Exeter, Devon UK • Apr 22, 2024 • VOL XII

Exeter, Devon UK • [date-today] • VOL XII
Home Screen Brass Eye, Toast and Oxide Ghosts: An Interview with Michael Cumming

Brass Eye, Toast and Oxide Ghosts: An Interview with Michael Cumming

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There’s a moment during our conversation where Michael Cumming reminisces about Peter Cook and Dudley Moore’s Derek and Clive records, about the thrilling sense that it was something taboo that you weren’t supposed to listen to, breaking through all you thought was decent and opening a gateway into a whole new world of comedy. For me, the show that Cumming directed, Brass Eye, had the exact same effect. Though I was only just born when the show was broadcast, the world of online streaming brought it to my burgeoning adolescent self’s attention. Its unrelenting, smart and sharp comic exploration of previously off-limits topics surrounding sex and drugs had become something of a dirty little secret in our IT classes. Though our little group had very little interest in programming or website design, the twisted, warped studio antics of Chris Morris were a welcoming blanket of disgrace for us.

Years later, I find myself sitting down with Cumming following a screening of Oxide Ghosts, his tantalising look into the experimental and spontaneous production of Brass Eye. He begins by discussing how exactly he got to a point in his career where he could make something as singular and unique as the satirical classic, looking back to his formative years at the BBC.

“It was probably about seven years from when I left film school. When I left I made a sort of terrible career choice (though in a way it was good): I took the first job that was offered to me. I got to direct little films on TV for this show called Tomorrow’s World which was a science show, though I had absolutely no interest in – or knowledge about – science. [At] the BBC at the time, this was 1988 or something, usually it was Oxbridge graduates who worked there, and for a couple of years they thought they might slum it a bit, and because I was at the Royal College of Art, they thought it was acceptable to let a few filmmakers in.”

Following his appointment on Tomorrow’s World, he reflects on the career path it opened up, mainly in the world of corporate videos, referring to them as “lucrative but soul destroying. [I] then wormed my way into the lower reaches of kids TV and the sort of stuff that was coming out of BSkyb, as they were starting to need a lot of content”.  Eventually this work led to a job on Channel 4 show The Word, a programme that Cumming describes as “very low level youth TV’.” However, it was on The Word that Cumming found his way into something far more enticing: the world of Chris Morris.

“The guy who was the series editor of that series was brought in when Chris Morris was going to do his pilot for what became Brass Eye, [and] because I was working with him, I was one of the directors he brought in to meet Chris.” Cumming acknowledges the toll that working on shows he had no interest in had on him, noting that “by the time I met [Morris], I was thinking I’ve got to not work in television, I’ve been doing all this shit. I used to make video art and installations that nobody would ever watch but were satisfying to do and I was sort of regretting moving into television”. However, meeting with Morris and discussing his plans for Brass Eye reignited Cumming’s passion for making programmes: “What Chris did was reassure there was a way of making something on television that had wider merit. That restored my faith in television.”

“All the people I met at [the Royal College of Art] had an outlook on life I’d never encountered before. I didn’t learn how to paint horses but I certainly took something interesting away”

With this newfound excitement and creative opportunity, Cumming touches upon how it contrasted with his training at film school, where television was not the obvious outlet for someone to take their skills into.

“It was exciting to be doing this, but the irony is that at the film school that I went to, television was a dirty word, nobody talked about the ‘T’ word. At that time in England, there were hardly any British films, there were like five films made a year – there were a lot of people coming out thinking, ‘shit what are we going to do now?’ We never worked with video or television cameras, it was all just film and actually cutting and splicing. But what was great about it was the people who ran those courses and who were teaching you and who you met, the other students, were really interesting people.” He fondly looks back on his time at the Royal College of Art, valuing the company he kept: “All the people I met there, had an outlook on life I’d never encountered before. I didn’t learn how to paint horses but I certainly took something interesting away.”

The artistic versatility in filmmaking that Cumming had picked up, combined with Chris Morris’s talents for creating utterly absurd comedy, formed something incredibly special. A huge element of Brass Eye’s edge was how realistic the whole thing felt when put next to the TV it was satirising. When asked how he managed to create this realist aesthetic in the footage, he explains his firm dedication to visual accuracy.

“The truth is that all those things, and I still try and do it when I can, [were shot] as close to what they were parodying as possible. So on Brass Eye we shot on Super 8 and 16mm film, we shot on camcorder, VHS type stuff, Mini DV, we shot on normal tape. If it was supposed to look like Super 8 I shot it on Super 8. A lot of the stuff that looks like slightly classy BBC documentaries about people taking drugs at work, that was shot on 16mm film. The stuff that was supposed to look like NTSC American or Japanese footage, we just literally standard converted it to that format and then back again, and hey presto.”

A certain instance of this suddenly occurs to him, revolving around a sketch with archive footage supposedly from the 60s, replicating the time of the moon landing and following a gimp who was the forgotten, ‘unknown’ member of the Apollo 11 mission.

“I shot that myself on Super 8, and when we had it telecined onto tape, it just looked too good, too clean. So we said, let’s just go outside, and we literally just dragged it through a hedge, and scratched the shit out of it!”

“What Chris did was reassure there was a way of making something on television that had wider merit. That restored my faith in television”

This arena for creative freedom was something Cumming treasured, and when he looks back on what he took from Brass Eye, it’s the factor which remains with him the most. “I suppose Chris [Morris] reminded me of an attitude I used to have when I was at art school and film school, which seven years after leaving, I’d sort of forgotten about. It was that spirit of experimentation and trying stuff. I mean there’s a million things really, but that’s one of the main things.”

An accompanying photograph for Oxide Ghosts

The residing importance of Morris’ influence is something he notes shaped his behind-the-scenes film, stating that “when I put together Oxide Ghosts, the first thing I realised was the first person [to see it] would sort of have to be him, because I couldn’t show it to anyone else until he’d seen it. There’s no way I would want to make, or he would want to see, a documentary about Chris Morris with lots of people saying how great he was, talking to camera.” He emphasises that the ambiguity of the film springs from a desire to keep the myths of the show intact, adding “I think for me, and to an extent Chris, the secrecy and myths around it were as important. You don’t want to give all the stories away because there’s some great stories I never want to tell. I sort of gave some stuff away, but a lot of it was stuff that had vaguely been around the rumour mills for a while. Keeping it going in people’s minds was really the idea, so people sort of remember it again. Hopefully this just will keep in people’s minds, like a dead relative.”

Following Brass Eye, Cumming went on to work with a number of prominent British comedians and actors, collaborators including names as diverse as Kevin Eldon, Peter Serafinowicz, Omid Djalili and Lenny Henry. But there was a particular project that allowed to him embrace the inventive instincts he had taken from Brass Eye: his work with Matt Berry and Rich Fulcher on 2006’s Snuff Box, a surreal series of dark sketches intercut with a narrative set in a Gentlemen’s Club.

“When we were doing Snuff Box, we knew that it probably wasn’t going to be a multi-series blockbuster TV success, but it was the early days of BBC Three, and they just left us alone to be honest.”

Though Cumming concedes it was never going to be a huge hit due to its distinct quirks and oddness, he has seen it grow into a cult programme beloved by its fanbase following the development of the internet and streaming.

“It did really well on YouTube because everything was sort of little bits that you could pull out, and in fact loads of people that I’ve spoken to hadn’t actually ever seen the episodes, and I kept saying ‘Well come on, you’ve gotta watch the episodes, because there’s an element of them trying to hang together.’ Originally, in Snuff Box, what we wanted to do was have each episode completely interweaving.” He notes this interlinking was the only real interference they had in an otherwise unrestricted production.

“The only meddling we got from BBC Three was, when we shot it, they went, ‘Y’know, for the first episode we’ve got to have the strongest material, so can we take that bit and that bit and that bit.’ There’s one bit specifically, where Rich is doing a thing where he’s talking to a girl in a park, and behind him there’s him, himself, dressed as another character, which just looks ridiculous. It was supposed to be in another episode where that character had been, so it was supposed to have more of a through line – but they really just wanted a sketch-show, and Matt and Rich wanted to do something with a bit more of a narrative, so it was a bit of a bargaining – we tried to have a narrative, but they wanted a sketch-show”.

“I think we battled in Toast quite hard to make sure that we retained the idea that there would be a song in every episode”

Berry and Cumming would collaborate again from 2012 – 2015 on Toast of London, which after three series has gone on to have an ardent following and is a familiar face in the world of contemporary British comedy. When asked about its unusual nature, and in particular its approach to music, Cumming again acknowledges an avoidance of compromise.

“I think we battled in Toast quite hard to make sure that we retained the idea that there would be a song in every episode. All I’ll say is, it wasn’t the most popular thing to put in a comedy programme. But for me that’s what makes the show – I mean there’s many things that make it stand out – but that’s one of the things that make it different to other shows that don’t do that.”

“We wanted to try and create a sort-of timeless world, so it’s sort-of set now – well, obviously it’s set now, because there are contemporary references – but it’s also not really set now – in the pubs and bars, people smoke, which they don’t do. Toast’s agent doesn’t often use a mobile phone and has a typewriter and has a Rolodex on her desk, and all of the locations we tried to shoot in had that timeless quality of old Soho, so I suppose it was like trying to make people’s idea of what being an actor in Soho would have been like.”

When asked on the future of the timeless Steven Toast, Cumming remains optimistic. “I think we’d all like to do more – Matt would, and Arthur, who writes it would, and I certainly would.” He ponders on what a prolonged break might bring to the show, looking back to Blackadder; “that went away for a while, and then came back, and when it came back it was even more  successful so… maybe”, eyeing potential in the fact that Berry would be closer to Toast’s intended age, seeing as “Toast is obviously supposed to be 10 or more years older than Matt was when we started.”

Returning to the present, Cumming considers the success of his Oxide Ghosts tour, which has sold out over seventy venues, and what he has taken from the experience. “It’s quite a throwaway medium, TV, and even more so now, with the internet, [where] everything’s available, and it’s quickly gone and forgotten. To have been part of something that is still remembered fondly after all this time, that’s been the main thing, really.”

The impression one gets when talking with Michael Cumming is a dogged determination to be different and uncompromising, to try new things and stand out from the crowd, even if it sometimes means risking a factor of popularity. When he talks about his future work, it’s clear he’s continuing to embrace this attitude, trying to find new and unconventional ways to get things made.

“To have been part of something that is still remembered fondly after all this time, that’s been the main thing, really”

“I’ve been buoyed by the idea that you can make something that’s outside of television, and it can have a life. I’m currently doing something with Stewart Lee – we’re making an obtusely obscure documentary about a band that probably most people have never heard of. They’re called The Nightingales, who were a Birmingham band, post-punk, I suppose – and they formed 40 years ago, then stopped for a while, and then about 13 years ago they reformed, better than ever. The constant figure is the lead vocalist and lyricist Robert Lloyd, who Stewart and I are just a fan of, and we sort of felt that nobody had told their story, and that people who should like their music have never heard of them.”

“The longer I do this, the more I love that idea of trying to operate outside the way the television and film industry work. With Oxide Ghosts, I made that in my shed, (which is basically much nicer than a shed, but I’m saying that because it sounds good), I made it without any contributions, interruptions, or opinions from anybody else, and I took it out on the road because people asked me to, and there was nobody else involved at all. There wasn’t 25 TV people giving me their opinions or thoughts about what I should or shouldn’t do, and that’s what we want to try and do with this film with Stewart, which for the moment is called King Rocker. The more I’ve done of big stuff where you’re dealing with hundreds of people every day asking questions, [the more] it feels quite nice to go back to how it was at film school.”

As our conversation draws to a close, he wryly concedes: “Hopefully, the plan is to ease into gentle production of things that are perhaps more outside the normal… maybe. I’ll probably do a fucking McDonalds commercial!” He then gives a little pause and a smile, ending with the reassurance, “I won’t. I’d never do a McDonalds commercial.”

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