Brand and Ross are innocent

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.


  1. I’m wondering what’s worse: having somebody leave a message on your answerphone saying they had sex with your grandaughter, or seeing the front page of the News of the World (from the same stable that was slamming Ross & Brand) promising the lowdown on your granddaughter’s “hardcore porn video”.

  2. Other than not really agreeing with what you think of Brand (I think he’s summed up rather well by Rob Brydon here : I agree with you wholeheartedly. I think if there’s any failings in this is that the BBC let the Mail (and those wishing to beat the BBC) win when there shouldn’t have been any question of winners or losers.

    The real shame of all this is that people are so willing to dismiss such a wonderful wonderful organisation on such a minor infraction of what is considered good taste.

    Long live the BBC !

    DW x

  3. I’m 21, I detest the Daily Mail and I really never had any time for Russel Brand’s style of comedy. Leaving an abusive answerphone message isn’t ‘edgy’ – it’s pathetic and mundane. True, Sachs knew what he was letting himself in for by agreeing to go on the show to promote his book – but did that really entitle Ross and Brand to treat him however they wanted?

    My strong opinions aside, I (like any other right-thinking person) recognises that this whole thing has been blown way out of proportion. I also wish that Thomson had called out the Daily Mail for its insidiously planned incitement to quasi-religious hatred and dealt only with the specific issue at hand (i.e the offensive language and tone of the show being appropriate or not). The BBC should not have to defend itself from criticism of everything it does everytime something goes wrong. All that will achieve is a dilution of quality, which is the opposite of what most people want.

    This being said, the reason that the story has stayed in the public eye is because other, related issues – celebrity pay and influence, the BBC’s relationship with Ofcom and the effectiveness of the BBC Trust, concern over the responsible spending of license fees – have all caught fire from the initial debate. These are clearly areas people feel very strongly about, and so it would be prudent of the BBC to keep this in mind and at least make some movements to show that it is constantly thinking about how best to address these concerns.

    I think that the blog-based response system that you spoke about, whilst certainly not ideal, would therefore be a solid step in the right direction.

  4. I’m 54. The Russell Brand Show was my favourite radio programme. I found it to be an honest and frequently hilarious report of an ascent up the celebrity ladder. I think things went slightly awry when his mate, Matt Morgan, was not available to calm his more hyperactive rantings. Anyway, the Daily Mail has succeeded in making my life just a fraction less enjoyable by forcing his resignation.

  5. I agree with you. I got the sense they all got a bit carried away but really the bottom line is: it was a pre-record. What is the purpose of a pre-record? So the pre-recorded content can be monitored and edited if neccessary. Furthermore, the thing that really pissed me off is that 26,989 of the so-called 27,000 offendees were more likely people who had read about it in The Daily Scrote (Mail) rather than actually listened to it. I have not really known quite what to do with myself now there are such gaping holes in Saturday radio programming. Ross and Brand were an integral part of the cooling up if you like of Radio 2 – other than that what are we left with? Sarah Kennedy and Terry Wogan! They too have their place but not the place that Ross and Brand filled. The big lesson and sadly the main issue here was that the BBC did not have their eye on the ball fast enough and have lost not just two great revenue/ratings earners but quite a bit of respect in the long run.

  6. After the Daily Mail’s Ministry of Approved Entertainment has finished, broadcasting in Britain will be an eternity of 70’s knock-knock jokes sprinkled on a bed of soft porn. And everything which breaches its code of political correctness will be banished to outer darkness.
    It seems that the Mail still can’t decide whether it likes political correctness or not, it all seems to depend on which way it’s pointing.

  7. Milton’s Famous Defence of Liberty. (400 anniversary this year)

    “If we think to regulate printing, thereby to rectify manners, we must regulate all recreation and pastimes, all that is delightful to man. No music must be heard, no song be set or sung, but what is grave and Doric. There must be licensing dancers, that no gesture, motion, or deportment be taught our youth but what by their allowance shall be thought honest; for such Plato was provided of. It will ask more than the work of twenty licensers to examine all the lutes, the violins, and the guitars in every house; they must not be suffered to prattle as they do, but must be licensed what they may say. And who shall silence all the airs and madrigals that whisper softness in chambers? The windows also, and the balconies must be thought on; there are shrewd books, with dangerous frontispieces, set to sale; who shall prohibit them, shall twenty licensers? The villages also must have their visitors to inquire what lectures the bagpipe and the rebeck reads, even to the ballatry and the gamut of every municipal fiddler, for these are the countryman’s Arcadias, and his Monte Mayors.”

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