If I had to single out a moment that defined my relationship with late night radio, and why I love it so much, it would something that happened very late in 1995, in the closing moments of Mark Radcliffe and Marc Riley’s ‘Graveyard Shift’ on BBC Radio 1. I could spend this entire article on how much that show meant to me, and indeed it took up an entire chapter of Fun At One – The Story Of Comedy At BBC Radio 1; suffice it to say that every weeknight two hour barrage of hilarity was an exercise in seeing just how much they could get away with, musically and comedically rather than with ‘shock’ content, whether it was giving possibly the only national radio play ever to Dolly Rocker by Syd Barrett, or simply a talking Santa being activated around thirty times in a row while Mark struggled to deliver his handover to the next presenter. This, however, was something that you really aren’t supposed to do on the radio; literally in the closing minutes of one show, Mark was handed a copy of Fanfare, the debut single by Eric Matthews, formerly of Cardinal, a band that the duo had been enthusiastically supporting for some time. Keen to hear it himself, Mark simply cued up the track straight on air, and after the punchy, catchy guitar and trumpet anthem – decidedly at odds with anything else that was happening in American pop music at the time – had finished, he paused for a fraction of a second before announcing “I’m playing that again”. And he did.
The obvious and immediate effect on me was that I immediately went out looking for a copy of Fanfare the next day; and as it was an American-only release on Sub Pop, it took some finding. That wasn’t all there was to it though. This was a moment where art and enthusiasm literally rode roughshod over commerce and regulation and there was nothing anyone could or would do about it. You probably couldn’t get away with it at all now, of course, but even back then the supposed ‘rules’ of what audiences ‘wanted’ were rigorously enforced, and you could only really have got away with it at the time in a brief window where nobody would really have been listening apart from anyone who would have cheered him on anyway. Did anyone who was supposed to be keeping an eye on the station’s output even notice it? Maybe not, and that’s something we’ll be returning to, but it’s tempting to think that they did and just concluded that it was part of the show’s charm and appeal and that Mark – usually a strict adherent to all of the technical values of good broadcasting – knew what he was doing. It’s those sort of moments that really engage the listener, and in the woozy, blurry world of late night radio, you’ll find more of them than you might expect. Though few have stayed with me as much as one that happened in the early hours of 19th December 1997.
Actually, to make any sense of it, we’re going to have to rewind slightly – or if you will, slowed-down loop back slightly – to the early hours of 14th November 1997. That was the date of transmission of the first edition of Blue Jam, the low-key late-night ambient music and surreal comedy show that Chris Morris had retreated to following the stress and exhaustion of making Brass Eye and then actually getting it transmitted. If you’re interested in knowing more about either of the above, there’s a review of the Brass Eye documentary Oxide Ghosts here and a feature on just how much of an impact that first Blue Jam had on me in Can’t Help Thinking About Me. Even aside from the music – Stereolab, Bjork, Brigitte Bardot, Serge Gainsbourg, Barry Adamson and more – there was the strange, surreal spoken word content that required and won your full attention. It began with a dreamy monologue by an amnesiac who had found a gun but didn’t know what it was, terrifying passers-by and subsequently polar bears as he plaintively sought to identify it, and it got even more outlandish from there. A doctor literally kissing his patients better, an American mother laconically drawling about entering her champion toddler into baby-fighting tournaments, and Chris Morris interviewing a fuming pompous individual who had written in to complain about a television show about the relative sizes of the EastEnders cast and Michael Heseltine in teenagers’ minds, and whether Mother Theresa would function better as a moral guide if her assistant was Mother Theresa II or Ronnie Corbett. Both of which he has a confident and authoritative answer to. It was possibly the most profoundly attitude-shifting hour of radio I have ever heard and the laconic beat poetry outro, with fragments of REM and the Eraserhead soundtrack drifting in and out of humming synths and howling wind, remains my favourite moment of radio ever. Well, after Fanfare being played twice that is. Anyway, it was safe to say I had a new obsession.
The astonishing detail about my obsession with my new obsession, though, was that even despite the subject matter explored in the sketches, I actually thought Chris Morris was playing it safe. In understandable retreat after political vilification and press intrusion, he was hiding away safely in music radio, behind an inscrutable title and on the inaccessible side of midnight. Playing blissed-out cerebral records and abstract, unsettling comedy exclusively to the sort of listeners who, well, wouldn’t be thrown by Fanfare being played twice in a row. It was, of course, a time for playing it safe; in a surreal coda to four years of Britpop-driven thrills, spills and general jubilant abandon, Princess Diana’s fateful paparazzi-averting diversion into a tunnel had sent the nation into a kind of collective mourning verging on madness, where dissent was not tolerated, refusal to participate was ignored, and anything that questioned, mocked or just plain got on with its own business was pushed quietly to one side for fear that it might upset the balance and force people to crack a smile again. It hung heavy over the latter half of the year like a thick, dense, dark blue smog – and you can read more about my thoughts on that here – and in many ways, something changed forever that night that we’re still feeling the effects of now. Anyone who dared to make a joke about any of this would find their magazine pulled from newsagents’ shelves or would be nigh on booed off panel shows. That’s why even I was thrown by what happened roughly fourteen minutes into the final edition of the first series of Blue Jam, at approximately had a cold and work the next day o’clock in the morning on Friday 19th December 1997.
I don’t even need to listen to it to describe exactly what happened. Coming out of a fairly straightforward Baby Fox-backed sketch about a doctor bribing a patient with a sprained knee to go away, a loop of dub brass seemed to collapse in on itself in a circle of reverb, dissolving into sinister close-mic breathing; not heavy breathing like you might expect, but rasping like some sort of artificially cobbled-together alien inhaling a Sherbet Fountain a little too enthusiastically. Then in strode the more familiar if no less foreboding Screenwriter’s Blues by Soul Coughing, a weird spoken word blues/hip hop track that Morris had championed during his earlier and – relatively – more conventional stint on Radio 1, accompanied by a looped voice repeating “we give thanks to god”. It took a couple of seconds to register, but there was no mistaking who it was.
Yes, this was the Archbishop Of Canterbury’s speech from Diana’s memorial service, twisted up and cut around into a grotesque mangling that veered haphazardly between obscene and explicit regal disrespect and sheer silliness for silliness’ sake. Beginning with a word of prayer “for those maimed through the evil of Mother Theresa”, it got wilder and wilder, stopping and starting with the flow of the backing track, casting stark – and absurd – aspersions on how much the people we were so busy caring about might actually care about all of us, and then it was gone, faded back into Bonnie And Clyde by Serge Gainsbourg and Brigitte Bardot, as the first show continued to play for the remaining three quarters of an hour. As George Carey was subsumed into drawling duetting about how Pour la police ça ne fait de mystère, c’est signé Clyde Barrow/
Bonnie Parker, it was clear that he hadn’t quite finished yet, and that lost imperceptible line was later revealed to be “and now abideth faith, hope, love, these three, but the greatest of these is tortoise”. What a towering relief that they managed to prevent us from hearing that.
At the time, I will admit, I wasn’t sure what had gone on. In Chris Morris’ comic universe – the fake newsflash in a Brass Eye ad break, the ‘storming out’ live on Radio 1 (which, with brilliant absurdity, started with him getting annoyed about macho idiots taking monitor lizards for walks), the on-air fight with Peter Baynham that did actually have me fooled for a second, phoning up GLR from the studio to tell them he wasn’t on air, the hoax cut-up Newsbeat in the first Blue Jam – there is so little distance between real and manufactured chaos that it’s often difficult to tell which is which. It did cross my mind that this was all a cleverly set up gag at the expense of the small number of half-awake fanatics listening at that ridiculous hour of the morning, and as we got to hear that outro again, I wasn’t especially complaining. There were too many unanswered questions, though. Why do it that early into the show? How did it get to play out so far before being cross-faded, and who in their right mind would have cleared it for broadcast anyway? Did this have anything to do with the fourth show having fallen suspiciously short of its allotted running time?
Eventually I did get to speak to most of the people involved and managed to piece together what I believe to be the definitive answers to all of the above and more, but you’re going to have to read Fun At One – The Story Of Comedy At BBC Radio 1 to find that out. Matthew Bannister, at that point the outgoing controller of Radio 1 (and who, incidentally, politely declined to be interviewed for Fun At One), has repeatedly asserted that this incident did not take place, and that the recordings in circulation are a cunning hoax made by a zany fan trying to be a wacky prankster like their idol Chris. All I can say is, hand on heart, this is what I heard and is what is on my off-air recording made that night, and I’m aware that it isn’t the only one. Earlier that same week, talking up the upcoming Christmas Special of The Friday Night Armistice to Melody Maker, Armando Iannucci – no slouch himself when it comes to disregarding misplaced ‘sensitivities’ – was jokingly asked if the show would continue with their regular feature involving a bus full of Diana lookalikes. “Maybe Chris would do it, very late at night” he had nervously and diplomatically responded. Whether he knew what was coming up or not is something that will probably have to remain the subject of speculation.
Chris Morris, of course, has never actually elaborated on his motivation for this startling act – which generated headlines even despite its timeslot and arcane nature – and I did try. There’s no question he was out to shock and unsettle with Blue Jam, though, and his stated list of unease-friendly influences included The KLF, Vivian Stanshall and the effects of influenza. Crucially, though, he also enthused wildly about Radio 2’s long-serving early morning presenter Ray Moore, who built his entire show around the assumption that nobody listening to him would be up at that hour by choice and resolved to be as flippant and irreverent as possible. Another vigorously asserted influence was Out On Blue Six, an early nineties Radio 1 show linking psychedelic records past and present with spaced out jokes and musical trainspotter facts presented by none other than Mark Radcliffe. And that’s all there in Blue Jam, no matter what anyone droning on about ‘dark comedy genius’ might have to say on the matter.
So while I think of the Diana Speech, The Gush, Baby Fighting, ‘More Fuckers’, Ted From Primary Three and so many other alarming moments when I think of Blue Jam, that’s really not all I think of. It’s not even the majority of it. I think of Bowie’s Romantic Dinners, ‘Fucking Noddy’ and his four foot car, “are they YOUR birds??” and, however problematic it might seem when not heard at a million o’clock in the morning, the plot to joyride Stephen Hawking. I think of that complaining man and his exasperation at ‘The East End characters’. And most of all I think about the twelve minute tour de force about Rothko the talking dog, with its ever more macabre and grotesque twists and turns relayed in a flat comic style that had me almost in agony with laughter in the small hours on the radio, but which just looked plain nasty when they later formed the basis of a short film. Even the Diana Speech had that business about Trevor The Sheep. For the overwhelming majority of its airtime, and however the television adaptation may have turned out, Blue Jam was silly and irreverent rather than brutal and upsetting. Like so many other popular cultural artefacts from the past, it’s never what it seems, and less so what people tell you it is; there’s far more to it than meets the, well, ear, and you just can’t judge it on what aren’t even really first impressions as much as reactions to what you think you know. After all, if we’re going to do that, then we might as well throw in the towel and agree with every newspaper article that claims Chris Morris shouted ‘Christ’s Fat Cock’ at Cliff Richard or convinced Paul Boateng to condemn non-existent rappers. Which they never even pick the funniest name out of any way.
Mind you, he never did use Distant Mother Reality by Eric Matthews.
You can find out the actual story behind the edition of Blue Jam that was taken off air in Fun At One – The Story Of Comedy At BBC Radio 1, available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here. There’s also a feature on just how much of an impact the very first Blue Jam had on me in Can’t Help Thinking About Me, available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.
There’s more on Chris Morris and the pivotal year of 1997 in this review of the Brass Eye documentary Oxide Ghosts, and this feature on how the post-Diana malaise affected indie music. If that’s not enough, you can also hear me and Justin Lewis speculating on some of the possible influences for Blue Jam in this edition of Looks Unfamiliar.
© Tim Worthington.
Please don’t copy this only with more italics and exclamation marks.