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Pub & Bed #13

Some years ago, the Holy Dragger met for a bit of a chat with Chris Morris.

This interview originally appeared in Publish & Bedazzled #13, which is now sadly out of print.

Chris Morris worked with Peter Cook on the "Why Bother?" interviews.

"Why Bother?" is available from sources such as the BBC or
Why Bother?


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HOLY DRAGGER: Whose idea was it to team you with Peter Cook?

CHRIS MORRIS: It was the idea of the guy that 'runs' TalkBack - Peter Fincham. He'd had some chatting sessions with Peter Cook and the idea just surfaced as a result of, I don't know, he put two and two together or he thought it would be appropriate in some way because it must've fitted with something that I was doing. He'd heard some radio shows I'd done - On The Hour or the Radio 1 series. It came out in early '94, I think, Why Bother. So we recorded it during the autumn of '93.

HD: Did it take long?

CM: Three or four sessions. We did a pilot in February '93 then recorded it in November, so there were probably four sessions in all, the last of which was a sort of 'details' session, meaning putting in the beginnings and ends.

HD: How structured were the interviews?

CM: Just shoot from the hip, really. See what happens.

HD: No preparation?

CM: No. I think the preparation that existed, existed only in terms of the things we had already done. I was already quite used to going and imposing bollocks interviews on people anyway from any direction so it didn't seem much different, except with him, obviously, you could keep an idea going for much longer. There was an idea that was cut from On The Hour which I was still rabidly insisting should get on air somewhere, about an archeologist having discovered a fossil of Christ as a baby and what that would mean for the whole Christian religion. So we'd get the tapes rolling and let's talk about Sir Arthur and religion or experiments, whatever. I just said "Sir Arthur, you are going to address the Royal Society tomorrow and reveal that you have found the fossil of Christ as child." From that, he said there came a whole series of larval stages and it developed from that.
It's trying to keep some sort of logic going. It was a very different style of improvisation from what I'd been used to, working with people like Steve [Coogan], Doon [MacKichan] and Rebecca [Front], because those On The Hour and The Day Today things were about trying to establish a character within a situation, and Peter Cook was really doing 'knight's move' and 'double knight's move' thinking to construct jokes or ridiculous scenes flipping back on themselves, and it was amazing. I mean, I held out no great hopes that he wouldn't be a boozy old sack of lard with his hair falling out and scarcely able to get a sentence out, because he hadn't given much evidence that that wouldn't be the case. But, in fact, he stumbled in with a Safeways bag full of Kestrel lager and loads of fags and then proceeded to skip about mentally with the agility of a grasshopper. Really quite extraordinary.

HD: Where was it recorded?

CM: Up in Camden, can't remember the name of the place. Some radio studio.

HD: Did you have any preliminary talks about the interviews?

CM: No, just chat. He was such an affable bloke and approached it all in a rather modest way - "Ooh, just ask me, you know, we'll see what happens." I think we did talk for about quarter of an hour beforehand about, y'know, is there something we could do with the War?, but it was really to find the first question or starting point. We did do a bit of that then to get an obvious end, normally being gales of laughter, and pause for five minutes and then say "Right, tape's rolling again", and it was more fun to say "Right, Sir Arthur, you're shortly going to die", and I'd find myself thinking, "I wonder what he's going to say to that?".
It was quite odd because I felt I was half-interviewing him and half-interviewing Peter Cook. We'd find we'd been talking about something that had started innocently and had gone, er, you know, he had imported a tribe of 12-year old girls and dressed them up - or something, I can't remember.

HD: I don't remember that one.

CM: No, it wasn't on tape because it didn't go anywhere. It was Sir Arthur's experiments with some child-nurturing scheme. We'd get to the end of a recording and he'd be like, "My God!", and just be appalled at himself about where he got to. But the sessions were pretty merry.

HD: Why Bother is like Peter Cook as an Alice wandering in a Wonderland composed of elements of your comedic universe - the mental and physical tortures, the drugs, public figures being weirdly humiliated, like Leon Brittan whizzing around on a food trolley - and he does rise to the challenge.

CM: Completely. That's a good analogy. As we got to know each other through the sessions it seemed less divided like that. He pulled Leon Brittan out of nowhere. And the good thing was - and the thing that made us enjoy it - was the fact that we found the visual cartoons and people being ridiculous was something we both found very difficult not to laugh at. People will look at my stuff and say it's Dark and Death and stuff, but that's where it starts. But what it is, is always laughing at something - not because it's mentioned, i.e. just raise a subject and it's shocking, but because you get something to live in that situation until it pops in a ridiculous way. And, after all, Derek And Clive - you don't get much bleaker than...

HD: Raping a nun or-

CM: Stoop to rape a nun. That's fantastic but it's clearly a well of dark stuff. I mean, in his head, he was absolutely capable of appreciating where it was going and why. I don't think it shocked him at all. He may have shocked himself occasionally, probably because he hadn't been down that route for a while and he was thinking more about his mother than he was when he was off his head in the '70s. He was seriously thinking that - not "What would my mother say if she heard it?", but it was a thought that was at least half there. He did have a sense of propriety which Derek And Clive - the only evidence Derek And Clive show of that is that they have to have a sense of it to know they're ignoring it or driving a coach and horses through it. Whereas, he felt, in 1993, at least some compunction to pay a due sense of propriety. But he quite enjoyed not doing it.

HD: RCA were supposed to have released Why Bother, weren't they?

CM: Yes. There was a lot of rather hopeless pottering about and it just evaporated. There was a difficulty when he died of seeing the wood for the trees in terms of simple transaction. Suddenly everyone started rushing out "Peter Cook this" and "'Peter Cook that". We were thinking of doing another session when he died, which was what? Christmas?

HD: January '95.

CM: God, was it that long ago? Ninety-five! Jesus... So, we must've been thinking of meeting up in February, a wintry kind of thing, and exploring it a bit further. But the RCA thing came and went, then the BBC thing came and went and then it has come back again and I think it is on their list [of releases] for the autumn.

HD: Are there any good, salvageable outtakes that could be included in the released version?

CM: Well, I was pretty sure when I edited it first time round that we got everything of worth there was. In fact, the last programme - the fifth - had three different stories.

HD: Yes, it started with violence - the Hestletine Handy - and then the Queen's Speech.. But the opening question was about plans for the BBC orchestra, but that got forgotten as you two got sidetracking.

CM: I think we were playing with the idea that in the pre-'On Air' all sorts of things could happen - from dealing with a cough to a subject that never got raised in the interview itself. But that last programme being in bits and pieces is because, by that stage, I couldn't find a complete narrative. So I put it together as a bits and pieces thing. I don't think there's anything else from those rushes. There are about eight hours of rushes to hack down. But when you are shooting like that, a lot of it is straining for quite a long time to get into the right ballpark. Then you get there, you'll find a fertile bit and that produces a good ten minutes and then you move on and go somewhere else. Some of it's funny at the time but not funny afterwards; some of it's funny in bits but it doesn't hold together. There's quite a high wastage but you could do that on radio.

HD: Was the pilot ever broadcast?

CM: I think the pilot was the one about eels and Eric Clapton. I don't know if you can tell but I think it probably did get more complicated. I certainly wouldn't have asked him about dropping dead in the first session... What was the first one? Eels...

HD: Louis B Mayers casting couch...

CM: That's right; getting letters from someone who was "rather like Alma Cogan but without the bounce". What was she called? He mentioned her name a lot: "Lita, Lita, Lita, Rosa, Rosa, Rosa". And, ah, LA Riots [laughs]: "I like to think I mowed down as many blacks as I did whites. The Koreans did very badly out of the whole deal". Yeah, that was the staggering thing - hearing fully-formed jokes just coming out. And that gave the lie to the impression that by the end he was a sack of useless old potatoes. He was not. It was very evident that whatever he did to his brain he could still get things out fully-formed.

HD: Like Gavin the hairdresser's pre-snipping ritual, was there a pre-taping ritual you and he went through?

CM: No, he'd just turn up. Doing the first one, he was in high spirits, came in with a bottle of Champagne, celebrating the fact he'd just bought a fax and he'd been up half the night faxing world leaders with advice as to what they should to do. And he'd just chat - "Have you seen what they've done in this week's Private Eye" or "I saw that Dave Baddiel thing, it was rubbish". Then we'd wander through the studio, sit down and get the fags out, and only paused to open the doors to let the smoke out so I didn't suffer from carbon-monoxide poisoning. He was really getting through them in a sealed studio with no ventilation, air-conditioning off so it doesn't get picked up on tape. A complete fog I was wrestling. I've taken up smoking up again now but at that time I was not used to that carbon-monoxide concentration.

HD: And after the session you'd both go your separate ways?

CM: I think so. But, er, that first time I met him was at a lunch, and he'd meticulously ordered what I thought was a suspiciously healthy bit of poached cod, a big lot of spinach and some mashed potato. And he left the spinach and the cod and just ate the potato and drank wine and smoked. Obviously, he was trying. Somebody had said to him eat a few vegetables and he'd got as far as putting them on his plate, but then he thought "Ugh, don't want that". Somebody had said, "Oh, he'll probably be pissed when you meet him", and, in fact, he wasn't, but he spoke with a slur. Which seemed to me to indicate somebody who could speak perfectly well, but just couldn't be bothered to articulate precisely, when articulating in a sloppy way did just as well. He had reached that level of "Ah, fuck it" kind of thing.

HD: So, when he burst into the studio brandishing his sack of lager, you weren't filled with optimism?

CM: Well, I'd already met him informally for this meal so I kind of knew what to expect in terms of physical presentation. He did burst in one time with a mightily bloated arm. He'd stumbled around in his bathroom, and the builders had been building, and he'd fallen over a stack of tiles and cracked his arm. It was in a messy state. An enormous bruise. It was already a two-week-old wound which clearly should've been going away quicker. In fact, we did remark that you were never sure if he was going to turn up; he always did, but you always thought you might just as easily get a call saying "Sorry, he's pegged it". Because a knock on the arm doesn't blow it up to the size of a leg unless the immune system is licking its own wounds in it's own corner.
But what struck me was that, at his memorial service, Alan Bennett said, "And even in later years when he lost his powers and was not the man he was..." and you thought "BOLLOCKS!", actually. He may have presented a more shambolic figure and I'd be the last one to maintain a sentimental notion, but there was clearly a lot still going on there. And God knows what else is going on in there, but in terms of that ability and joy in ridiculous ideas, it seemed completely genuine. Completely genuine.
He seemed a very twinkly sort of person. You know, very conspiratorially amused, and not the classic hardened cynical figure that a late-in-life alcoholic tends to bring to mind. You can cross that out if it sounds too sentimental, but that's what struck me. He came in looking like a boozer, he came in looking like someone who could well have chosen to give up, and why not?, but in fact there was an alarming amount of neural activity still traceable... My memories of him are sort of broken and diffused and fragmentary. He was incandescent with indignation at having been told to stop smoking when he went to Hat Trick Productions because they have a slightly born-again attitude - all mineral water and no booze - and he just couldn't believe it. He was beside himself and unable to speak. He'd be "Oh, I'll just put this one out and I won't smoke again" and then have another one. That was about the time of Clive Anderson Talks Back, where he did the football manager: "Motivation, motivation, motivation - the Three Ms!"

HD: And as Norman House, abducted by aliens.

CM: Yes. Yeah. Otter. Good use of otter in that. [His drawing of] the shape of an otter! It was like a Greek letter.

HD: He drew two exactly alike and pointed at one saying "That's the one that took me".

CM: Yeah, very, very good. He'd obviously conserved his energies for the session and didn't do anything crazy like mount a double-decker from the top deck.

HD: So, no drugs involved in making Why Bother?

CM: No. No evidence of drugs. No track marks on the arms. You always get surprised by a fat coke-head, but no. [HD laughing] Well, you do, when you see Chaka Khan or Barry White, you think "It's an appetite suppressant, what's going on??" But I suppose for Peter, the booze would've accounted for it. But there's all kinds of rumours, aren't there? People saying he was a heroin addict right until the time he died.

HD: Who said?

CM: Fuck knows. I've read people saying that about Peter Cook. He did go through a stage when he looked like he was taking a lot of coke in the '70s, around the Revolver period. He looked very hard-beaten. But no, there was no trace of ecstasy on his breath... He wasn't sprightly enough to be on coke. He was at an even. Sort of laid-back... I knew someone who used to be a waitress in The Dome or something similar, and he used to go in there for a coffee some time in the '80s.

HD: The Dome??

CM: No, it pre-dated The Dome. It was on the Kings Road. It was one of those pale interiors, you know, espresso coffees type places. He would never give a tip but he always left an immaculately rolled joint at his table after he'd gone. Which she thought was class...

HD: I'm just absolutely amazed that Why Bother took next to no time to make with so little pre-planning, 'cos I think in years to come people will say that, after Dudley Moore, this was a brilliant, albeit short-lived, partnership.

CM: Well, I found it so stimulating and it gave me a sense of being able to risk staying up there with things till they happen. The Dudley Moore collaboration was propelled by the organic heaven-and-hell of their relationship. I think, had we gone on, it would've gone further and tried lots of different things, but I was very pleased that there was something very good about the instant way you could do something like that, and it's a cliché that's worth repeating: "You can only do it on radio". When I saw A Life In Pieces-

HD: It's boring, visually. There's a chair.

CM: And also you can see he's reading from an autocue answers from a previously worked out session. And I just know that, often with improvised stuff, it happens the first time you do it because it's happening exactly in time with the thoughts that make it, and then it falls apart for a very long time, and if you manage to rehearse it well enough it can sort of return. It's never quite the same but it can be effective enough for that not to matter. But you know that Peter was never going to last from Improvisation #1 to Rehearsal #40; he'd never do that, would he? I believe the Clive Anderson Special was prepared but there was a degree of leeway involved, so he had the space to come up with things at the time. One of the most impressive things about the show was not so much the ideas, though some of them were very funny, but the way he performed it. You could easily be forgiven for thinking he was in was in the World's Bottom Ten Actors. In many of his performances he didn't really do anything, he was being 'Peter Cook' and had a strange way of shrugging lines off, but in that show I was thinking, "I've never seen this before; he's right inside these characters."

HD: Each one has their own physical lingo.

CM: Yeah, and you're tempted to say 'crafted' although it probably wasn't.

HD: Crafty?

CM: Crafty if it looked crafted and wasn't - very crafty. It was character-acting with a real sense of character. But the thing with Why Bother was it meant you could go off with an idea and stay there as long as the idea deserved it, rather than just so long as the camera would tolerate it. That's the difference. Because if you're in the middle of Lake Ontario you're in the middle of Lake Ontario and that's where you are. That's what you've been told. You're not in the middle of Lake Ontario plus "Is that moustache he's wearing real?" or "I like the way he raised his eyebrow when you said that."

HD: Real fan-club question now: was Peter a hero of yours?

CM: Well, it's very odd. The temptation is to create an ideal football team of all-comers but I don't find it works like that. I particularly enjoyed the way he could rip a chat show to pieces the same way Spike Milligan could, by breaking all expectations of what you're going to say. So it was more just leaping at the chance to work with him for that reason. I mean, I didn't see much of Not Only But Also. I recall seeing Bedazzled when I was about 12 and liking that. And seeing him on Revolver and thinking, "That guy's wrecked". And hearing Derek And Clive when I was at school and liking that because of all the swearing.

HD: Do you think Derek And Clive stands up now?

CM: It depends on what you listen to it as. I think it represents a stage a lot of people get to. It represents a lot of things happening at the same time. It's like you're completely bored with what you've already done; not wanting to do that again; not quite knowing what to do next; knowing there's a sensation in going massively downhill like a burning bomber; being fuelled by the curiosity of what that might feel like... It's like a massive mixture of mainly negative forces that takes you there, but 'stands up'? For God's sake, I dunno. I still enjoy it, most notably when they're enjoying it. It's not so much the ideas as the degree to which they're taken. It hasn't got anything particularly delightful to savour, but sometimes their sheer rage at something they don't like... There's an absolutely rubbish pastiche of Bruce Forsyth - "I can't dance, I can't sing, wurgh wurgh wurgh" - and it's borne out of looking at a television screen and going "ARGHH!!" Or the things were they're just beginning to crack up because they can't believe where they've got to. And then just going "Fuckingcuntfuckingfuckingcuntcuntfuckningcuntyoufuckingcunt', the fact that it stops being a sketch and becomes two guys in a studio doing this becomes funny for that reason. But the best thing was Jonathan Miller, who is given to ridiculous pronouncements and God-knows-what, on some TV programme describing what happens when you're trapped into being a clown or comic. I think he was saying the desire to be a comic is primarily a young man's thing which tends to be through by the time he's 30 and, in Peter Cook's case, he had done a lot by the time he was 30 - of everything - and if you're intelligent, like he was, you just realised that you have nowhere else to go. You are landed with this gift which has reached it's sell-by date - not in terms of people wanting to listen to it but in terms of your own mentality, so you're stuck, saddled with this blessing that's become a curse. That's the way Jonathan Miller looked at it, which seems to make sense because you see how people fossilize if they try to occupy the same area... I try to keep ahead of it but it's a sort of race because you're trying to keep yourself interested because your biggest fear is being trapped with something you hate, or grow to hate...
But tell me, do you slavishly adore everything Peter's done or - ?

HD: God no. We're not uncritical.

CM: Good Because the worst thing that could ever occur is the sanctification of Peter Cook as the Princess Diana of Hampstead.

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