The Russell Brand show was outstanding radio and didn’t deserve censure.
I’m just going to come out and say this because I have a feeling you might not agree with me (at least not if you’re over about 35). The Russell Brand show—the one with Andrew Sachs’ answerphone—was absolutely brilliant. Offensive and childish (clever Howard Jacobson in The Independent calls it ‘front bottom babyishness’) but also genuinely exciting. I imagine you’ll think me shallow now, or worse, collusive in cruelty to elderly actors, but I’ve listened to the whole show and it’s very funny—in that hands-over-your-ears, can’t-bear-to-listen kind of way that edgy comedy ought to be.
Brand is a charismatic radio performer. Jacobson says “when he winks at you, you stay winked.” His schtick is an adrenaline-rush of allusion and filth: some clever, some bewildering and some just plain dumb but all of it genuinely electrifying. I don’t want to overdo this but I won’t be the first to say that he’s got a lot of the Lenny Bruce or the young Mick Jagger about him, a lot of that edge-of-your-seat, anything-could-happen amphetamine tension that raises the heartrate and makes your palms sweat. It’s thrill-a-minute stuff.
The show in question, of course, also features Jonathan Ross and right from the beginning it’s clear that Ross is in the driving seat. Practically everything lewd and insulting comes from his mouth and the whole tone of the show is set by Ross. He’s a big presence at the BBC and a big presence in the show too, an overbearing figure in fact: forcing the pace and driving Brand to go further and further. Listen to some of Brand’s other shows and you’ll get plenty of ‘dick sacks’ and orgasms and libidinous chit-chat but nothing as aggressive or insulting as you do on this occasion. If there’s a villain in this affair, it’s definitely Ross.
But the thing is, there’s no villain. There’s nothing wrong with the show. It’s really hardcore, really edgy stuff but not a sacking offence and definitely not cause for the tearing down of the licence fee or the demolition of the BBC or even the initiation of a ‘national debate’ or a ‘period of introspection’ as the Corporation’s enemies would have you believe. The show went out after the watershed on a Saturday night with a prominent warning about strong language. Brand’s been on the air for a long time too, plenty of time for any potential listener to understand where he’s coming from. This, of course, explains why the show got two complaints on transmission: an entirely proportionate number for a show of this kind.
And there’s more. Andrew Sachs, the innocent victim, had been booked to come on the show to promote a TV programme he’s presenting appearing in. ITV’s press office His publicist or his manager presumably hustled to get him on the show in the first place. Calls were made, producers cajoled, lunches promised. Sachs knew what to expect. I think this explains Sachs’ diffidence about the furore: he knew he was no victim. He was doing his marketing duty and he’d cocked it up by being out when Brand called. Earlier in the show, Dennis Norden—even more elderly, even more revered—navigated the Ross/Brand experience with aplomb. He too was on the air to promote something. If he’d got an earful of filth it might not have been nice but it would have been the price of entry and probably just as funny.
What went wrong here, of course, was all in the management of the fall-out from the Mail on Sunday’s hatchet job, in Radio 2’s disastrous executive inertia and in the naivety of allowing Ross and Brand’s implacable enemies at The Mail to control the story for days. But I’ve written about all that over at Common Platform. Have I got this wrong? Should the BBC really have caved in so cravenly? Could Thompson not have come back from his holiday with a robust defense in his briefcase and told The Mail where to get off? Listen to the show yourself, and tell me what you think.