barley, the latest in a long line of great British fall-guys. An iPod Alan Partridge. A Bluetooth David Brent.

Morris has a keen eye for talent. This is stand-up comedian Barratt's first television role since BBC3's lowkey Mighty Boosh; another newcomer is Ben Whishaw, who, since filming, has won acclaim as Hamlet at the Old Vic.

Whishaw plays a computer geek called Pingu, which is far from the most ludicrous name in the programme. Sugar Ape's editor is Jonatton Yeah? - the question mark added by deed poll. Morris is very protective of his cast - another, naive, reason he gives for the press blackout, is that he wants to keep the spotlight off the newcomers.

When it comes to his work Morris is dedicated. Brooker, who originally created Barley on his cult website, TV Go Home, met Morris "through mutual friends at a dinner party, which is very bloody middle-class".

He notes that when Morris has an idea he gives it 100 per cent. "The only thing that is difficult is he is incredibly hard-working and thinks about it all the time, so it's not unusual to get a text at 7am or two in the morning about an idea he's had. He's almost borderline autistic, with the level of commitment he puts into things. But working 24/7 is good because it prompts you to do the same."

If all this makes Morris sound odd, it shouldn't. He is not the recluse that some commentators have suggested. He lives an ordinary life with his partner and two children in south London. In the past, he has been happy to appear on television in character, with make-up covering a distinctive facial birthmark, though he has rarely been photographed off duty. He works just off Oxford Street and if you eat in the right cafés you might even spot him lunching. He is amiable company although prone to running off at intellectual tangents.

Born in 1965, he was educated at the Jesuit boarding school Stonyhurst, before gaining a degree in zoology from Bristol University. He was sacked from an early job as reporter on BBC Radio Bristol after letting off helium in the news booth to give the impression that Pinky and Perky were reading the headlines.

Further stunts at GLR in London saw him move into comedy, first with Radio 4's On the Hour and then on television with The Day Today. Maybe cultural provocation runs in the family. One of Brass Eye's most notorious sketches was a mock report on Sutcliffe - The Musical, starring the Yorkshire Ripper on day release. Morris's younger brother, Tom Morris, nurtured Jerry Springer - The Opera while artistic director of Battersea Arts Centre (he has since moved to the National). Who knows what they'd come up with if they teamed up.

Morris's trend-spotting ability sets him apart from other comedy creators. In Brass Eye he was one of the first to notice the desperation of Z-list celebrities, duped by their own vanity, to appear on camera, too lacking in self-knowledge to realise that they were being sent up.

He also predated the move towards disquieting darker comedy in the 2000 TV version of his cult radio show, Blue Jam, entitled Jam. In one sketch, a grief-stricken mother asks a central heating engineer to "repair" her dead baby. There is a direct line from this to Nighty Night, penned by Morris collaborator Julia Davis. And without Morris would we have Monkey Dust, the BBC's animated adult comedy which features a character called the Paedofinder General?

Last year, playwright Stephen Poliakoff said that no comedy in the theatre was as radical as The Office or Chris Morris. In Nathan Barley, Morris has gone back to basics, yet with his touch of genius, the sitcom feels as radical as ever. He might not want to speak publicly, but Barley sings Morris's praises for him.


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