Look, I know there are multiple agendas here. I know the Mail and the Sun aren’t going to miss an opportunity to stick the boot into the BBC. As for the Beeb bosses, nervous after last year’s pratfalls, they’ve been harrumphing up a storm. But two things are blindingly obvious about Manuelgate. Firstly, there was a systemic failure. This goes from execs in thrall to the cult of youth who demand “edgy” material, to the 25-year-old producer who doesn’t think that the audience out there might not all have 25-year-old tastes.
On the other hand, that producer is not going to be in a position to say to a star on a colossal salary, “Fuck off, Russell, that’s not going out.” So it comes down to the performers, and I have to say I’m only surprised this never happened sooner. Certain broadcasters, and these two in particular, have been getting away with murder for ages now. They both have track records as long as your arm.
Although I have serious reservations about both Ross and Brand, I don’t particularly bear them any ill will. Ross, as a young man, was one of the most naturally talented broadcasters of his generation. But I don’t like his chat show, for the same reason I don’t like Norton’s show, in that it’s all about him, and the guests really just figure as straight men. Parky used to let Billy Connolly tell the jokes; Ross’s guests get to sit and laugh at the host’s hilarious banter. The other thing about Ross is that, in recent years, he’s quite cynically used cuss-words and toilet humour to cover up just how Wogan-soft his interviewing is. What’s more, it’s slightly worrying that a man pushing fifty can get quite that frisson from using naughty words on the airwaves. Don’t say you haven’t seen the glint in his eyes when he’s about to say “fuck”.
As for Brand, the guy has natural charisma and can be quite witty when he puts his mind to it. What puts me off a little, apart from his media ubiquity, is the sheer level of narcissism in his act. Fair enough, he gets away with it a lot of the time – that’s all part of his charm – but there’s a very Ross-like element, going beyond the usual narcissism of the performer, where other people exist only as props for his comedy. This has, on more than one occasion, meant going into detail – including names – about past notches on his bedpost, in some cases with women who knew Brand many years ago, who are not public figures, and who may not be thrilled at his propelling them into the public arena. You know the way our culture abominates those kiss-and-tell bimbos who shag a footballer and then sell their story to the News of the Screws? I think Brand is actually worse, in that he’s the one in the position of power.
So, what of the prank? I must confess, if there was any cleverness or satire there, it was hidden so deeply as to be invisible. What we seemed to be dealing with – using a young woman’s sexual history to wind up an elderly man – was the verbal equivalent of happy slapping. Let’s take the universalist approach – if I did that, I would very quickly find myself talking to the police. Ross and Brand, at their best, may be talented performers, but I don’t see that they’re so special that they can get away with that on a publicly-funded service. I’m aware, too, that a lot of comedy has a cruel streak – that’s why millions watch videos of people falling over on You’ve Been Framed – but occasionally it is possible to step over the line into simple bullying. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re bad people, just that they ran away with themselves. Ivor Dembina’s comment, that Brand had been lauded so much he thought he could get away with anything, sounds right to me.
And I think it’s right that they are penalised. It’s right that Ross’s suspension hits him where it hurts – in the pocket – rather than an Ofcom fine that would be borne by the license payer. (It surely isn’t irrelevant that so much of the criticism has taken note of Ross’s inflated salary.) Ross, of course, works more or less exclusively for the BBC, which is why he appears so chastened, and why his enthusiastic consumption of humble pie contrasts so much with Brand’s whiny apology. Brand, on the other hand, will probably prosper from this. Sure, he’s lost his Radio 2 show, but he’s got so many contracts with so many media outlets that he’ll not really find himself at a loose end, and after a while this will all add to the bad-boy legend of Russell Brand.
(Parenthetically, and talking of middle-aged men acting out their psychodramas, I was struck in the SU thread with so many lefties’ reflexive urge to rush to the defence of Brand and Ross, and the equally reflexive lack of empathy for the young woman. It was noticeable that the few women who commented seemed to be having a completely different conversation.)
Anyway, one thing I found a little depressing was, by way of contrast to the complaints, the deluge of texts and emails to Radio 1 saying it was all a lot of fuss about nothing, and anyway that the prank was hilarious. This generational gap seems to be borne out by the reactions of most under-30s in vox pops. I hate to sound like Peter Hitchens and start banging on about moral degeneracy, but I do think this illustrates something of a coarsening of the culture.
You don’t have to go back to the 1950s to find evidence of this. Let’s consider that the late Kenny Everett, whose act Russell Brand has liberally nicked from was sacked from the BBC not once but twice for lesser infractions. Let’s recall that, after his notorious fisting joke, Julian Clary was effectively banned from live TV for ten years. Nowadays you can switch on the telly a few minutes after the watershed and hear Jordan and Peter Andre merrily trading quips about, saints preserve us, anal bleaching.
Talking of how things have changed, I seem to remember, after George Best appeared pissed on Wogan, promises that it would never happen again. And yet, the headlines last week were full of Kerry Katona’s slurring on This Morning. Whether or not she was pissed, she was clearly in no state to go on air – but neither was Bestie all those years ago. But it gets better. Kerry, God love her, is in the unfortunate position of being a celebrity without a marketable talent, whose main activity seems to be doing interviews about her awful childhood, her history of substance abuse, or other highlights in her soap-opera life. So what got lost beneath the slurring was that Kerry’s appearance was aimed at promoting her latest media venture. Which was? Yes, her televised breast reduction. I thought Cosmetic Surgery Live was bad enough, but doing a Kerry Katona version sounds like a Chris Morris skit. I suppose it’s a measure of Chris’s genius that the actual broadcast media are coming to resemble his imagination.
Really, sometimes you despair for civilisation. How long before someone, perhaps at C4, really does launch a happy slapping show? You know, that coveted 18-25 audience would love it…