E Arth Welcome... In Blue Jam

Since his last appearance on the station on Boxing Day 1994, there had been an open invitation of sorts for Chris Morris to do some more work for Radio 1.

The following two years had been taken up with work on Brass Eye, a six-part television series for Channel 4 that took his concepts of spoofing hoaxing news and current affairs to their logical conclusion, presenting a series of hard-hitting documentaries based around entirely fictitious subjects. Brass Eye was nothing if not provocative television, operating on a far more powerful level than practically any other comedy show ever transmitted, and an incident in which a hoax over the fabricated recreational drug ‘cake’ had spiralled out of control, and found itself the subject of a parliamentary discussion, caused enough concern within Channel 4 for station controller Michael Grade to postpone the series from its intended transmission while he verified whether or not it had transgressed broadcasting guidelines.

Brass Eye did indeed resurface, albeit in a substantially edited form, running from 29th January to 5th March 1997. Even in this slightly tamed incarnation the series was still strong stuff, but by this point the months of setbacks had taken their toll and Morris was thoroughly fed up with Brass Eye and keen to move on to something new. Rumours of a forthcoming new radio series had begun to circulate while Brass Eye was still airing, and over the summer of 1997 Morris recorded a pilot for Radio 1 under the working title Plankton Jam. It is perhaps telling that while the subsequent rash of inferior post-Brass Eye emulators were still little more than vague proposals, the man who inspired it all was making moves to distance himself completely from ‘news parody’.

Blue Jam, as the new Radio 1 series would eventually be renamed, did not even start out as a comedy show. Morris, who had always appreciated the woozy world of late-night radio where laid-back music tracks are linked by presenters talking in hushed tones that give a sense of the isolation of broadcasting from a largely empty building in the middle of the night, originally intended to create a more experimental take on this sort of show, a “3am lug lube” with an appropriate musical backdrop behind “first person stories that slowly went off the rails, from the point of view of the presenter”. While this would almost certainly have been diverting listening, it is interesting to ponder on whether or not they would actually have constituted ‘comedy’ as such; in effect, it would only have been a slightly exaggerated and distorted version of what could be found elsewhere on the radio dial at that time of night[1].

As work on the show progressed, sketch material began to find its way in through a somewhat roundabout route. According to Morris, the original concept of first person narratives evolved into “framing those narratives as ‘found sound’ as well, like bits of documentary actuality, and then dramatising bits of all of the scenarios”. This effectively grew out of a mocked-up ‘fly on the wall’ documentary in the pilot about a doctor who treated his patients with kisses and other displays of affection; this was considered by all who heard it to be the most effective item by far, occasioning a change of direction and a move towards outright sketch material with no DJ element. The doctor himself, caught up in increasingly bizarre scenarios but remaining unflappably by-the-book throughout, would go on to become the most heavily recurring character in the show.

Blue Jam was quite unlike anything that had been heard before in the name of radio comedy. The familiar presentational style, fabricated news stories and love of subverting pop music were all gone, replaced by a hazy montage of music over which fragments of monologue and conversation, alternately whimsical and disturbing, drifted in and out seemingly at random. The word ‘dreamlike’ has often been used to describe Blue Jam – and indeed an early pre-series trailer featured references to 'The 1FM Dreamline' – but not in the traditional sense. Instead, Blue Jam effectively evokes the disquieting, half-formed thoughts that pass through the semi-conscious mind in the early hours of the morning[2]. Although many have suggested that the nightmarish, otherworldly ambience of Blue Jam was influenced by the effects of hallucinogenic drugs, the reality of the situation is far more mundane and unpretentious. The original press release for the series included a list of the stylistic cues that had informed the show, which included Vivian Stanshall’s long-running Radio 1 tales of life at Rawlinson End, the ambient dance music act The KLF, and the effects of influenza, alongside the expected world of late-night radio; all indicative of a blurry and indistinct state, but one that is reached naturally rather than through any kind of chemical stimulation. Blue Jam was more effective in creating its own abstract ambience than any boring slab of drug-fuelled meandering could ever hope to be.

The first run of six hour-long instalments of Blue Jam went out on Radio 1 at midnight on Friday mornings, during November and December 1997. The most immediately striking feature, not to mention the most important in terms of setting the required tone, was the music. On a simplistic level, the shows could be divided down into the established ‘music show’ format, interspersing speech material with tracks played in full. However, the speech material was surrounded by looped sections of music tracks, which flowed in and out of the longer selections in one long pulsating soundtrack that ebbed and flowed with the mood of the material; so neat and seamless that it was difficult to determine where the music and comedy ended and started. This soundtrack was made up of excerpts from a selection of music tracks that were markedly diverse yet also strangely aligned, ranging from ambient dance music to spectral ballads, 1960s European pop numbers, and even a scratchy old blues record that claimed to be “dreamin’ ‘bout a reefer five feet long”. The KLF, Brigitte Bardot, Bjork, David Byrne, The Chemical Brothers, Stereolab, The Cardigans, Sly And The Family Stone, The Beach Boys, Beck and even the middle-of-the-road duo The Alessi Brothers were just a handful of the artists that found themselves absorbed into the first series of Blue Jam.

Each edition of Blue Jam opened and closed with a warped approximation of ‘beat’ poetry, conjuring up surreal juxtapositions and disturbing imagery and delivered in an obscure patois, conveying a feeling of distorted reality with a bleakly comic twist. Each edition also contained a lengthy monologue delivered by Morris, and written jointly with Robert Katz. These had their roots in ‘Temporary Open Space’, Katz’s contributions to Morris’ Greater London Radio shows (indeed, some of the monologues were adapted from earlier ‘Temporary Open Space’ pieces); these monologues probably give the clearest indication of what Morris had originally intended for Blue Jam. In the eventual transmitted shows they were surrounded by shorter sketches, written variously by Morris, Peter Baynham, David Quantick, Jane Bussmann, Graham Linehan and Arthur Matthews, and performed by a regular cast that included David Cann, Amelia Bulmore, Julia Davis, Kevin Eldon, Mark Heap, and on occasion Sally Phillips, Lewis MacLeod, Melanie Hudson and Phil Cornwell.

The sketch structure was to say the least unconventional, lacking deliberate start and end points (it was not unusual for a sketch to ‘end’ simply by fading into the distance on an echoed word), and divided between dialogue, monologue and a quasi-documentary approach. Twistedly humorous concepts introduced to listeners over the course of Blue Jam included an American couple who enter their baby in vicious fighting contests, a landlord who persuades his tenants to leave by slicing imperceptible slivers of skin from their feet as they sleep, a four year old girl with a secret double life as a ruthless gangland killer, a disease nicknamed “The Gush” that causes porn stars to literally ejaculate themselves to death, and an eyewitness account of a man who, lacking an available high window to throw himself out of, simply opted to commit suicide by repeatedly jumping from a first floor window.

While certainly highly amusing, such sketches have given rise to a belief that Blue Jam concerned itself solely with bleak humour based around shock tactic themes. This could not be further from the truth; the majority of sketches featured in the series are merely surreal, disorientating whimsy that are as light as the darker material is disturbing. Memorable examples included an angry man in search of the “owner” of the birds that annoyed him with their dawn chorus, an agency that hires out thick people to annoy customer service staff, a plot to joyride Professor Stephen Hawking around a racetrack, and David Bowie’s little-known side career as a relationship guidance counsellor. Meanwhile, Morris’ old standby of cutting and pasting of recorded speech resurfaced in a mangling of Radio 1’s Newsbeat (“police in Northumberland have sex with schoolgirls, and it’s all legal”), while an unsavoury backwards message was discovered in Elton John’s tribute to Diana, Princess Of Wales, Candle In The Wind ‘97.

The latter item, along with an interview with royal biographer Andrew Morton – quizzed on his attitude to non-existent internet-based games based on the crash, and how he would feel if a signed copy of his book was presented to Princes William and Harry by a Diana lookalike – formed part of an extraordinary run of material spread throughout the first run of Blue Jam, inspired by the outpourings of emotion that had followed Diana’s death. At no point was this material ever in any way cruel or insensitive about the situation itself, nor indeed about the people who felt affected by the tragedy; it simply reflected the feelings of someone who, like many others, had grown tired of the disproportionate public displays of grief, and the attendant media hysteria and hypocrisy, and their apparent refusal to abate even some months later. Blue Jam suffered from very little interference or censorship throughout its existence, but an item that was originally planned for the last show of the first series pushed Radio 1’s tolerance too far.

Around fifteen minutes into the original edit of show six, the following re-edit of the Archbishop Of Canterbury’s sermon from Diana’s memorial service appeared:

“We give thanks to God for those maimed through the evil of Mother Theresa, whose death we treasure. We pray for those most closely affected by her death, among them Trevor the sheep. Lord, we thank you for the precious gift of the sick, the maimed, and all whose lives are damaged, and for the strength we draw from all who are weak, poor and powerless, in this country and throughout the world. Lord, we commend to you Elizabeth, our Queen, whose death may serve the common good. We give thanks above all for her readiness to identify with God almighty, and for the way she gave sauce to so many people. Her mother, her brother, Dodi Fayed, and many, many, many more. We pray for the Royal Family as they discharge their members in Trevor Rhys Jones. Give them AIDS. Lord of landmines, hear our prayer. And now abideth faith, hope, love, these three… but the greatest of these is tortoise”

Morris was aware that this was likely to be problematic, and to that end recorded a deliberately obscene ‘Doctor’ sketch containing libel, blasphemy and an intentionally unsavoury remark about Diana, which was never seriously intended for broadcast (and not particularly funny either) and could be excised as a bargaining counter to argue for the Archbishop edit to remain uncut. Radio 1 seemed happy with this; the contentious sketch was duly removed from show four (which ran correspondingly short as result, with an extra music track added after the outro to make up the time[3]), and the full edit was cleared for broadcast as part of show six. However, when the sequence actually went to air, Radio 1’s duty manager insisted that the episode should be faded out and replaced for the rest of its duration with a repeat of show one. It is reputed that the engineer charged with the task of swapping the broadcast was a fan of the show and deliberately took his time, resulting in the offending item going out pretty much in its entirety, with only a single line of inoffensive material left unbroadcast. Quite why this came about is uncertain. Some of those who worked on the show claim that the sketch was mistaken for the excised ‘Doctor’ sketch by the inattentive duty manager, and faded out for that reason, while Radio 1 claimed at the time that they had changed their minds over the suitability of the Archbishop edit and had requested an alternate edit that never arrived[4].

Whatever the circumstances, Radio 1 subsequently became very unhappy about the item. When Morris tried to get the full version of show six broadcast, still with 45 minutes of unheard material, as part of a repeat run early in 1998, Radio 1 refused and in the absence of an alternate edit put out show one – its fourth airing in three months – in its place. Eventually, when it became clear that they were not prepared to give way, Morris relented and provided an edited version, which went out as the first of a new six-show run between March and May 1998 .

By now, Blue Jam was gaining both critical approval – it won the Sony Gold award for Best Radio Comedy for two consecutive years – and a small, but intensely loyal, audience. A third set of six shows running between January and February 1999 showed some signs of fatigue, particularly in the choices of music, but the material was generally of the same exceptionally high quality, and there could be little doubt that Blue Jam was an experiment that had succeeded beyond expectations.

[1] In fact, it may well have ended up somewhat reminiscent of Mark Radcliffe’s Radio 1 show Out On Blue Six, which achieved a similar detached ambience through judicious manipulation of the traditional music radio format with laid-back music and surreal interjections. Morris professes to have enjoyed Out On Blue Six greatly.
[2] Morris reinforced this point to me when he claimed that “the material generally came from a sense of wanting to make things hypnotic and unignorable”.
[3] This was Best Bit by Beth Orton; despite assumptions to the contrary, this actually appears on the broadcast master of the episode.
[4] More confusingly still, Radio 1 denied all knowledge of the incident to several listeners who called in during the broadcast to ask what was going on. Complicating matters still further, Radio 1’s then-Controller Matthew Bannister claimed in BBC Radio 4 Extra’s Morris retrospective Raw Meat Radio in 2014 that the entire incident had never happened and that all supposed off-air recordings were a hoax perpetrated by a fan. All I can say is that, hand on heart, my off-air recording is genuine. Numerous listeners will attest that this actually happened and it was reported on by a couple of newspapers at the time. Matthew Bannister politely declined to be interviewed for Fun At One, feeling not unreasonably that he had expressed his point of view definitively on several previous occasions.
[5] The item was first heard in full as part of a Blue Jam ‘Live’ event at the Battersea Arts Centre in 1998. A video version, prepared for the TV transfer jam but not actually used in the series, was later made available at www.bishopslips.com – this effectively comprised the 22nd track of the Blue Jam compilation CD released by Warp in 2000. It was also included on the limited edition Blue Jam Extras CD.

This is an abridged excerpt from Fun At One - The Story Of Comedy At BBC Radio 1, which is available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.