OXIDE GHOSTS | FILM REVIEW
Milk & Sugar, Cardiff, Tue 5 Dec
Like many of us of a certain age, Michael Cumming had a bunch of old VHS tapes gathering dust in a box. Cumming’s, however, happened to contain hours and hours of unused footage filmed for Chris Morris’ cult comedy series Brass Eye. To mark the 20th anniversary of the programme’s airing on Channel 4, director Cumming has spliced together the best bits of the previously unseen material and, with the blessing of Morris himself, taken the resulting film on tour around the UK.
Brass Eye aficionados lucky enough to have the opportunity to catch Oxide Ghosts in Cardiff (thanks to Snowcat Cinema) are treated to a loosely arranged but fantastically entertaining compilation of sketches left on the cutting-room floor, behind-the-scenes shots, outtakes and fuck-ups (it’s somehow reassuring to see that even Morris is prone to corpsing). The movie is a potent reminder of the series’ incredible wealth of comic talent (featuring everyone from Kevin Eldon and Mark Heap to more surprising faces including Alexander Armstrong and Outnumbered parents Hugh Dennis and Claire Skinner); of why fans of The Day Today howled with laughter while the tabloids shrieked with indignation; of the gullibility of the ensnared celebrities (only Toyah Wilcox refused to appear, though Reggie Kray later sent an associate to pay the crew a little visit); of how close to the wind the series sailed, how sharply it satirised its targets and yet how superbly silly it was; and, above all, of why Morris is (quite rightly) lauded as a genius.
The ensuing Q&A with Cumming, who credits Brass Eye with rescuing him from the drudgery of soul-destroying corporate videos and who has gone on to direct Toast Of London, proves equally engaging, despite a pair of malfunctioning mics that seem determined to sabotage proceedings. We learn that they snuck the fake newsflash about Noel Edmonds shooting Clive Anderson past Channel 4 execs by giving the female reporter a moustache; that, in preparation for mingling with drug dealers in Notting Hill, Morris fashioned an impromptu stab vest out of glossy magazines; and that the mandrill (hired to play a drug runner after difficulties sourcing a gibbon) was the highest-paid performer on the show and there really was a mandrill marksman on hand just in case (though he wasn’t Deep Purple and Rainbow guitar legend Richie Blackmore, as the credits claimed). Cumming also confirms the suspicion that no topic was considered off-limits if the material was funny enough.
Asked whether Brass Eye could ever stage a successful return in our post-satire times, he suggests that there is less appetite for risk-taking in TV now, and also points to the difficulty of creating and sustaining a hoax in the age of the internet and social media. And yet, Cumming concludes, Morris may just find a way to make it work, as he did with Four Lions. Here’s hoping.
words BEN WOOLHEAD