Weird ’90s – Blue Jam (1997-99)

weird90s

Weird '90s

Blue Jam

Graham Williamson is back with his latest column entry. This time he dips his hand into a jar of Chris Morris's Blue Jam, 'a unique, intoxicating dissection of pre-millennial mores'. Welcome to Weird '90s...

During the 1990s, BBC Radio 1 had to deal with many troublesome talents. Chris Evans insulted station controller Matthew Bannister live on air, Lisa I’Anson failed to turn up for her show after a night in Ibiza. Then there was the Radio 1 Dreamline. 

The fact that the Radio 1 Dreamline did not exist, which would ordinarily be quite a serious problem, was not the biggest headache it caused. It was created by Chris Morris, satirist, broadcaster and latterly film-maker. The Nation’s Favourite, Simon Garfield’s riotous oral history of Bannister’s overhaul of Radio 1, records an anonymous executive discussing Morris’s plans:

‘There’s going to be a very bland trail for it, just Chris going, “What are your dreams? Discuss them on the Radio 1 Dreamline.” Then he’ll give out a number. Clearly, no one should find out it’s him.’ [1] 

The Dreamline was a trailer for Blue Jam (1997-99), Morris’s return to Radio 1 after a fractious exit three years prior. The Chris Morris Music Show – its title perhaps the only unimaginative thing about it – is today remembered as the show where Morris announced the death of Michael Heseltine. This isn’t quite true – the piece, a parody of pre-recorded obituary packages, takes great care not to say Heseltine is dead – but such nuance inevitably got lost in the outcry. 

By 1997, Morris had earned two contrasting reputations. Widely hailed as the greatest and most inventive comic mind of his generation, he was also generally agreed to be a nightmare for broadcasters. On its own, the Music Show might have been enough to create this schizoid public image, but the television show he made afterwards cemented it. The battles over the original series of Brass Eye (UK, Michael Cumming, 1997) are legendary, from its last-minute postponement on the orders of Channel 4 controller Michael Grade, to Morris incurring a fine for the channel by splicing an obscene subliminal message about Grade into the final episode.

Subliminal messages, a familiar Morris obsession all the way back to his Greater London Radio days, would recur in Blue Jam. One sketch features Morris revealing a backwards message on the 1997 version of ‘Candle in the Wind’. The message turns out to be ‘Jesus and your bush – that’s no titchy marrow’. With preposterous solemnity, Morris explains ‘This is a bawdy thought about the English Rose’. [2]

The aftershock of Princess Diana’s death – in which Radio 1, having reconfigured itself into a youth-focused chart station, switched to ‘mostly sombre instrumental music’ [3] – affects Blue Jam inasmuch as it gave Morris a new subset of cliches and taboos to kick. Episode six infamously featured the Archbishop of Canterbury’s speech at Diana’s funeral, re-edited to include phrases like ‘We pray for the royal family, as they discharge their members in Trevor Rees-Jones’. [4]

This time, the BBC were prepared. Having already ordered the sketch’s removal, they had an engineer standing by ready to fade-in a repeat of the first episode if Morris tried to sneak it on air, and so they did. In the same manner, I would like to fade some music over the discussion of Blue Jam‘s shock content, which tends to dominate discussions about the show, and look instead at its style.

This is not because the transgressive elements are superficial or uninteresting – indeed, they constitute Morris’s closest engagement with the horror genre. We hear a couple try to care for their zombie baby, and a sinister pair claiming to resurrect corpses by hitting them with hammers. The standard sketch is akin to a current-affairs clip with an absurd, unsettling twist. One piece plays out like a documentary on bare-knuckle boxing, except all the fighters are babies. In another, a Waco-style siege is fought over a compound accused of ‘harbouring idiots’. [5]

But it’s the style – the language, the music, the mood – that makes Blue Jam so perversely addictive. The show’s introductions push Morris’s gift for inventive gibberish into Stanley Unwin territory, as he whispers scenarios that might lead to the listener being ‘welcome in Blue Jam‘. Perhaps you have ‘boozed so long on melanchol’ [6]. Perhaps people in the street greet you with ‘Look, here comes the prating gravymuncher, see him scold his shadow’. [7] Such hardship will lead, inexorably, to a Blue Jam state of mind. 

Contemporary reviewers fell into two camps: those who thought Blue Jam was about drugs, and those who thought it was about depression. The Guardian compared its mood to ‘a therapeutic hospital, a programme [Morris has] been undergoing, and indeed, friends of his listening must be phoning each other with concern that he has finally flipped’. [8]

Listening to it now, another influence dominates – the club scene. It’s not just the occasional ‘Club News’ sections, in which Michael Alexander St. John offers ‘truly hexagonal dope’ for all you ‘beat-flies’. It’s not the late-night scheduling, although Blue Jam must have soundtracked some decidedly un-relaxing comedowns. It’s not even the music, although this is one of the show’s greatest achievements – blending everything from Autechre to the Alessi brothers into a continuous ambient mix under and around the sketches.

Shortly after Blue Jam ended, the success of Moby’s album Play spawned an endless cycle of chill-out compilations. Listening to them, you almost expect one of Morris’s characters – David Cann’s degenerate doctor, maybe, or the pre-teen contract killer – to drop in. This uneasy sense of boundaries collapsing is completely apposite. One of the most trenchant things Blue Jam notices about its era is how rave culture, a scene which was effectively illegal at the start of the decade, has somehow become an aspirational, middle-class lifestyle. 

In discarding its underground status, a strange, blank, consumerist amorality settled over dance culture. Morris was not alone in spotting this. The DJ David Clarke was making similar critiques from his position as a scene veteran. It is nevertheless the kind of moral vagueness Morris lives to attack. The depressive protagonist of his extraordinary monologues (written by Morris and Robert Katz) flits around the edges of various showbiz scenes, where his attempts at self-harming with rohypnol and codeine are mistaken for ‘normal’ recreational drug abuse. Elsewhere, clubbers looking for a new thrill take up having unnecessary surgery for kicks.

That surgery sketch is another of Blue Jam‘s mock-documentary segments, although unlike Brass Eye, the media is not the main target here. Morris seems to be inspired instead by the discomforting intimacy of the interview format, with nice, middle-class parents calmly explaining directly to the listener that they’re deliberately traumatising their child so she’ll have the drive to succeed in show business. Jamie Sexton’s essay on Blue Jam‘s TV spin-off, Jam (UK, Chris Morris, 2000), describes the millennial television landscape as ‘expanded surveillance’ [9], replete with video diaries, CCTV footage and the nascent ‘reality’ genre.

It wasn’t just television. One of Morris and Katz’s monologues took aim at the 1990s vogue for newspaper columns about terminal illness. They reworked the idea as a real-life Observer column credited to the fictional Richard Geefe. Geefe began as a fashionably sexist lad-about-town writing a column called ‘Second Class Male’; after a depressive episode he began writing a supposedly sensitive account of his imminent suicide, called ‘Time to Go’. Occasionally he would exhibit some doubt about killing himself, at which point his editor would warn him that backing out would break the Observer’s bond of trust with its readers.

The sexual aspect of all this voyeurism is also present, most famously in a sketch about male porn stars contracting a terminal illness called ‘The Gush’. ‘The Gush’ is a minor landmark in British comedy; previously pornography had been depicted as something akin to the briefcase in Pulp Fiction (US, Quentin Tarantino, 1994), an off-screen object of unspeakable properties. Yet ‘The Gush’, released just as James Ferman was liberalising the BBFC’s policies on unsimulated sex, assumes the listener’s familiarity with hardcore tropes.

It is a small miracle that Morris got a version of this sketch on television in Jam, although to my mind the TV series is something less than the whole Blue Jam experience. The power of the radio series lies partly in its mutability, the knowledge that the next item might be a sketch, a song, a monologue, a tape cut-up, even a poem by Ivor Cutler. Spin-offs like Jam, Richard Geefe or the short film My Wrongs #8245-8249 and 117 (UK, Morris, 2002), while impressive in their own right, concentrate on one part of the whole, highlighting what a rich mix of ideas Blue Jam contains.

Charlie Brooker characterised working with Morris on the Brass Eye special (UK, Tristram Shapeero, 2001) as a series of long, discursive conversations that slowly coalesced into a project: ‘I don’t think there was a definite point I could say where he told me specifically what he was doing and asked for ideas. The show drifted in a bit like a cloud…’ [10] Blue Jam is similarly freeform. Sketches appear at the end or in the middle of a song, and the rhythm of the humour is slowed to be, in the words of star Amelia Bullmore, ‘more detached, more stoned, slower, dreamier’… [11]

That sounds like I’m apologising for it not being funny, and it’s true that in Blue Jam‘s wake a lot of more conventional radio and TV comedy was cynically resprayed with a gloss of chill-out chic. Yet Blue Jam retains its power as a unique, intoxicating dissection of pre-millennial mores. Even without the Dreamline, Morris had access to our nightmares.


Sources:

[1] Garfield, Simon, The Nation’s Favourite, 1998, p. 206

[2] Blue Jam season one episode two, BBC Radio 1, 21st November 1997

[3] Garfield, p. 170

[4] Blue Jam season one episode six, BBC Radio 1, 19th December 1997

[5] Blue Jam season three episode six, BBC Radio 1, 25th February 1999

[6] Blue Jam season two episode six, BBC Radio 1, 1st May 1998

[7] Blue Jam season three episode one, BBC Radio 1, 21st January 1

[8] Shelley, Jim, ‘Tapehead No. 160’, The Guardian Guide, 13th January 1997

[9] Sexton, Jamie, ‘Lost in Techno Trance: Dance Culture, Drugs and the Digital Image in Jam’, from No Known Cure: The Comedy of Chris Morris, eds. James Leggott and Jamie Sexton, 2013, p. 153

[10] Randall, Lucian, Disgusting Bliss: The Brass Eye of Chris Morris, 2010, p. 234

[11] ibid., p. 203

Graham Williamson

Graham Williamson

Graham is a critic and film-maker from Teesside. He's worked for The Geek Show, Byline Times and Second Run DVD, but has never, to his dismay, seen a UFO.

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