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I've only ever done about one interview apart from this in my life – I've always said no to everything,” says Michael Cumming, the man who has, fortunately, said yes to directing such comedy royalty as Stewart Lee, Lenny Henry, Jo Brand, Matt Berry, Mark Thomas, Matt Lucas, David Walliams and Omid Djalili. 

The one interview he mentions is indicative of the way he goes about things: he’s a fan of championing underdogs and likes to keep things small-scale and on the downlow. 

In 2017, to coincide with the series’ 20th anniversary celebrations, Cumming released – with creator Chris Morris’s blessing – Oxide Ghosts: The Brass Eye Tapes, a film that featured unseen archive footage and revealed rare behind-the-scenes insights. It was only to be shown at live screenings with Cumming doing Q&As. Morris had always preferred to keep an air of myth and mystery around the show and when the interview requests came flooding in, Cumming duly turned them down. “A national broadsheet wanted to do a big piece about Oxide Ghosts. Chris and I said no, but they wrote it anyway! They took some quotes from things I'd said at other events and made a piece out of it. So, just to annoy them I gave an interview to Exeter University student magazine, Exepose.” 

Brass Eye – Moon Landing

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Of course, Cumming was surprised by the success of Oxide Ghosts. “When I agreed to do that first screening, I was waking up with nightmares. I thought ‘only six people will show up. It'll be really embarrassing’. But it sold out very quickly.” It continued to flourish, quietly, under the radar. “I didn't do any promotion at all. I'm not on any social media. It was all just word of mouth. Within a couple of weeks of its first showing in Manchester, we had about 30 cinemas saying can you come and show it here? It just went berserk, all over the country.”

 To know that 20-odd years down the line people still fondly remember something you did, it’s great.

When Brass Eye first aired in 1997, it was something we didn't realise we’d needed until we saw it. We’d had absurdist humour, but absurdism with such scathing satire was refreshing. Lampooning media sensationalism, it invented fake news before fake news was a thing, sending up Great British moral panics about burning issues. There was the new drug called Cake, that was laying waste to the country’s youth by stimulating the part of the brain known as Shatner’s Bassoon. Exposés of abhorrent animal cruelty featured fake profiles of rascals like Bernard Lerring the weasel fighter, “when yer fighting a weasel, it’s as big as a man”. 

Demand is still high for Oxide Ghosts, bookings were lined up pre-lockdown. It will return. Cumming still seems slightly surprised at the enduring loyalty of Brass Eye aficionados. “All this stuff that we do – it's so throwaway, isn't it? But to know that 20-odd years down the line people still fondly remember something you did, it’s great.” 

Toast of London – Yes

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The recipient of an honorary doctorate for his outstanding contribution to television and filmmaking, Cumming agreed to talk to shots about all this “throwaway” work via Zoom. Turns out it was his first ever Zoom call. He’d been quietly tucked away in his garden workspace, avoiding video calls and using the time and space to teach himself new things.  “I've got an edit suite and a music studio in the garden, it’s where I do a lot of my work. Basically, over this last year, I've been setting up a world where I don't need anybody else,” he laughs, “so I can make a film from start to finish. I can film it; edit it; do the music. Of course, I haven’t had any actors in lockdown, so I've been filming bees a lot recently. Bees on alliums. They're the only performers I've got and they don’t answer back!”

I can make a film from start to finish. I can film it; edit it; do the music. Of course, I haven’t had any actors in lockdown, so I've been filming bees a lot recently.

Communing with nature comes naturally to him. Growing up in the Lake District, “in the middle of nowhere”, he didn’t have a yearning to direct even though he joined the school cine club and made Super 8 films, “it was just a bit of fun.” He was more likely to follow a career in music. His mother was a piano teacher and, aged just 14, he was earning money – £10 a gig – as part of bizarre cabaret duo in a club. “I used to play drums with this old bloke who played the organ – he would have been the age my parents were at the time. A comedy act would come on then we’d play for the dinner dance. We wore matching blue striped shirts.” 

He carried on playing in various bands and though he was “obsessed with music” he ended up at art school in Wolverhampton. “I had a sort of vague notion of maybe being a painter and was sort of into photography and stuff." He then found a cupboard full of broken video cameras, figured out how they worked and a visiting tutor, the filmmaker Guy Sherwin, suggested he explore video art. “Sherwin made beautiful, poetic, black and white 16mm films and still does. He was incredibly encouraging, even though the stuff I was doing was nothing like his work. I was trying to sort of be funny and brash and take the piss out of TV.”

Brass Eye – Pulp

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He explains how his penchant for parody began. “Thing with video art, when I started doing it, was that you watched it on a television screen. You had to because that's all there was. The fact you watched it on the same box that you’d watch telly on; it seemed obvious to me that you'd try and take the piss out of some of the terrible television that there was by putting it into an art context.” 

It was Sherwin who suggested he apply to the Royal College of Art to do an MA in filmmaking. He thought it was a ridiculous idea, they only took six people a year. He applied “as a joke really” and, of course, got in and set about expanding his artistic horizons. 

TV was a dirty word at the RCA, it was all about cinema, but there was an option to do an exchange programme and study studio directing in Stockholm, “which I didn't really want to do, but I just thought it would be fun to go to Stockholm.” It was a wise move and enabled him to find work as a jobbing director.  

When I met Chris Morris to talk about doing Brass Eye, I'd never done any comedy in my life. And after that, I never really got ever offered anything else.

Soon after graduation he landed a job at the BBC on the science programme Tomorrow’s World, “Jesus Christ. I mean, I’d been making sort of artsy films on my own for years, and then suddenly you're at the BBC, which back then mostly took people from public schools. The only reason I got an interview is because I’d been to the Royal College of Art. They probably thought, ‘Royal’ College, that's near enough. But I didn't know anything about science. I didn’t even have an O Level in science.” 

The show was high profile. “It used to get like 14 million viewers or something, it was on before Top of the Pops. So, yeah, it just meant I'd done something that people knew about.” He continued work as a jobbing director, doing kids TV, factual, entertainment, while also pursuing his passion projects, making “a few sort of films that were funded by the Arts Council,” such as the 1989 short, Beachcomber, he made with Cumbrian artist Kevin Carr:

Beachcomber

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His career seems to have been characterised by hard work and happenstance. “I wasn't thinking I want to be making comedy. To be honest, it was total chance, you might have noticed a pattern is emerging here. It's all chance. One thing leading to another. When I met Chris Morris to talk about doing Brass Eye, I'd never done any comedy in my life. And after that, I never really got offered anything else. It was one of those moments where your life sort of goes off on a tangent. I literally could put it down to that meeting I had with him in this one particular café in Soho.”

The meeting was set up by a producer who’d worked with Cumming, he was one of a few names put forward to Morris. “We clicked. We come from completely different backgrounds but have a shared love of stuff like Peter Cook, Peter Sellers, that sort of comedy. And also, probably because Chris is quite obtuse in many ways, I think maybe he deliberately didn't want to have a comedy director. He wanted somebody who'd done the sorts of things he was trying to parody.”

We [Cumming and Chris Morris] come from completely different backgrounds but have a shared love of stuff like Peter Cook, Peter Sellers, that sort of comedy.

Though it has enduring appeal, even seeming prescient now in the Trump era, Brass Eye is also a piece of TV comedy history. It wouldn’t be made now for a variety of reasons. “It didn’t have a format, it was random. You couldn't really do television like that now, because people need it all in written down in black and white. I can’t recall any discussions about schedules or budget. Or treatments or pitches. We used to just go and shoot some stuff for a couple of weeks, come back, edit it and sort of think, ‘hmm, it would be nice to do something around this. Chris was in a lucky position, he'd sort of been given carte blanche.”

Brass Eye – Clive Anderson

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It was Channel 4 who granted these delicious freedoms. The show was originally commissioned by the BBC as a follow up to the spoof news series The Day Today, which featured Morris as a barking Paxmanesque faux reporter. They thought it would be interesting giving Morris’s character his own show. A “proper, fully-funded pilot, with the graphics and everything,” was commissioned. 

During the whole series we didn't cajole, pay or make anybody do anything.

“The guy from the BBC came to watch the pilot,” recalls Cumming. “About two minutes in he said, ‘everything up to this point; great, love it, but after here, there's not much we can broadcast’. I thought it was over, but Chris, as usual, was gung ho. He said it’s ‘fine we’ll make it for Channel 4’.” A rejected pilot being taken up by another channel is almost unheard of.

So what was it two minutes in that the BBC objected to? “I think that's probably where the fucking around with real people started.” Brass Eye famously invited celebrities and spokespeople to appear on what they thought was a genuine current affairs show, to display their heartfelt concern over these scandalous issues, Noel Edmond’s denouncing the dangerous new drug Cake is one such golden moment. 

Paul Daniels, Britt Eckland and others displayed their dismay at a callous East German zoo’s treatment of Karla, an elephant with its trunk stuck up its own fundament. 

This kind of pranking could never happen now. Back then it was the pre-digital age of gullibility. “When people left our interviews, they left believing it completely. They didn’t know until it was broadcast what it was. It was ridiculous the things they were saying if they’d thought about it.” 

When you talk about political correctness and whether things should or shouldn't be done, it's down to who's doing them. 

"During the whole series we didn't cajole, pay or make anybody do anything - we just sent out a lot of ridiculous press releases from organisations called  A.A.A.A.A.A.A.Z (Against Animal Anger And Autocausal Abuse Atrocities in Animals) and F.U.K.D (Free the United Kingdom from Drugs). When I first read them, I said to Chris, ‘we can't send these out. Nobody will believe them’.”

But such was the hunger for exposure, common sense didn’t prevail. “Nowadays you’d just Google, ‘elephant with trunk stuck up its arse’, find no mention of it and get suspicious. But the internet was in its infancy, there wasn’t social media, so for many of the more… b-list celebrities and politicians, it was a chance to get your face on TV, which was harder to do then. It isn’t so important to get on TV now as there are so many other outlets to talk bullshit on.”

Brass Eye – Karla The Elephant

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The digital age has altered the comedy landscape by rendering such naivety hard to find, let alone send up. Information abundance means everyone knows everything, but also everyone responds to everything, so sensitivity to triggering material has to be taken into consideration. Cumming agrees that many episodes of Brass Eye would probably have to carry trigger warnings today. 

It's probably too soon to be making jokes about a pandemic.

We talk about Chris Morris’s 2010 film Four Lions, the darkest of dark comedies that proved even suicide bombing can be a subject for humour. Rightly bagging a host of awards, it featured poignant stories about characters such as the childlike innocent who believes when he pulls the cord he’ll gain instant access to a celestial theme park complete with ‘rubber dinghy rapids’. It worked because the bombers were human beings written with heart and truth. "When you talk about political correctness and whether things should or shouldn't be done," says Cumming, "it's down to who's doing them. If you look at the treatment to Four Lions there would be people saying ‘you can't make a comedy film about terrorists’. But I think the point is that in the right hands you can. And bearing in mind the amount of background work Chris did to make sure that his arguments were watertight – his hands were the right hands.” 

So what role can comedy play in these serious times? We discuss how advertising has responded to coronavirus. The Zooms, the empty streets, the we’re all-in-this-together vibe… Has there been a tendency towards well… mawkishness?. “Yes! Everything’s shot on phones, or on a Zoom, and mawkish. But on the other hand, in a commercial, it's probably too soon to be making jokes about a pandemic.”

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Snuffbox – Swear Song

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Snuffbox – Macs Vs PCs

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Snuffbox – Guitar Lesson

Above: Clips from Snuff Box, a sketch show series created by Matt Berry and Rich Fulcher.


How does he feel comedy in advertising is faring nowadays? “I really like looking at old ads from the past. I find them hilarious, though they probably weren't intended to be.” Recent favourites include the Uber Eats campaign with Gus Khan, star of one of his favourite sitcoms, Man Like Mobeen, “his performance was really natural and just felt very sweet. He also likes the (shots award-winning) Sipsmith Gin spot with Julian Barratt's voiceover. “I actually thought… hmm maybe I’ll start drinking gin, it must be pretty cool if Julian Barratt says it is,” he laughs. 

Commercials are a relatively recent thing for me. It feels like another challenge that I want to master.

I suggest that after the sort of freedoms he’s enjoyed with Morris and other collaborators, the rigours of advertising, of directing by committee, must seem restrictive? But he’s decidedly sunny about his experiences so far. “Commercials are a relatively recent thing for me. It feels like another challenge that I want to master – I’m really enjoying it. I am deliberately doing less TV, because there's less TV that interests me being made. You'd be surprised how television and advertising have become quite similar, much more of the committee element has come into TV in recent years.” 

He reports enjoying being part of the supportive “Moxie family” and being pleasantly surprised by how collaborative he’s finding the industry and how much of his own vision he’s able to contribute. With the Cravendale spots for example, “they wanted the campaign to parody investigative documentaries, in a sort of Brass Eye way. So I brought in a couple of the ideas that that weren't the treatment, and they got through.”

Arla – The Moonicow

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A key component of Cumming’s work has been the use of improvisation – something he brought up with Cravendale in initial meetings. “Part of the problem with improv is that there’s never really time built in for it when you have to get a script shot. But Alex [Sattlecker] and Linda [Weitgasser], the creatives at W+K London, were great. They said ‘yeah, shoot the script, and then improvise with the actors’. So that’s what we did and a couple of bits that were just spontaneously improvised by the actors got in. For a 30-second ad, to get five seconds of improvised material in is pretty good.”

For a 30-second ad, to get five seconds of improvised material in is pretty good.

He recalls how improvisation was the basis for a lot of his favourite bits in Brass Eye – weasel fighter Bernard Lerring being a top memory. “We shot a load of improv with that character. He’s a northern bloke and he's got a fag on and hair like Michael Bolton, a sort of two-haircuts look. He fights weasels for money. ‘I've seen a man die fighting a weasel’. I just love that character, I could have probably cut an entire 60 minute weasel fighter special with all the material from that.”

Cumming's own performance skills must have enhanced the creation of such characters. “I fondly remember Chris would sit there in character and I would sit down with him as the interviewer, also in character. He wouldn't know what my questions were going to be. He'd have a few answers that he'd written. But often we’d go off track and the things that ended up being used were when he was slightly off guard, because that's what interviews are like, you know, full of half-formed ideas. That makes it feel more real. So I suppose we just tried to bring a little bit of that to the commercials. It's usually hard to do that in advertising because everything's got to be locked down.”

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Remember A Charity – Points of You

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Remember A Charity – Countdown

Above: Cumming directed a series of spoof TV show spots written by Matt Berry for Remember A Charity Week.


Another of his works that received a small but enthusiastic audience was the sitcom Going Forward with Jo Brand as a careworn NHS carer and Omid Djalili has her cab-driving husband. It was completely improvised. “There was a story structure roughly worked out, but it was all improvised on the day. It’s so enjoyable when it works. God knows what you do if it doesn’t work out. I guess you’re fucked aren’t you?”

Arthur [Mathews] has got a way of writing that just makes you want to read the scripts. His use of language is so good, so part of the job on something like that is getting the actors to follow the words exactly as they were written, to follow every dot and comma, because that's what makes it funny.

He’s not wedded to any particular method though as the definitive path to comedy gold. “I don't think that improvisation is the be all end all, it's nice to have, but a beautifully written bit of script is such a joy.” He references the BAFTA-winning sitcom Toast of London, which he directed all three series of. It was created by Matt Berry and Arthur Mathews, co-writer of Father Ted. Another cult classic, it followed the misadventures of Steven Toast – an eccentric and self-obsessed actor played by Berry. “It’s a beautifully written piece. Arthur has got a way of writing that just makes you want to read the scripts. His use of language is so good, so part of the job on something like that is getting the actors to follow the words exactly as they were written, to follow every dot and comma, because that's what makes it funny. He will have really thought about how each sentence should be.”

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Toast of London – Bonusball

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Toast of London – Bonus ball audition

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Toast of London – Fool In Love

His most recent project, a documentary he’s created with Stewart Lee, owes more to experimentation than a finished script. Titled King Rocker, it’s the curious lovechild of a short story Lee wrote about a giant ape statue in a Birmingham shopping centre and chat in a curry house with the “undervalued underdog autodidact” Rob Lloyd, a punk veteran who’s survived four decades in the music industry fronting cult bands The Prefects, then The Nightingales. He confesses to feeling “slightly naughty,” during filming, “as we had days where we had the crew out but we hadn’t structured anything. It was very low budget, as in no budget, crowdfunded budget. We paid the crews, nobody else, myself and Stewart and the producer just did it to see what would happen with it. So shoot days weren’t like normal shoot days. We’d just come up with stuff and be experimenting.”

How real is a documentary? How constructed is a documentary? Well, it's very, because even a fly-on-the-wall documentary is constructed, there’s still a story to be made.

He explains how he and Lee love revealing the workings and processes behind making film, “Questions like, how real is a documentary? How constructed is a documentary? Well, it's very, because even a fly-on-the-wall documentary is constructed, there’s still a story to be made. So there’s a lot of that analysis in it. Also there are a lot of people in it who'd never even heard of The Nightingales or Robert Lloyd or maybe even Stewart Lee. Like [journalist/broadcaster] Samira Ahmed, Robin Askwith, [the actor known for his cheeky 70s Confessions comedy films.] and Nigel Slater.” 

Another star of the film of course is the giant ape. Growing up in Birmingham in the 70s, Lee was slightly obsessed with the King Kong statue made by an undervalued pop artist called Nicholas Monro. “It was part of a public sculpture initiative where cities could buy public art if they wanted it. But Birmingham didn’t want it, they rejected it.” Lee seems to share with Cumming a fondness for celebrating underdogs – or underapes in this case – and wondered if there was any way he could tie the ape’s story to that of The Nightingales, a band that had never had the recognition it deserved. 

“We went to see the Nightingales together, long before we made the film. And we met Rob afterwards. We were talking about how he had been gesticulating on stage and out of nowhere, Rob said ‘it was like I was channelling that big ape that used to be in Birmingham’. So, in a slightly contrived way, we made our story of Rob follow the story of this piece of public art.”

The ape’s whereabouts were uncertain. Lee thought it had been destroyed; there were reports of it turning up in an Edinburgh market, as a marketing prop for a garage and being painted pink. The quest to find the ape has a happy ending, with a touch of kismet to it, that is not our business to spoil. 

King Rocker Trailer

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Another under-the-radar, underdog piece he worked on was the sketch show Snuff Box, created by Rich Fulcher and Matt Berry. I confess I hadn’t heard of it before. “No, not a lot of people have” he laughs. “It’s a pity, that’s an example of a series that nobody cared about. That was the early days of BBC3; they let us just get on with it. Rich and Matt were brought together to do it – like a supergroup. They’d done a little bit on The Mighty Boosh together but hadn’t really worked together. They're very different people but somehow together it worked. People discovered it through what Matt had done on Toast of London. Which is nice, so now it’s got a sort of cult following.”

I prefer to do something where a small number of obsessive people really love it.

Cult comedy rather than crowd pleasers is the way he likes it. “I prefer to do something where a small number of obsessive people really love it. It's not like Mrs. Brown's Boys, you know, which gets millions of viewers.” Toast was like that. It’s got more fans since it’s been on Netflix but before it was more of a hidden thing.”

A Toast highlight, the tender moments in between Jon Hamm and Matt Berry, illustrate an important component of comedy – truth. Hamm on Toast is a love story, truthfully told; beautifully acted. “Again, it's Arthur’s genius writing and Matt inhabiting that character – Steven Toast is such a bombastic arsehole and then you see him sort of act like a teenage girl.”

Toast of London – Hamm on Toast

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Samuel Beckett said “there is nothing funnier than unhappiness”, and many comedians mine their own troubles for laughs, is that something he recognises? He says that’s not really him, he doesn’t think he’s troubled. “I think the best comedy has got that sort of darker side to it. I love Tony Hancock. Without really trying I think the Toast character ended up a bit of a Hancock. A lot of great comedy has that sadness, like The Royle Family, I liked that. But I don’t know if you necessarily have to live it yourself. You just have to be able to appreciate the dark side.”

I wonder if he’s that rare type who can have both a totally skew-whiff sensibility but also be totally grounded. “Yes possibly,” he muses. He thinks being good at comedy is just about having a feel for it. “I do think that there has got to be some truth about it. No matter how ridiculous it is, at the core of it, it's got to be believable.”

I think the best comedy has got a darker side to it.

King Rocker was finished just before lockdown, with Cumming editing it himself. That and Oxide Ghosts are the only feature length pieces he has edited. “It drove me mad but it’s a great freedom. As I said, it’s nice to keep learning new stuff. I've sort of accidentally become quite a good editor now.”

“I thought I'm going to use this [lockdown] time to learn much more modern editing and music software. So to give me stuff to cut, I've been shooting stuff in the garden. I've been trying to compose music to the pictures that I'm shooting and shoot pictures of the music that I'm writing. The only subject I've got to film is the garden and the only things that move in it are the little birds and the bees and the insects.”

After the interview I imagine him returning to his world of bees and ponder on the nature of a man as drawn to collaboration and buzzy studios, as he is to repairing to rural seclusion with only the buzz of winged insects around him. He’s something of a paradox. His humour is dry but not cold, there’s a warmth to him. He’s gently rebellious, but politely so. As adept at creating lyrical video art as he is at biting satire. I was wondering if he'd be an introvert, but chatted for hours with an easy conversationalist whose open, questing mind leads to tangential wanderings – the mark of a true creative. 

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