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
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
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
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
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.
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
HD: Do you think Derek And Clive stands up
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