How director Michael Cumming traded boring TV for cutting edge comedy


brass eye, Grill and oxide ghosts: How director Michael Cumming swapped boring television for cutting-edge comedy…


As you may have heard, it’s been 25 years since Brass Eye first hit our screens. And it’s only been a few weeks since the show trended on Twitter, when one MP’s bizarre utterance – “ambushed by a cake” – sent many of us down memory lane, to the show’s famous anti-fake drug campaign. From Bernard Manning to Bernard Ingham, some big names from the 90s have been ambushed by the cake.

Chris Morris’ grittier sequel to The Day Today debuted on Channel 4 in January/February 1997 and launched a mighty blunderbuss on the modern media landscape, dragging many along the way – including the random celebrities enticed to sincerely marry made-up causes.

Cumming has been shooting some big hitters again recently. A year ago, he and Stewart Lee did hours of interviews for post-punk doc King Rocker. He directed top American talent in Toast Of Tinseltown, which just ended, but you can catch up via iPlayer. And he soon appears himself in cinemas, like his film Brass Eye oxide ghosts is filming in the UK, with live guests including Lee and David Walliams.

But he almost gave up directing before all that.

How did you get involved with Chris Morris originally; what were you doing before?

I was an art student and then I went to film school. My job there was experimental, non-commercial, indulgent – ​​all the good stuff – but by the time I met Chris, in 1995, I was becoming a job manager of sorts and I really didn’t like it.

I had done a variety of pretty boring TV shows since graduating and tried to stay sane with the occasional Arts Council-funded movie. I had recently done the “look at these crazy Americans” type segments for the Channel 4 show Word. All of this had left me bored/appalled by the television. I probably would have given up on television if I hadn’t been asked to direct Brass Eye.

The series editor Word – I guess because of his controversial reputation – had been asked to produce the BBC pilot that would become Brass Eye and I was one of the directors he invited to meet Chris. I liked him right away and felt like he might have found a way to use television to do something really original.

Chris Morris as Ted Maul. Chris Morris. Copyright : Michael Cumming

Can you remember how Brass Eye was introduced to you? what was the goal?

I don’t recall there ever being a treatment or pitch document that said what Brass Eye would be – other than taking the character of Christopher Morris from The Day Today and giving him his own current affairs show . We also brought in the brilliant and pompous Ted Maul (who appeared in a few Day after day elements).

I don’t think anyone mentioned there would be “celebrity bait” in the initial discussions. It developed as we progressed. I just remember Chris asking me stuff like – How would you shoot a cow with a cannon? – that’s when I realized it was going to be something exciting and new.

Was directing this show an eye-opener for you? Did you find any of them particularly difficult?

I had never done comedy before so it was definitely an eye opener but I understood the kind of shows we were parodying and I was definitely behind the idea that TV needed a hell of a kick . But, yes, every frame was difficult.

How did the idea of oxide ghosts was born, and how would you describe what the film is?

I’ve had this box of tapes – and a vague idea that I might try to do something with it – for years. In 2017, the Pilot Light TV festival asked me if I wanted to speak at their 20th anniversary screening of Brass Eye. I thought I’d see if there was an unseen piece on the tapes that we could play.

It was this process of finding clips, among all those hours of tape, that brought back the memories and made me think there might be some movie in there. I prepared something to show Chris, who generously said I had to go ahead and show it.

How would I describe it? I guess in a way it’s my personal take on the ups and downs of two amazing years of my life and in another way it’s like video art pioneer Nam June Paik realized an episode of Everything will be alright at night.

Were there any celebrities who didn’t appear on the show – because they guessed it was fake, maybe?

There was a weird, very rare – shall we say – hiccup and I talk about it on the shows, so I’m not going to spoil it. Overall though, what’s amazing is that no one realized it was a Chris Morris TV show they were voicing their opinions on. Even though most of the time they were reading these opinions from a script that Chris had written for them.

Presentation of Oxide Ghosts in London. Michael Cumming. Copyright : Gerard Giorgi-Coll

Presentation of Oxide Ghosts in London. Michael Cumming. Copyright : Gerard Giorgi-Coll

What were the top questions during this screening Q&A – are there any things about Brass Eye that people are still obsessed with?

Well, your previous question is very popular! – but I really like it when people have very specific and detailed requests, because it forces me to try to understand exactly how we did things.

What makes the screenings different and interesting are the questions that arise at the end. The public often knows the shows very well and it keeps me on my toes, trying to prove that I know as much as they do. Also, each screening has a different host for Q&A and so it can go in all sorts of different directions.

This year, as with previous screenings, we’ll be announcing a few well-known Brass Eye enthusiasts who will be hosting the evenings – special guests announced so far include Stewart Lee and David Walliams – but all hosts tend to know their brass onions. .

More recently you made Toast Of Tinseltown, a star-studded film – any interesting stories, how did certain names get involved?

Because the first three series of Toast Of London ended up airing on Netflix, they suddenly got seen all over the world and, unbeknownst to me, got quite a bit of attention in the United States.

I think all the stars across the Atlantic did it because they were fans of the show. One of them – and if you’ve seen him, you’ll know who – stipulated that he would as long as he could say “Yes, I hear you Clem Fandango”. Brilliant.

Director Michael Cumming on the set of Toast Of Tinseltown with Matt Berry. Copyright : Ben Meadows

Director Michael Cumming on the set of Toast Of Tinseltown with Matt Berry. Copyright : Ben Meadows

Having Tinseltown to be released – and so well received – in the exact same month that Brass Eye was born 25 years prior was very satisfying. Working with Matt Berry for the past 17 years – first on Snuff Box, then Toast Of London and now Tinseltown – gave me confidence in the possibilities of television.

And Arthur Mathews (Father Ted), who co-wrote Grill, has a brilliantly biased take on comedy. Arthur will host my Dublin oxide ghosts show, as it has done before, and it’s always a good night.

Say you made a oxide ghostsstyle movie on Grill one day – what clips from the editing room floor would you definitely include?

Well, there certainly wouldn’t be many deleted scenes to go back to, because there’s never enough time to film anything that won’t be included. Brass Eye had a lot of time to experiment and so inevitably some things got left on the cutting room floor/in the tape box.

But there are always funny takes, because we try to make the atmosphere on set conducive to comedy. Shooting the scenes with the American comedy legend I mentioned – the one who meant the “Fandango” line – was a thrill.

There’s a fantastic outing where he insults Toast’s hairstyle and Matt’s off-the-cuff response got so many laughs that the whole take was unusable so won’t see the light of day until Oxide Ghosts 2: The Toast Tapes…


Oxide Ghosts: The Brass Eye Tapes + Q&A with Michael Cumming visits from February 25. Dates and tickets

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