‘Oxide Ghosts’: Michael Cumming Talks

 The Brass Eye director chats about Oxide Ghosts, Kurt Vonnegut, Toast of Tinseltown, King Rocker and more.

“I don’t think anyone knew exactly what ‘Brass Eye’ would become. It was experimental, and the long production period gave us a chance to try – and often reject – things in a way that wouldn’t have been possible in a normal schedule. Getting all the minute detail right in the parodies was a huge part of the series. Everything needed to be very believable and completely ridiculous at the same time.” – Michael Cumming.

It’s hard to believe this year is the 25th anniversary of the brilliant television series Brass Eye. With only six episodes and that controversial special, this was truly ground-breaking television. Michael Cumming, who directed the series, resumes his tour of Oxide Ghosts: The Brass Eye Tapes this month and I asked Michael about Oxide Ghosts, his career and King Rocker, which he also directed and which comes out on DVD next month.

‘Oxide Ghosts’ still: Chris Morris as Ted Maul & Purves Grundy. © Michael Cumming

Can you tell us about the genesis and gestation of Oxide Ghosts: The Brass Eye Tapes? I believe it has been created from stuff you had on VHS tapes that you had kept since directing the series?  

I’ve had this box of old tapes and a vague idea that I might try and boil them up into something since the mid ‘90s, but nothing ever came of it. They had been packed away in a dusty attic and I had all but forgotten about them. They were definitely cult.

In 2016 Matt Berry and I were asked to attend the tenth anniversary screening of Snuff Box at the Pilot Light TV festival in Manchester. I got talking to the organiser, Greg Walker, and mentioned that it was the twentieth anniversary of Brass Eye in 2017.

Sometime later he got in touch and said that he was planning to do something around the anniversary and asked if I would speak at the event. Previously, I’d turned down offers to talk about it, but I figured that 20 years had passed and now might be a good time. I remembered ‘The Tape Box’ and wondered if there might be something in there I could show – a clip that no one had ever seen before – especially for the festival.

The film came about entirely by accident. I had the tapes digitised and so I could look at them again for the first time in 20 years. As I went through them in my edit suite I just started pulling clips that amused me onto the editing timeline, so that I could watch them again and select the best one for the festival. By the end, I had a couple of hours of material. Watching the stuff again brought back lots of memories – and I thought there might be some kind of film to be made. I wasn’t interested in making a traditional documentary about Brass Eye and I knew I would never show the film if Chris Morris didn’t want me to. Chris saw the film and encouraged me to show it – without editorial cuts. I think it was quite nostalgic for both of us to look back at that time.

‘Oxide Ghosts’ Poster © Michael Cumming

I heard you saying in a recent interview that it’s not really documentary as such – how would you describe the film?

I suppose Oxide Ghosts – the film, intro and Q&A – is my personal recollections of some of the most exciting and unusual two years of my life. It’s illustrated by footage that wasn’t screened as part of the series. Different or extended versions of some of the scenes, stuff that was cut for legal reasons – or simply because there wasn’t room to fit it all in – and good old-fashioned outtakes. Timecodes and colour bars – the nuts and bolts of TV at the time – are very much part of the aesthetic. Bits of it are like if the Korean video art pioneer Nam June Paik had directed an episode of It’ll Be Alright On The Night. I’m sure many of your We Are Cult readers will be in that tiny Venn diagram circle that knows about early video art AND that hilarious, blooper-based series, once fronted by Norden, now with Walliams.

The screenings of Oxide Ghosts: The Brass Eye Tapes resumes shortly in a countrywide tour and you  have some guest presenters scheduled to do  the Q & As I believe?  You strongly feel the film should be shown only in live venues and it was shown in about 80 screenings in ‘17-‘18 before lockdown wasn’t it? Can you tell us about why the film benefits from live screenings – particularly after the last couple of years?  Is it good to have a reaction from the audience and a Q & A?

I think the original idea came from a discussion with Chris Morris after I had made the film. It was intended to be a one-off showing with an intro and Q&A. As word of mouth spread, and other cinemas started asking to show it, I just kept to that format. We thought that it would be interesting to keep it as a special live event. In a world where everything is available ‘on demand’ this would be a thing you would need to come out and watch communally. Having like-minded people together in a room laughing out loud is a groovy thing. The film is deliberately ambiguous at times, so the Q&As give the audience a chance to ask whatever questions they want. Whether I answer them or not is another matter.

It’s been nice that some well-known comedy people, who are fans of the show, have agreed to do the Q&As. David Walliams, Ronni Ancona, Arthur Mathews, Stewart Lee, Andy Dawson & Jonny Maitland are currently confirmed, and probably a few others will be announced as we get closer. No matter who’s hosting, the audience always have great questions and, because of that, each screening is different and can go off in any direction.

Michael Cumming Oxide Ghosts Q&A © University of Wolverhampton.

You’ve worked with some strong characters over the course of your career – Matt Berry, Stewart Lee, Mark Thomas and of course Chris Morris to name but a few. How did you first meet Chris?

In 1994/5 I had been directing inserts for late night Channel 4 show The Word. I drove around America with Terry Christian or Dani Behr, and made short films for the show. Stuff like a 12 year old evangelical preacher, Hollywood Scream Queens, Teen Pageants in the deep South and John Wayne Bobbitt’s controversial bell end.

The series editor of The Word had been asked to produce a pilot for Chris Morris, that would eventually become Brass Eye. I was one of the directors he got in to meet Chris. We got on well and I suppose he wasn’t looking for a traditional ‘comedy director’ (I had never directed a comedy show before I met Chris). I went to art school and then to film school and the work I did was often critical of television. I hadn’t enjoyed my recent experience of directing TV. I’ve said it before, but I really think I would have given up if I hadn’t met Chris, because I was beginning to think that it wasn’t possible to use the medium to mess around with itself in the way you could in an art gallery.

What was it like working with him on Brass Eye? Did you both have clear ideas of how it should look compared to what was around at the time?

I don’t think anyone knew exactly what Brass Eye would become. It was experimental, and the long production period gave us a chance to try – and often reject – things in a way that wouldn’t have been possible in a normal schedule. Getting all the minute detail right in the parodies was a huge part of the series. Everything needed to be very believable and completely ridiculous at the same time. Making the series was an organic process, but certainly the celebrity element came about, I think, because we wanted to show how people would be prepared to endorse the most ridiculous causes and spout anything they were told, in order to get on TV. It was a very different time the mid ‘90s – people cared a lot more about getting on TV.

Some of the stuff shot in dangerous situations (such as the bit were Chris approaches drug dealers on the streets) seemed fearless… What was it like shooting that? The subject matter is fearless as well – did you, Chris and the writers have a clear idea of what you wanted to say in the series?

Oxide Ghosts features some extra material from those – admittedly risky – drug dealing scenes so I won’t go into too much detail about it. It was something that he had wanted to do from very early on. In spite of the risks, it’s a very funny sequence to watch, now enough time has passed. I guess, to some extent, it was the foolishness of youth, but I admired Chris greatly for doing that.

I was interested in the way the interviews were done in Brass Eye. A collection of now-forgotten celebs in some of them. Did any of them have any inkling what was happening? I love the phony acronyms and mad science they have to read out (people describing heavy electricity like “invisible lead soup” and Steven Berkoff smashing things up with a mallet  are some of my favourites.) Did they cotton on to what was happening at all in these interviews? Can you tell us anything about how they were set up and filmed – any celebs that got upset about it that you can talk about?

We definitely didn’t want to do the sort of ‘gotcha’ that Noel Edmonds (who also fell foul of the series) was doing. The whole point of the Brass Eye campaigns was that the celebrities and politicians would leave the interviews, having said some quite extraordinary bollocks, without realising that they had been ‘got’ at all. That was important, because we didn’t want the word to get around that there was a series like this being made, otherwise it might jeopardise the whole thing.

There’s no way that something with the strong subject matter of Brass Eye could be made and shown now is there?

I expect if Chris wanted to, he would find a way, but it’s hard to imagine a broadcaster taking those kinds of risks today, sadly.

Were there issues getting it shown originally? Were some transmissions delayed by Michael Grade at the time?

I don’t imagine that Michael Grade took such a hands-on interest in many shows on his channel, but just before the scheduled transmission (in 1996) he got wind that this was an ‘unusual’ series and delayed the broadcast until he had personally gone through stuff with more lawyers. A number of additional cuts were made at his request and the series eventually went out in early ’97. Oxide Ghosts covers this in its own, floaty, way.

Can you tell us about your own background before working on Brass Eye? I believe you were involved with music and after college got jobs working on things like Tomorrow’s World and kids TV?

I played in lots of bands from the age of 12 to 25. I played drums in a cabaret duo at the weekends when I was 14 (the other member was in his 40s – we were an odd couple). I earned decent money doing that and was able to build up a nice record collection with the cash. I also did paid gigs with a jazz trio in a local wine bar between the ages of 16 and 19. Music was all I really wanted to do at that time. Then I studied fine art and went to the Royal College of Art film school, where film took over from music for a while.

Is it true you made a film about Kurt Vonnegut?

I didn’t make a documentary about Vonnegut, but whilst at the RCA I made a short film based on the preface to his 1979 novel Jailbird. I knew getting his permission was a long shot, but I had good luck the year before when I wrote to, and was encouraged by, John Cage, to make a film based on his work 4’ 33.

I wrote to Kurt Vonnegut via his UK publisher. I never really expected to hear back, but about a month later he wrote me this wonderful reply saying that he wouldn’t tell his lawyers, because they would think it was far too romantic an idea, but that I should go ahead, and make it with his blessing – and send him the finished film. I was so amazed that an American literary giant like Vonnegut would take the time to write to a student in London. I wrote & directed the ‘based on an idea by Kurt Vonnegut’ film for my graduation piece at the RCA and sent it to him. Again, he took the trouble to write back, saying he liked it. After he died, he left his personal archive to Indiana University Library. Many years later, when they published the inventory of his collection, I was touched to see that my film remained part of his collection and is now in the archive.

I seem to remember that Stewart Lee said, when I interviewed him about King Rocker, that you had ideas for films about Jake Thackray and Ted Chippington that you were pitching when you were starting out.

After I left film school, I got a job at the BBC directing film inserts for (popular science show) Tomorrows World. I had no interest in – or knowledge about – science but I just about winged it. I think I had the idea that once I was in ‘The Corporation’ I would be able to just move into any avenue of TV I chose. While working on Tomorrow’s World I proposed some documentary ideas – including films on Jake Thackray, Ted Chippington, Ivor Cutler and Robert Lloyd of The Nightingales. They were all firmly rejected! Not surprising really, I had no experience whatsoever. I realised quite quickly that the route up the ladder from four-minute items on a fun science show, to directing the next series of Arena, was going to be a very long one. It made me realise I had to move on from the BBC if I was going to get anything done quickly.

Could anything ever happen with these in the future?

It took me almost 35 years, but I eventually got to make the film about Robert Lloyd with Stewart, but I don’t think the others will come to fruition because they’ve all had documentaries made about them now. Victor Lewis-Smith made a documentary about Jake in 2006 and recently KT Tunstall made a lovely film about Cutler. Stewart Lee himself covered Ted Chippington in a short film he made for The Culture Show in 2007. One day, everyone will have had at least two documentaries made about them, so I suppose there is still a chance.

We did loads of stuff about King Rocker at We are Cult, a great film which I think I’ve watched about 15 times now. Were you pleased with the reception and the impact of the film during lockdown?

We were really happy with the reception to King Rocker. It was intended as a small, independent cinema film and – like Oxide Ghosts – Stewart and I were going to tour it around cinemas and do Q&As with it. Lockdown came just as it was finished and we had to change plans. Sky Arts had just announced that they were going to become a Freeview channel and were really interested in the film, so it had its first run on TV. I don’t think I ever thought that would happen, but in the end more people got to see it because of the Sky Arts broadcast. We have since done some cinema screenings and we hope to do more later this year. We are also slated to bring King Rocker to Blue Dot and Deer Shed festivals in the summer.

When I spoke to Stewart Lee recently he mentioned that the DVD has about 90 minutes of extras – almost an alternative version of the film? Can you tell us what is on the DVD? Will it have the brilliant Moth Club gig that you filmed?

The DVD is out on March 18th but it’s available to pre-order now. There’s about 100 mins of extras, deleted scenes, band performances from 6 music sessions and some songs from the Moth Club gig we filmed in London. It comes in a lovely book back presentation with the film soundtrack on CD included. I think it’s nice to put a lot of stuff out on the DVD, if you are going to invest in semi-obsolete physical media, it needs to have stuff you can’t get anywhere else on it. I’m perhaps biased, but there really is very little not to like about the King Rocker DVD/CD/BOOK release.

Nightingales frontman Robert Lloyd, Stewart Lee and the King Kong statue in Penrith.

What was it like getting King Rocker off the ground with Stewart? Was it enjoyable to film?

I loved working with Stewart on something we were both really into. We are both Nightingales fans and knew a certain amount about the band’s history. The rest we just worked out as we went along. We didn’t have the budget for a researcher, so it was a case of needs must. The more we talked to Rob (Lloyd), the more amazing stories came to light, and the more it became obvious that we didn’t want to make a traditional ‘rock doc’. It’s a documentary that questions the very nature of that kind of film making – where many of the contributors know absolutely nothing about the subject of the film they are in!

I think we realised quite early on that this wasn’t going to be a film that would have commissioners rushing to invest, so we decided to try and do it ourselves. My experience with Oxide Ghosts – also made entirely independently, from my garden shed/studio/HQ – was that it is possible to get a very small indie film into cinemas. We raised the money with a bit of crowdfunding, coupled with Stewart and I doing some gigs. He would do his stand-up work in progress and I would show Oxide Ghosts. That, and a lot of favours and deals, was just about enough to get it over the line.

Making a truly independent, no-budget, film is always going to be tricky. It took a long time – because Stewart and I had to fit it in around our day jobs – but it was really satisfying to have made something that was completely under our control. No executives, backers or interference of any kind. There’s a kind of purity to doing it that way that’s hard to beat.

Michael Cumming and Matt Berry on set of ‘Toast Of Tinseltown’ © Ben Meadows

I recently interviewed Matt Berry about his music and obviously you’ve worked with Matt on ‘Toast..’, ‘Snuff Box’ and other things. How did you start working with Matt and is he great to work with?

I met Matt in 2005, along with Rich Fulcher, to talk about Snuff Box. I had seen some of the bits they had done on TV before and really liked it. In fact, I actually went to meetings to talk about directing both Garth Marenghi and The Mighty Boosh. For one reason or another they hadn’t worked out.

Matt is a dream to work with for me. The further you go, the more he encourages you. We both have a shared sensibility that comes from an art school background, playing in bands and being obsessed with music. Our conversations will be as much to do with the musical feel of the show or details about the period art direction and look of the film stock as they will about the comedy.

Michael Cumming with Hanako Footman & Matt Berry on set of ‘Toast Of Tinseltown’ © Ben Meadows

Was it fun shooting the recent ‘Toast of Tinseltown’ in the States? Did any American films influence the way it was shot?  The last episode has a Once Upon A Time In Hollywood vibe.

I watched all of Hitchcock’s Hollywood pictures during lockdown and I’d like to think that a teeny, tiny bit of that crept in. Matt was influenced by the soundtrack to Columbo when writing the music. I also watched loads of Columbo while preparing for the shoot. It’s absolutely superb and I ‘borrowed’ some ideas from the way that was shot. It’s a wonderful historic/fantasy record of 1970s Los Angeles. A brilliant bit of television I think, highly recommended.

Apart from the tour have you any upcoming future projects coming up that you can mention? 

Stewart Lee and I have another film in the planning stages that we hope to start work on later in the year. This one will hopefully push the documentary form into all sorts of new and interesting places that it shouldn’t really be in.

I would love to make more Toast of Tinseltown. I really hope that we don’t have to wait another seven years before we get Toast back on the TV. If anything, I would say that the new series is even more unusual than its London counterpart, but it seems to have picked up a bigger following and the reviews have been great across the board.  It feels like it did at the very beginning – you can see heaps of possibilities for Matt’s character in the new setting and hopefully, we will get to explore it further. I think we made a ‘Toast’ version of Hollywood, where anything and everything is now possible. It’s such a joy, twenty-five years on from Brass Eye, to still be doing something that is so different to the usual shows – still playing with what television comedy is capable of.


❉ To book tickets for ‘Oxide Ghosts’ and for more information: http://www.michaelcumming.co.uk/oxide%20ghosts/

❉ Pre-order the ‘King Rocker DVD/Soundtrack: https://www.firerecords.com/product/king-rocker-ost/

 James Collingwood is based in West Yorkshire and has been writing for a number of years. He currently also writes for the Bradford Review magazine for which he has conducted more than 30 interviews and has covered music, film and theatre.  His Twitter is @JamesCollingwo1

Header image: Michael Cumming © University of Wolverhampton

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1 Comment

  1. I love so much of what Michael’s done, without knowing (until recently) that he was the guy behind it. Snuff Box is one of my favourite shows ever, and of course Brass Eye, Toast (of London) and King Rocker are all amazing. Clearly he has a great sense of what makes a show (or film) work. So it’s a little concerning that he seems unaware that Toast of Tinseltown was, a few marvellous moments aside, a bit of a dud.

    It’s peculiar to me that someone could direct such high quality TV and then come away thinking ToT was also great.

    If there is to be more, please no more like that.

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