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Home > Culture and Society

TVjism: 'Neil Morrissey's Secret'

27 March 2006

The human mind is a humbling thing. Its capacity for imagination is almost beyond the capacity of our imagination. And yet sometimes we're forcibly reminded that our brains are still those of animals. Every time we sweat in fear before a job interview that feels like life or death; every time our glorious mental energies slither ignobly crotchwards; but also on occasion when we slob out in front of the telly. Our brains can comprehend the most complex ideas, and are well up to understanding that television is not reality - but only up to a point. There are people who cannot grasp the concept that the EastEnders they share their living room with are actually actors with cut-glass accents. And manifest eejits they are. But then it's hard on the primeval brain, telly. Sometimes you find yourself feeling slightly mopey that you don't have the fabulous life of a fictional character, because although you *know* it's all sets and lighting and make-up and tosh, your eyes have sent a message to your brain that what you're observing is in some sense real. And then sometimes you find yourself believing that Neil 'Wahey!' Morrissey is a mad botanist who's discovered the secret of youth. Ho hum.

We happened upon 'Neil Morrissey's Secret' on the still rather embarrassing BBC Three one evening this week, and within five minutes were secured to the screen, jaw agape. It was a documentary following Morrissey, best known for being the one you'd go for if Martin Clunes was the only other man left alive, as he followed his dream of harnessing the power of a rare plant. Turns out he's been an obsessive botanical whiz for many years and has gone around the world tinkering with formulae between gigs. We were impressed. How easy it is, we mused, to underestimate actors, musicians, models - Helen Christensen is a renowned photographer now after all. Morrissey was intensely serious, in contrast to his irksomely daffy roles, with the solemnity of the true luvvie; he was deeply involved in a dubious project, the exposition of which made tense viewing. He went to Jordan, where he'd apparently been many times before to visit a formerly nomadic tribe who'd settled in a tiny village. They were all beautiful, clear-skinned, and attributed it to a tea they drank which included a particular herb which sprouted in the barren hills, and their own piss. Ah. Stop here for parody checkpoint. Do some people espouse the drinking of piss for health? Yes. Could a Westerner have a rather violent, but still not preposterous, hallucinogenic reaction to ingesting a herb that a tribe's collective digestive system has no trouble with? Logical enough. As you were.

Morrissey, disturbing zeal in his dark eyes, takes over a farmhouse in Wales and has some people synthesise the plant into a topical formula, then hides some of his actor friends away in a converted stable and tests it on them until it shows miraculous rejuvenative results. Phillippa Forrester tries it out. Any inclination for our mind to flee into the grim yet succouring woods of cynicism is deflected by the absolute flat calm surface of seriousness. No one mugs, no one says anything immediately wacky, the voiceover has never been more serious about anything in its life, only it's not self-conscious about it. Pray continue. Morrissey launches the awesome beautifying goop in a jar. The highly dubious ethics of profiting from this are constantly screaming in the background and are occasionally muttered in the foreground by various commentators including that bloke from 'Cold Feet' and academics with authentically bad, but not certifiable hair. Cosmetics companies have it in for him. Someone breaks into the laboratory and steals papers. Morrissey turns frighteningly angry. Is Neil Morrissey an especially good actor? No, no. Shh. He rushes back to the village in Jordan and finds it deserted. The people are gone, the families, the animals. He stands lost on the dusty path, voice and posture full of guilt and bewilderment and shellshocked horror. Pan back to show desolation of Jordanian landscape. Sad music. Credits, breezy announcer bellows 'Next on BBC Three it's a barrel of laughs with 'Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps'!' We realise some manner of insect has taken the opportunity to crawl into our mouth and make a little nest.

Staggering to the welcoming arms of Google we discover it's a load of happy horseshit. We're relieved. And a bit ashamed. And impressed. And strangely unhappy. And a bit over-stimulated. We were happy at the evidence that we haven't yet crusted over completely - it's pleasant to find you still have some credulousness, a smidgin of vestigial innocence tempering the adult weariness. We were also happy that this awful tension between someone's ostensibly selfless idealism and a real moral mire doesn't actually exist, and the same goes for the shat-on tribe. But when you get invested in an idea, it takes a while to pop its clogs, and lolls around your mind wheezing and rotting distressingly. The other source of happiness was an odd new respect for Morrissey, who gave no indication he was capable of such a performance during his work on 'TV's Naughtiest Blunders', and a gobsmacked admiration for the programme-makers who had succeeded in creating and sustaining such a work of satire.

But there's the rub. It wasn't satirising anything in particular. It was satire for its own sake. And it worked in one of the only ways satire can still work - by presenting a basic situation so ridiculous that it was more likely to be true than fabricated, while carefully muting all the details into credible mundanity. They suggested that an unspectacular actor had some hidden intellectual life, but they didn't give the plant a wacky name. It was skilful manipulation. Unfortunately, with all the stuff about tribes of people keeping their own traditions alive and protected from intrusion, they fucked up a bit. It was a dirty televisual trick. It's not like there aren't real people like that, living precariously and having to up and fuck off elsewhere to survive because of the rampaging interests of others. Drinking their own piss or not. If the thing had been some sort of prod at shallow Western greed, it would have been justified - maybe that
intention was there, but it really seemed not to have any target but its viewers. It seems like a bit of a waste of energy, and a lot of energy went into it.

Telly hoaxes have enormous power to infuriate, and therefore to stimulate - always a good thing, ultimately. Derren Brown pissed off a lot of people who'd been genuinely afraid he was going to blow his cute goatee'd head off when he did his Russian Roulette stunt. We were so thrilled by that, we didn't give a rodent's upper thigh how much reality was in it at all - we'd been more excited than we'd ever been by anything else on telly, pretty much, and so didn't feel at all cheated. It was a rare moment of genius. And it upset people in various ways, outraged them even, made them angry for the truth of what had actually happened, when ordinarily they couldn't care less. It may not have meant much in itself but it had fascinating effects. 'Neil Morrissey's Secret' shouldn't really be put in the same bracket, being the slightly classier cousin of Channel 4's 'Space Cadets', which took mean-spirited mind-fuckery to an irredeemable level. 'Secret' was very clever and hats off to it, but ultimately its only concern was itself, and it couldn't help but leave an unpleasant taste in the mouth. Rather like camomile tea made with piss.

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