2 Nov 2008

The latest Russell Brand furore: India Knight is again right on the money

OK, snapshot of what happened. BBC Radio 2 (and TV) personalities Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross got into a lot of trouble (Brand had to resign from the BBC, Ross suspended for 3 months) over some prank phone calls they made to the 78-year-old actor and former co-star of classic comedy series Fawlty Towers, Andrew Sachs.

The calls, left on Sachs' answering machine after he'd failed to turn-up for an interview on Brand's show, detailed how (and this is true) Brand had slept with the actor's granddaughter (with Ross yelling, "He fucked your daughter!" down the line) and how Sachs would be so upset at the prospect that he might kill himself. The "jokes" were in bad taste and out of order, certainly (you can listen to them here), but the whole thing was blown completely out of proportion by the notoriously-always-blowing-things-out-of-proportion-and/or-calling-for-someon's-head right-wing UK newspaper The Daily Mail.

Tellingly, the BBC had received only 19 complaints from the millions who listen to the radio show in the first couple of days after broadcast. However, when the Mail got their righteous-indignation train running, the BBC had recieved up to 30,000 complaints as of today (a full week after broadcast).

Once you know some of the finer details of the case (who Andrew Sachs granddaughter is and how she makes a living, how someone from the BBC decided to broadcast the tape knowing the contents, how no-one was really offended until the Mail suggested they SHOULD be offended), you may have a different opinion of the entire brouhaha.

India Knight, the author of the article featured in my previous Russell Brand post, wrote the following article for this week's Sunday Times and again hits the nail on squarely on its head...

From The Sunday Times (original article here)

November 2, 2008

Pity the women who come within range of Brand and Ross
India Knight

I am utterly nonplussed by the Russell Brand-Jonathan Ross fallout. What’s with the insanely disproportionate reaction? Grovel a much-needed apology, by all means, then grovel some more, but why the need for ritual disembowelling?

Brand “resigns”; Ross is suspended without pay for three months; the controller Lesley Douglas, who is revered by her creative stable, falls on her sword; and Radio 2 self-harms in order to assuage 30,000 members of the public - a few streets’ worth - because two clever, talented men made a grotesquely tasteless joke, for which they apologised profusely - if late in the day.

The corporation’s desire to show moral backbone has left it looking spineless. The millions of viewers and listeners who didn’t complain are left deprived of the entertainment that they, too, pay their licence fee for. What on earth is going on?

Let’s just rewind. Two broadcasters with huge fan bases, hired because they are edgy, motormouthed and volatile, make a series of revolting but impromptu (that is, not cruelly premeditated) jokes. The jokes are directed at a 78-year-old man. It’s not nice. But, first: when did the public start equating the elderly with helpless babies?

Andrew Sachs has been completely infantilised throughout this saga, as though he were a simple-minded toddler rather than a man who has spent his life working in show business and is perhaps not unfamiliar with its more robust excesses. But no: here he is, presented as a doddery old gramps who must be protected from the big mean boys on his answering machine, as though 78 years of experience - not all of it spent doing crosswords by the fire, presumably - count for nothing. I find this weird and not terribly realistic.

Also, if my granddaughter was a self-styled Satanic Slut who earned her living by staging peculiar bloodletting scenarios for pervs (Cheerleader Massacre, anyone?) and defined herself on her MySpace page as a “groupie” who loved “partying”, then being told, no matter how coarsely, that she had slept with some celeb would be the least of my worries, frankly.

The granddaughter, Georgina Baillie, has signed up with Max Clifford and obligingly posed en dĂ©shabillĂ© to emphasise the terrible ordeal that Sachs has suffered. She has called Brand and Ross “sickos” and says “justice has been served”. Really? For the millions who downloaded Brand’s podcast every week? For the millions whose weekends were made joyous by Ross? Or for one G Baillie (Ms) who was maybe a bit peeved when Brand, having had his way, failed to bombard her with marriage proposals? Besides, unless Brand is psychic, he wouldn’t have known she was Sachs’s granddaughter unless she told him herself, presumably as some sort of chat-up line.

Second thing: Ross and Brand were behaving like a pair of hysterical teenagers, egging each other on, extemporising wildly, riffing with the joke until it got completely out of control, as though they were round a kitchen table rather than in a studio. This was extremely stupid of them.

However: their brand of humour, which no one is forced to listen to, is what audiences tune in for in vast numbers. Editing the programme so that it doesn’t provoke outrage is what the producers are supposed to do. The failure here was an executive one: someone from the show, which was prerecorded, contacted Sachs, played him the segment and asked if it was okay to broadcast it. Sachs said he rather thought it wasn't. “It’s a bit crude, isn’t it?” he said.

For reasons best known to themselves, the show’s producers decided to ignore his views. This is not Ross’s or Brand’s fault: their “joke” was vile but the buck rolls on.

Third, and most crucial, thing: what lies at the centre of this sorry saga is misogyny. None of it would have happened if Ross and Brand displayed - or were asked to display - even an iota of respect for women. Instead, both men have made part of their living out of treating women - wives and mothers excluded - as though they were pieces of meat. This can be very funny but it sticks in the craw.

Ross has an Achilles’ heel: he is a marvellous interviewer of men, but reduces every single female interviewee to meat status. Basically, his whole shtick boils down to “I’d do you”. Unless the woman in question is ancient or deformed, Ross crushes any spark of opinion until said woman can be squashed back into the box labelled “totty”.

Brand, whose issues with sex addiction are well documented, has a similar problem. I interviewed him last summer. He was, shall we say, attentive, rather distractingly so as I sat trying to take notes and keep the conversation on track. My interview appeared in due course.

Three weeks ago I got an e-mail from a friend suggesting that I listen to that week’s radio show podcast. Now, I didn’t go to Brand’s house batting my eyelashes or bandying killer chat-up lines (“My grandpa was Coco the Clown”, maybe); I went to do my job. I was therefore taken aback to find myself named on air as a prelude to Brand discussing my bosoms with, surreally, Noel Gallagher from Oasis, who insistently asked: “Did you sleep with her?”, a question that caused Brand to speculate in some detail about what sleeping with me might have been like. None of this was mean or cruel, but it was out of order and reductive: woman, ergo piece of meat, fair game, punchline, nonperson.

In Ross’s and Brand’s world, it is assumed that all women are gagging for a bit of the old trouser goodness. I don’t necessarily blame them for this: many male celebrities do indeed find it to be so and this assumption happens to be shared by most men - it's just that most men are more discreet about airing their misogyny, because they have normal lives and engage with normal women in normal places, such as offices. Ross, Brand and others operate from ivory towers, no matter how populist their appeal.

The BBC’s failure was in not identifying the alarming propensity of its two presenters for galloping, off-the-scale sexism and in making no attempt to rein it in.

As the dust settles, Brand is in America, doing stand-up shows and making a movie. Ross is at home in north London, down but not remotely out. Sachs has accepted everyone’s apologies and considers the matter closed. The real casualty is Douglas, Radio 2’s former controller - and a woman. Funny, that.

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