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Morris, Christopher (1963- )

Actor, Writer, Director

Main image of Morris, Christopher (1963- )

For someone with such a small body of work for the screen, the influence of Chris Morris is remarkable. Regularly lauded as the most thoughtful and challenging comedian working in Britain today, his work is characterised by the long gestation periods and obsessive secrecy undertaken for each major project. This ratio of high input for low output points to a meticulous attention to detail, not to mention an uncompromising, moralistic drive.

Morris was born in Cambridgeshire, and his progression through the education system was peppered with musical rather than comic activity. His earliest work for radio was typical local fare, yet a sense of mischief and recognisable comic persona gradually crept in, taking full flight at BBC Radio Bristol and Greater London Radio. Here he was picked up by comedy producer Armando Iannucci, who invited him to share in the creation of landmark news parody On the Hour (BBC Radio 4, 1991-92). The cast and crew resisted labels but were nevertheless seen as a new and important comedy 'group', with Morris as its intimidating star. The series' transfer to television as The Day Today (BBC, 1994) cemented his role in the public consciousness: a gleeful, bloodlust hybrid of Jeremy Paxman and Michael Buerk, so potent that Iannucci's equal contribution to the series has sometimes been overlooked.

The question of authorship and creative control would come to define Morris's later projects, but for now he was satisfied to surround himself with experienced people who could teach him new tricks. Iannucci and Morris remained particular about almost every aspect of The Day Today, but they never failed to remember that to mimic television formats you must employ people with the versatility to achieve that effect. In Andrew Gillman they found the perfect director.

In the case of Brass Eye (Channel 4, 1997), a similar challenge was met by director - and Morris discovery - Michael Cumming. This series anticipated the development of 'reality entertainment' documentaries and viciously attacked the complacency of television current affairs, with its desperate yearning for simple answers. Morris populated this first 'solo project' with a colourful spectrum of his own characters, all intensely well observed and effortlessly played. The show also developed his use of naturalistic acting, in among the broad strokes, with a repertory of unassuming actors alongside familiar comedy faces. One package about increased crime on the streets of Cowsick deliberately played with the viewer's ability to tell documentary from fiction. This was very much the intention of Brass Eye as a whole, a programme now remembered as much for its controversy as its humour.

Aside from being an excellent mimic and an actor of impressive range, Morris also possesses an acute understanding of music, demonstrated best by his collaborations with composer Jonathan Whitehead on various projects, be it an MTV parody in The Day Today or Brass Eye's increasingly hysterical theme tune and stings. Blue Jam (BBC Radio 1, 1997-999) and its television companion piece Jam (Channel 4, 2000 - which came with its own co-synchronous 'remix' version, Jaaaaam) were more subtle, with Morris and Adrian Sutton building musical loops to accompany sketches raw with their own ambient sounds, drifting across a sound web of electronic music and trip hop. Jam was Morris's broadcast debut as director and furthered his interest in naturalistic performance, with his own contributions kept to a minimum. The series' warm reception, even by the Daily Mail's resident critic, perhaps suggested that it was time to shake things up again.

Secrecy, control and controversy reached its peak with Brass Eye Special (Channel 4, delayed tx. 26/7/2001), a one-off masquerading as a live broadcast. Some of his regular collaborators were uneasy about the project's subject matter - paedophilia - and either refused to get involved or asked for their names to be removed from the credits. They were right to anticipate an immediate, unprecedented hate campaign against many of those who contributed, and this arguably took Morris's current affairs work to its ultimate conclusion.

A gradual move towards extended narrative forms in Blue Jam/Jam resulted in the short film My Wrongs 8245-8249 and 117 (2002), Morris's first commission from Warp Films, and the long-in-development sitcom Nathan Barley (Channel 4, 2005), his collaboration with columnist and former internet comedy writer Charlie Brooker. Starring a new generation of performers, among them Richard Ayoade, Julian Barratt, Nicholas Burns and Ben Whishaw, it pointedly attacked a new media scene largely deemed irrelevant by the time of its transmission. Nathan Barley struggled to find an audience but showed obvious development in Morris's facility as a director.

After a string of scene-stealing appearances in the first series of Graham Linehan's The IT Crowd (Channel 4, 2006-), Morris retreated into another long period of research. The result was his first feature, Four Lions (2010), a farce about an Islamic Jihadi terrorist cell in the north of England.

Ian Greaves

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Brass Eye (1997, 2001)Brass Eye (1997, 2001)

Controversial blurring of drama and documentary, devised by Chris Morris

Thumbnail image of Day Today, The (1994)Day Today, The (1994)

Highly influential spoof news/current affairs programme

Thumbnail image of Jam (2000)Jam (2000)

Bizarre late-night surreal sketch show from the mind of Chris Morris

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Related people and organisations

Thumbnail image of Iannucci, Armando (1963-)Iannucci, Armando (1963-)

Producer, Writer, Director, Presenter