"I got invited to David Walliams's wedding . . . but I'd have just been on my own at the buffet"

A few extra bits from my interview with Russell Howard.

For those of us outside TV's coveted 18-25 age bracket, the extent of Russell Howard's popularity might not have registered. His topical comedy show Russell Howard's Good News is currently on its fourth series (with a fifth already scheduled for later in the year). It regularly makes the top-five rated shows on BBC Three, with around 800,000 viewers. His Facebook page, meanwhile, has 1,632,805 fans.

I interviewed Russell for the current issue of the New Statesman, covering his politics ("I don't really have a political agenda -- I just like things to be fair; I get angered by pomposity"), his policy on naughty jokes and the Daily Mail website ("It leaves me utterly depressed"). The full piece will be online later in the week but, in the meantime, here are a few bits there wasn't room for in the magazine . . .

How much do you police your jokes for whether or not they're going to cause offence?

The test I always like to do is: would I do that in front of the person? If I wouldn't, I won't say it. Also, because it's my show and it's me, I would rather -- and this sounds profoundly wanky -- I'd rather it was beautiful and brilliant rather than just slagging someone off.

When we did the Chilean miners, every comedy show was [doing sketches] about the idea of them shagging each other. It was all quite obvious stuff, I thought. We made it about Mario Sepulveda. They were all offered wheelchairs, after all those weeks and the trial they'd been through, and he said: "I won't need that wheelchair -- but my wife will." The crowd was like "Wahey!" I just like that utter bravado. So we concentrated on that and ignored the idea of them shagging each other down there, which I think people were a bit bored with.

Is there any topic that is completely off-limits for you?

We look at the merits of each story and try to figure out whether it's funny or not and sort of go from there. It's not as if we go, 'Oh, we must not talk about this,' or, 'We must not talk about that.' We just try to work it out. There was a story last year about a guy who had banned gay people from coming into his bakery and we did a whole load of jokes about that.

He banned gay people from coming into his bakery?

Yeah, it's amazing isn't it? And I put forward the joke that any man who makes a living by pumping cream into buns is in no position to criticise the gay community. We're sort of tucked away on BBC3, really, and they let us get on with it.

Being on BBC3, you've ended up with a huge young fanbase. I asked your fans on Facebook what I should ask you about -- and one asked whether you were writing an autobiography.

I haven't really thought about it. I'm only 30, so hopefully I have a bit more time to do more stuff . . . What I should do is let my mum ghost-write it and then we'd have a book! By Christ, we'd have a book!

Do your parents ever offer you comedy advice?

My dad likes to. I mean, he's a businessman, he designs call centres, but he's also working on an idea for a children's TV character and it's terrible. And me and my sister go: 'It's the BFG, it is the BFG!' It's about this old guy who gives dreams to children. And we're like 'Dad, it's the fucking BFG!'

My dad occasionally will give me ideas and stuff like that and I have to politely turn them down. But he loves it, he really enjoys it. But my mum is unwittingly funny and I take quite a lot of stuff from her because she just has no idea of how funny she is.

What about your friends? Have any of them ever minded cropping up in a routine?

I ask them and also I change their names as well, so if there's anything particularly embarrassing, I ask them if it's OK. If it isn't, I won't do it but I always change their names.

Obviously, you live in the glamorous metropolitan hot spot of Leamington Spa. Have you ever lived in London, gone to the Ivy and Soho House and lived the "celebrity" lifestyle?

The reason I live in Leamington is basically because my girlfriend is doing medicine at Warwick, so we moved in together and that was the easiest place for her. And because I'm a stand-up, living in the middle of the country is great. Since we moved there, I've been doing loads of stuff on telly so I bought a flat in Maida Vale with my brother, so I have the best of both worlds.

When I'm in London, I spend a lot of time with my brother and my mates around there playing five-a-side football and stuff like that. Not really going to the Ivy. I've been once, last week, actually. It was brilliant, I really enjoyed it. But I think it should be wildly exciting and like, "Ahh, this is pretty cool, innit?" because if you lose that, you won't be a particularly good stand-up comedian. "Y'know in the Ivy when the service is ridiculously good and everything tastes great, what's up with that?" "Y'know when your butler's really uppity in the morning? Would it kill him to chew gum? He stinks!" So I try and lead a normal life.

Also, I feel awkward in those situations . . . I might change in a few years. I mean, I got invited to David Walliams's wedding and that's pretty nice -- but I'd just be on my own, just stood around, eating fucking loads of food at the buffet, going: "Hey Elton, Elton, have you tried these sausage rolls?" Because that's what happens to me at normal weddings: I always end up on my own in a corner, so it'd be exactly like that -- except with famous people.

God knows what it's like to get into that world where you're desperate to get into the papers . . .

Have you ever been papped?

No, I get a few photos occasionally when you go into Radio One, basically the doors open then you see flash, flash . . . then -- Oh, it's you -- and the clicks stop, which is pretty funny.

I can't imagine what it must be like seeing various celebrities going, "Oh, I'll go to that nightclub because there'll be lots of paps there. Hopefully there'll be an up-skirt shot of me in the paper!" Those bastards that do that, the up-skirt shots, can you imagine that? It doesn't get worse than that.

Presumably you've had stuff written about you in the papers that you didn't like . . .

I'm pretty seriously annoyed with Closer magazine. I was talking about getting married with my girlfriend and did this joke: "We are going to get married one day because the further you go on, your girlfriend turns gradually into Gollum."

They didn't run the interview with me -- they put a photo of me looking really cross and just a speech bubble that had me going: "Better get married soon because my girlfriend's turning into Gollum." I said to them, "You know I didn't say that." Her mates had seen it and just [asked me] what the fuck are you doing? So now I don't speak to Closer.

The other thing that pissed me off was the Independent said last year that I earn £4m, which I didn't. My mates are like, "Alright, moneybags!" and I had to show them my bank balance. That slightly pissed me off because it makes me look like this greedy bastard. I mean, I don't do any corporate gigs or adverts or things like that. I just do gigs.

Russell Howard's Good News mixes serious issues and jokes. How do you find the right balance?

We just decide which of the heavier stories we want to slip in. So it's: "Here's a funny one, here's a funny one, but this is a bit fucked up. Here's a funny one, here's a funny one, bloody hell! Did you hear about this?" It has to be like a snaking conversation with your mates in the pub. That's kind of the aim. You chat and you're being really silly and funny and then suddenly you talk about Colonel Gaddafi. It's that kind of bizarre tone.

Russell Howard's Good News is on Thursdays at 10.30pm on BBC3.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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"By now, there was no way back for me": the strange story of Bogdan Stashinsky

Serhii Plokhy’s The Man with the Poison Gun is a gripping, remarkable Cold War spy story.

On the morning of 12 August 1961, a few hours before the supreme leader of East Germany, Walter Ulbricht, announced the sealing of the border between East and West Berlin, a funeral took place for a four-month-old boy at the Rohrbeck Evangelical Cemetery in Dallgow. Numerous KGB agents and officers of the East German ministry of security were in attendance, but the boy’s parents were missing. Instead, Bogdan Stashinsky and Inge Pohl were preparing their imminent escape from Soviet-occupied territory and into the West. They had intended to flee the following day, but the funeral provided a moment of opportunity when their surveillance was relaxed. If they wanted to go, they had to go now.

“The KGB operatives present at the child’s funeral were puzzled by the parents’ absence,” a Soviet intelligence officer later wrote. “By the end of the day on 13 August 1961, it was clear that the Stashinskys had gone to the West. Everyone who knew what tasks the agent had carried out in Munich in 1957 and 1959, and what could happen if Stashinsky were to talk, was in shock.”

Those “tasks” were the state-sponsored assassinations of Lev Rebet and Stepan Bandera, two exiled leaders of the Ukrainian anti-communist movement who had been living in Munich. Stashinsky, one of the KGB’s top hitmen, and the focus of Serhii Plokhy’s gripping book, had been given the task of tracking and killing them with a custom-built gun that sprayed a lethal, yet undetectable poison. It was only after Stashinsky’s defection to the Central Intelligence Agency, and then to the West German security services, that the cause of Rebet and Bandera’s deaths was finally known.

For decades, the KGB denied any involvement in the assassinations, and the CIA has never been entirely sure about Stashinsky’s motives. Was he telling the truth when he confessed to being the assassin, or was he, as some still claim, a loyal agent, sent to spread disinformation and protect the true killer? Plokhy has now put to rest the many theories and speculations. With great clarity and compassion, and drawing from a trove of recently declassified files from CIA, KGB and Polish security archives, as well as interviews conducted with former heads of the South African police force, he chronicles one of the most curious espionage stories of the Cold War.

Stashinsky’s tale is worthy of John le Carré or Ian Fleming. Plokhy even reminds us that The Man With the Golden Gun, in which James Bond tries to assassinate his boss with a cyanide pistol after being brainwashed by the Soviets, was inspired by the Stashinsky story. But if spy novels zero in on a secret world – tradecraft, double agents, defections, and the moral fallout that comes from working in the shadows – Plokhy places this tale in the wider context of the Cold War and the relentless ideological battle between East and West.

The story of Stashinsky’s career as a triggerman for the KGB plays out against the backdrop of the fight for Ukrainian independence after the Second World War. He was a member of the underground resistance against the Soviet occupation, but was forced to become an informer for the secret police after his family was threatened. After he betrayed a resistance cell led by Ivan Laba, which had assassinated the communist author Yaroslav Halan, Stashinsky was ostracised by his family and was offered the choice of continuing his higher education, which he could no longer afford, or joining the secret police.

“It was [only] a proposal,” he said later, “but I had no alternative to accepting it and continuing to work for the NKVD. By now, there was no way back for me.” He received advanced training in Kyiv and Moscow for clandestine work in the West and became one of Moscow’s most prized assets. In 1957, after assassinating Rebet, he was awarded the
Order of the Red Banner, one of the oldest military decorations in the Soviet Union.

Plokhy’s book is about more than the dramas of undercover work; it is also an imaginative approach to the history of Cold War international relations. It is above all an affective tale about the relationship between individual autonomy and state power, and the crushing impact the police state had on populations living behind the Iron Curtain. Stashinsky isn’t someone of whom we should necessarily approve: he betrayed his comrades in the Ukrainian resistance, lied to his family about who he was and killed for a living. Yet we sympathise with him the more he, like so many others, turns into a defenceless pawn of the Communist Party high command, especially after he falls in love with his future wife, Inge.

One of the most insightful sections of Plokhy’s book converges on Stashinsky’s trial in West Germany in 1962 over the killings of Rebet and Bandera, and how he was given a reduced sentence because it was deemed that he had been an instrument of the Soviet state. The decision was influenced by German memories of collective brainwashing under the Third Reich. As one of the judges put it: “The accused was at the time in question a poor devil who acted automatically under pressure of commands and was misled and confused ideologically.”

What makes Plokhy’s book so alarmingly resonant today is how Russia still uses extrajudicial murder as a tool of foreign policy. In 2004 Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western future president of Ukraine, was poisoned with dioxin; two years later Aleksandr Litvinenko, the Russian secret service defector, unknowingly drank radioactive polonium at a hotel in London. The Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya survived a poisoning in 2004 after drinking tea given to her by an Aeroflot flight attendant (she was murdered two years later). The collapse of the Soviet Union did not bring the end of the Russian threat (Putin, remember, is ex-KGB). As le Carré noted in a speech in the summer of 1990, “The Russian Bear is sick, the Bear is bankrupt, the Bear is frightened of his past, his present and his future. But the Bear is still armed to the teeth and very, very proud.”

The Man with the Poison Gun: a Cold War Spy Story by Serhii Plokhy is published by Oneworld (365pp, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge