Thursday, April 27, 2000 by

jam ended with the image of someone pissing themselves – literally. A wholly apt scene to conclude the whole series – being simultaneously unsettling, ironic, and deeply contrived.

All the media hyperbole and sycophancy which surrounded the advent and transmission of jamvirtually militated against your average “interested viewer” responding to the programmes in anything other than extremes: you were expected, almost, to take either a fiercely defensive or resolutely negative stance. It was virtually given that you could not think the series was simply “OK” or that your thoughts on jam came down to mere mild indifference; it almost felt – certainly reading the media comment and reaction to jam - that any serious viewer was meant to surely either “get” jam - and embrace it 100% – or trash it completely. This was Chris Morris after all: you had to react, you had to have a strong opinion – that was the whole point. Casual disdain was not a legitimate emotion.

It’s almost 10 years now since the brilliant On The Hour (1991-92) began out of nowhere on Radio 4 – an unbelievably dazzlingly inventive hysterical and daring series that, in this reviewer’s view, remains Morris’ best work. His input, balanced by that of various writers and performers who were in effect full-scale collaborators, resulted in a rounded, perfectly realised production that was then virtually equaled on television by The Day Today (1994). But as soon as that number of collaborators and co-writers dropped away – with Brass Eye (1997) – it’s possible to argue that Morris suffered from the loss of a degree of balance and ballast which had previously teased out some of his very best work; usurping his colleagues, Morris was allowed to become too obsessive and display control freak tendencies previously kept in check by others. The result was not so much constructive TV as angry, destructive television, and the overriding sense that Morris was ultimately only railing against the frustrations of his own inability to realise his ideas rather than any specific media targets and conventions.

Come jam, and we find Chris Morris dangling in the wind, creating moments of unforgettable shock alongside exercises in tawdry tedium. And crucially, that jam itself represented neither wholly one nor the other of these extremes, does suggest more than anything else a botched job – in that any idea to make a wholly consistently shocking, or a wholly consistently (and deliberately) bland series, has failed, as jam is both these simultaneously – which in the end is merely gross indecision.

Those moments in the series that were striking and shocking were very very powerful; at points the programme became almost elegiac and deeply mournful, lamenting and pitying the kind of traits, foibles and confrontations Morris had devised. More often than not a sketch ended with one or all the characters actually quite troubled, upset and genuinely feeling a loss – of confidence, sanity, hope or a more physical loss, the loss of a limb, or of a child. Compounding these moments was the strongest element to jam: the music – this was consistently and uniformly affecting, cleverly chosen to create an ambience, a canvas upon which Morris could etch his morality tales and skewed dénouements. The sound of the series is perhaps the thing which will stay in the mind the longest – an aural world of subdued smeared instrumentals and smudged voices where you could never be quite sure what you heard.

The question of Chris Morris fans and where jam fits into the Morris canon is significant: because it often felt while watching the series as if Chris Morris’ fans were simply being delivered up a familiar repertoire of “Morrisisms” for them to tick off their check-list:
i) a musical parody
ii) some graphic nudity
iii) meaningless syntax and semantics
iv) a figure in authority appearing completely insane
v) plenty of references to genitalia
vi) physical torture and mutilation
- and so on. In doing this, who was Morris pleasing or appeasing – a core long-term fraternity, or was he actually up to something more subtle, more subversive, out to wind up his own fans, his reputation, his own legacy?

This is not being flippant – as most of the sketches could be reduced to one basic conceit: an inversion of conventional responses to a given situation, i.e. characters behaving, speaking and emoting in a manner utterly at odds with the context and what they’d be expected to do. Much of the series was in essence a string of variations on this theme, and while engaging and witty for the first few episodes, by episode five in particular this concept had become intensely tiresome and predictable – neither exciting, funny or in any way significant. I imagine the same feelings would have set in and at exactly the same point whatever order the programmes were screened in – sequentially the episodes could’ve been completely reordered to little effect, other than that the material in shows five and six would probably have appeared just as fresh and invigorating as shows one and two had they been chosen to open the series rather than close it.

Either way, though, jam became too predictable – something you could never ever accuse of either On The HourThe Day Today or Brass Eye. Morris seemed to lose his sense of dramatic structure – sketches suddenly started feeling too long, and pointlessly drawn out or repetitive (the sex-for-mortgages in episode five for example), leaving you feeling almost indifferent to what you were seeing; and the realisation you are watching a Chris Morris series but not in anyway being moved, stimulated or repulsed – just a bland nothingness. Again, though – was this deliberate?

Overall, whatever agenda Morris may have had with jam, the impact of the series was compromised by an ultimately very base factor: the acting. The last time Morris worked with a regular ensemble cast - The Day Today - the recurring reappearance’s of each respective performer “worked” in the sense that for the most part they were playing specific characters supposed to reappear each week (being all employees of the same news TV network). What’s more, this particular cast became these characters very well – the acting was a uniformly high standard – and crucially none of them had really been seen on TV much before, if at all. Withjam, the effectiveness of the ensemble was fatally undermined by the fact we knew who all of them were – Morris having imported more or less the entire cast of BBC2′s Big Train (1998) en mass. Moreover, none of them really, at the end of the day, were overwhelming striking actors. None gripped you with their characterisation, none of them realised the demands and functions of the sketches they found themselves in; worst of all, in terms of failing to in any way blur the line between reality and artifice, was Kevin Eldon, who never delivered a strong performance. Eldon never really lived up to or responded to the context within which he had been placed; in other words, he was never as angry as he needed to be at certain points, and conversely neither ineffectual or disdainful as the script demanded elsewhere. This ghastly miscasting irked throughout the whole series and militated against the successful dissemination of the full significance of much of jam‘s dramatic narrative.

In conclusion: was the whole project, then, conceived as a massive in-joke on the part of Chris Morris, to annoy both Channel 4, his fans and the wider viewing audience with six weeks about really very little at all? Was it simply a childish and juvenile prank, akin to rummaging through a dictionary at school looking for the rude words, then scrawling them on the blackboard behind the teacher’s back? This kind of methodology is certainly hinted at by the way Morris first seemed to want to break down conventions of TV comedy presentation and expectation but offered no cognisant agenda (or anti-agenda) in its place – for even Brass Eye was not simply mocking current affairs reportage for the fun of it. The much lauded technical innovations and subversions, for instance, regarding actual visual presentation of the sketches seemed to actually decrease and dry up by around half way through the series – the eye-catching deployment of phased tracking shots and reverse negative monochrome filtering that worked so well within sketches in the first couple of episodes had all but vanished completely by episode five.

C4 boss Michael Jackson was clearly eager to give Chris Morris the chance for a sustained bout of self-indulgence (and to demonstrate to anyone who’d listen that he was no Michael Grade, and was prepared to if not forgive than certainly forget the Brass Eye controversies) and six episodes of the most interesting and problematic TV of the year was the result. That it wasn’t actually “good” television is acknowledging the limitations of conventional discourse to respond to a series which cannot effectively be judged by established criteria and needs something else than just “it was good” or “it was boring” to deconstruct it. That Morris did not ultimately provide us with that set of criteria is, of course, the whole point. What he did do, however, is to capitalise on all the publicity and attention surrounding the broadcast of jam and, in doing so, finally legitimise casual disdain as a permitted response to a Chris Morris programme.



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