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28th Jun 2019

The lost Brass Eye episode you’ll (probably) never see

Wil Jones

“This is the one thing we didn’t want to happen”

We live in an era where basically everything is available, instantly, online. Any TV show you randomly remember as a child, any movie, any pop hit – even if it isn’t legally available, someone will have put it on YouTube, or DailyMotion, or some Russian video site. The idea that if you don’t see a film in the cinema, you will never get a chance to see it again, seems so alien.

Which brings to Oxide Ghosts: The Brass Eye Tapes – a compilation of unseen footage from the cult Channel 4 show that, if the filmmaker’s wish is respected, will never be available for home viewing.

Brass Eye remains one of the awe-inspiring things to have aired on British television. Chris Morris’ previous show The Day Today pushed the pomposity of news television to surreal levels, but there was a certain innocence to it. But with Brass Eye, the gloves were off. Nothing was off limits, with jaw-dropping jokes about HIV and paedophilia mixed in with real-life politicians being tricked into being shocked by clearly fictional narcotics.

The show made use of stunts, pranks on celebrities and interactions with the public – all of which results in plenty of footage being left on the cutting room floor. The Brass Eye DVD release included some unaired footage, but Morris is notoriously publicity-shy and secretive about the way he works. Like the home releases of both The Day Today and Nathan Barley, the Brass Eye discs were more interested in subverting the form of DVD extras than actually explaining what went into making the show.

Oxide Ghosts is instead what those hardcore Morris nerds have been salivating for. For the twentieth anniversary of the show in 2017, series director Michael Cummings was invited speak at the Pilot Light TV Festival in Manchester. If he’d merely dug up some unseen footage to screen alongside his appearance, it would have been memorable.

Instead, he edited a dusty box of VHS into something unique – part making-of, part DVD special feature, and part autobiographical documentary. Running about an hour long, the bulk of the feature is comprised of extended versions of perennial favourites, including more of Morris on a London street asking dealers for Clarky Cat and Triple Sod, and extended rambles from fox hunter ‘Patrick da Fronk’, alongside of never-before-released sketches, such as Morris presiding over a pitch-perfectly condescending ‘Women’s Parliament’.

Far from being a thrown-together DVD extra, Cummings has constructed Oxide Ghosts into an atmosphericif maybe somewhat self-important, feature. The clips come from faded VHS tapes, often with burnt-in timecodes on screen, and Cummings running with that aesthetic, creating a nightmarish montage that will particularly strike a chord with anyone who was a bit too young to watch the show on its first airing, but experienced it through tabloid headlines and late-night glimpses hiding the show from their parents.

It opens with newly-shot footage of the tapes themselves, while Cummings’ narration describes his creative frustration prior to beginning work on Brass Eye. The clips loop in and out of each other, seemingly in a random order, recreating the feeling of finding a long forgotten, well-worn videotape that’s been recorded over many, many times.

And then, there is the main event – the footage than supposedly can never be shown anywhere else. Brass Eye was possibly the most controversial show ever to air on British television. The screening of the first series was delayed by almost six months due to various controversies, and Michael Grade, then chief executive of Channel 4, constantly clashed with Morris and Cummings. And then the infamous ‘Paedogeddon!’ special (which Cummings did not direct) became the most complained-about UK television show of all time.

Oxide Ghostincludes multiple scenes that have entered into legend, mostly because it was presumed they’d never been seen. Most notoriously, there is audio of real-life gangster Reggie Kray being duped into supporting a nonsensical fake animal charity down the phone from Broadmoor psychiatric hospital – a stunt that reportedly got the production office a visit from a hired goon. And then there is the footage of MP Graham Bright, who after being duped by the campaign against made-up drug Cake, successfully took legal action to have his scenes removed. Neither clip is essential, but it is nice to finally to get to see them.

According to the film’s website, Oxide Ghosts “will only ever be shown at live events,” a move Cummings says is to keep it special, though is clearly linked to the legal issues as well. So far, around 100 screenings have taken place, at independent cinemas, comedy clubs, music festivals, and arts centres, usually followed by a Q&A with Cummings.

The most recent screening was at a fundraiser for Cummings’ in-production music doc King Rocker, in Hackney, East London, followed by a stand-up set from Stewart Lee. Seeing it with an audience definitely adds to the experience – there is definitely a buzz, being surrounded by fans who know Brass Eye well and appreciate the significance and context of what is being shown. It was also somewhat of a ramshackle affair, being screened off Cummings’ Macbook, and halfway through the ‘low battery’ warning appeared onscreen, remaining there for a good five minutes until someone audibly scurried around and plugged in the charger.

Overall, legal stuff aside, there is no reason why Oxide Ghosts wouldn’t play perfectly well at home. And you do feel it probably will eventually end up online in some form, even if it is a leak, and not an official release. Yet, there is something special about getting people together to see it. Brass Eye was a dangerous, exciting show, and Oxide Ghosts goes some way to capturing that.