Russell Brand, comedian. Credit: Joss McKinley/New Statesman
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The NS Interview: Russell Brand

“The BBC is beautiful, but now we are watching it fall apart”

“The BBC is beautiful, but now we are watching it fall apart”

You write books, do stand-up comedy and act in films. Which do you prefer?
Stand-up. I love writing, but I'm not very disciplined and I find it difficult to do something where the gratification is so obviously delayed. No one's clapping and laughing at a book.

What's going on in your mind onstage?
There is this staccato series of interconnected voices - sometimes it feels like I'm in a seizure of ideas, a collision of voices.

Are there limits to what you will joke about?
I think as long as you remain funny, you can say anything.

You've said you find film-making dull. Why?
The thing with film is that it's disciplined, collaborative and democratic (up to a point) - so it's not really in alignment with the template of pleasure that I've lived in life.

What have you lost in your quest for fame?
The idea that every time you are photographed it's like [losing] a sliver of your soul is a valid metaphysical argument. But, for me, it's meant I've focused on protecting what's truthful to me.

But you expose parts of your life that many people would consider private.
I don't know what they're doing with their time. Stuff about an orgy ten years ago doesn't mean anything to me.

You resigned from the BBC after making phone calls to Andrew Sachs about his granddaughter. Do you regret that now?
I will always have to be careful to acknowledge my part in the mistake that occurred, in terms of conduct and impoliteness. But the subsequent phenomenon was an exercise conducted by the print media, which - no disrespect - are becoming increasingly irrelevant.

In what way?
Look at the Daily Mail the other day - on one page, it had a picture of a cloud that looked like a dog. Admittedly, the cloud did look like a dog. But I thought: "What the hell's going on?" How can you possibly take its opinion on pages one and two seriously when, on page 12, there's this cloud that looks like a dog?

Are you worried about the future of the BBC?
It's a peculiarly beautiful organisation and I recognise that more, working abroad. It's incomparable. But I think we're watching it fall apart now; we're watching it dismantle itself because - I don't want to be critical, especially of the BBC - it seems to lack strong leadership.

Do you vote?
I have become, like a lot of people of our generation, utterly disengaged, utterly disenfranchised. I've never voted in my life.

Why not?
I have no relationship to what they are saying. It's a charade and there is no point identifying with it; it doesn't mean anything. I think what we need is a genuine alternative.

You talk about the need for revolution. What would yours look like?
Legitimate change would have to have a spiritual element. I don't think that you can have socialism without spirituality, so the atheistic tenets of Marxism are a significant reason why it didn't work - not that I'm an economist.

What do you mean by "spirituality"?
An ideological shift to accepting that we are all one. It's present in Hinduism, Christianity, Judaism - love one another and try to politicise these ideas. But as long as people who are at the top of hierarchical structures pursue self-interest, we don't have many options.

You have said you dread being alone. Why?
In Alcoholics Anonymous, it is said: "An addict alone is in bad company." When I was a kid, I was on my own a lot. I quickly retreat into my imagination. That's all well and good if I'm in the right frame of mind and, broadly speaking these days, I am. But before, I could filter myself off into some avenue of madness.

Did you always think you would get married?
No, because it is conventional to be married. I have had all sorts of different solipsistic musings. I sometimes think I should end my dotage with concubines and hundreds of grandchildren. But part of me is quite traditional, really.

It's not the first word that springs to mind.
You stick a few rings and bangles about your person and it makes you incredibly bohemian, but really I'm a guy from Grays in Essex who was brought up by a single mum. I like going to West Ham, going to the cinema and playing with the cat.

Is there anything you'd like to forget?
I don't think so. I wish I could forget the theme tune to the Coco Pops advert . . . But sometimes I'm glad I know it.

Are we all doomed?
No, I don't think so - I think we have hope. But perhaps that's why we are doomed.

Defining Moments

1975 Born in Grays, Essex
1991 Enters the Italia Conti Academy. Is expelled in his first year for drug use
2000 Presents first notable stand-up show at the Hackney Empire, London
2001 Fired from MTV for dressing up as Bin Laden the day after 11 September attacks
2008 Resigns from BBC Radio 2
2008 Wins Best Live Stand-Up at British Comedy Awards
2010 Marries the singer Katy Perry

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 08 November 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Israel divided

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The secret anti-capitalist history of McDonald’s

As a new film focuses on the real founder of McDonald’s, his grandson reveals the unlikely story behind his family’s long-lost restaurant.

One afternoon in about the year 1988, an 11-year-old boy was eating at McDonald’s with his family in the city of Manchester, New Hampshire. During the meal, he noticed a plaque on the wall bearing a man’s face and declaring him the founder of McDonald’s. These plaques were prevalent in McDonald’s restaurants across the US at the time. The face – gleaming with pride – belonged to Ray Kroc, a businessman and former travelling salesman long hailed as the creator of the fast food franchise.

Flickr/Phillip Pessar

But this wasn’t the man the young boy munching on fries expected to see. That man was in the restaurant alongside him. “I looked at my grandfather and said, ‘But I thought you were the founder?’” he recalls. “And that’s when, in the late Eighties, early Nineties, my grandfather went back on the [McDonald’s] Corporation to set the history straight.”

Jason McDonald French, now a 40-year-old registered nurse with four children, is the grandson of Dick McDonald – the real founder of McDonald’s. When he turned to his grandfather as a confused child all those years ago, he spurred him on to correct decades of misinformation about the mysterious McDonald’s history. A story now being brought to mainstream attention by a new film, The Founder.


Jason McDonald French

“They [McDonald’s Corporation] seemed to forget where the name actually did come from,” says McDonald French, speaking on the phone from his home just outside Springfield, Massachusetts.

His grandfather Dick was one half of the McDonald brothers, an entrepreneurial duo of restaurateurs who started out with a standard drive-in hotdog stand in California, 1937.

Dick's father, an Irish immigrant, worked in a shoe factory in New Hampshire. He and his brother made their success from scratch. They founded a unique burger restaurant in San Bernardino, around 50 miles east of where they had been flogging hotdogs. It would become the first McDonald’s restaurant.

Most takeout restaurants back then were drive-ins, where you would park, order food from your car, and wait for a “carhop” server to bring you your meal on a plate, with cutlery. The McDonald brothers noticed that this was a slow, disorganised process with pointless costly overheads.

So they invented fast food.

***

In 1948, they built what came to be known as the “speedy system” for a fast food kitchen from scratch. Dick was the inventor out of the two brothers - as well as the bespoke kitchen design, he came up with both the iconic giant yellow “M” and its nickname, the “Golden Arches”.

“My grandfather was an innovator, a man ahead of his time,” McDonald French tells me. “For someone who was [only] high school-educated to come up with the ideas and have the foresight to see where the food service business was going, is pretty remarkable.”


The McDonald brothers with a milkshake machine.

McDonald French is still amazed at his grandfather’s contraptions. “He was inventing machines to do this automated system, just off-the-cuff,” he recalls. “They were using heat lamps to keep food warm beforehand, before anyone had ever thought of such a thing. They customised their grills to whip the grease away to cook the burgers more efficiently. It was six-feet-long, which was just unheard of.”

Dick even custom-made ketchup and mustard dispensers – like metal fireplace bellows – to speed up the process of garnishing each burger. The brothers’ system, which also cut out waiting staff and the cost of buying and washing crockery and cutlery, brought customers hamburgers from grill to counter in 30 seconds.


The McDonald brothers as depicted in The Founder. Photo: The Founder

McDonald French recounts a story of the McDonald brothers working late into the night, drafting and redrafting a blueprint for the perfect speedy kitchen in chalk on their tennis court for hours. By 3am, when they finally had it all mapped out, they went to bed – deciding to put it all to paper the next day. The dry, desert climate of San Bernardino meant it hadn’t rained in months.

 “And, of course, it rained that night in San Bernardino – washed it all away. And they had to redo it all over again,” chuckles McDonald French.

In another hiccup when starting out, a swarm of flies attracted by the light descended on an evening event they put on to drum up interest in their restaurant, driving customers away.


An original McDonald's restaurant, as depicted in The Founder. Photo: The Founder

***

These turned out to be the least of their setbacks. As depicted in painful detail in John Lee Hancock’s film, Ray Kroc – then a milkshake machine salesman – took interest in their restaurant after they purchased six of his “multi-mixers”. It was then that the three men drew up a fateful contract. This signed Kroc as the franchising agent for McDonald’s, who was tasked with rolling out other McDonald’s restaurants (the McDonalds already had a handful of restaurants in their franchise). 

Kroc soon became frustrated at having little influence. He was bound by the McDonalds’ inflexibility and stubborn standards (they wouldn’t allow him to cut costs by purchasing powdered milkshake, for example). The film also suggests he was fed up with the lack of money he was making from the deal. In the end, he wriggled his way around the contract by setting up the property company “McDonald’s Corporation” and buying up the land on which the franchises were built.


Ray Kroc, as depicted in The Founder. Photo: The Founder

Kroc ended up buying McDonald’s in 1961, for $2.7m. He gave the brothers $1m each and agreeing to an annual royalty of half a per cent, which the McDonald family says they never received.

“My father told us about the handshake deal [for a stake in the company] and how Kroc had gone back on his word. That was very upsetting to my grandfather, and he never publicly spoke about it,” McDonald French says. “It’s probably billions of dollars. But if my grandfather was never upset about it enough to go after the Corporation, why would we?”

They lost the rights to their own name, and had to rebrand their original restaurant “The Big M”. It was soon put out of business by a McDonald’s that sprang up close by.


An original McDonald restaurant in Arizona. Photo: Flickr/George

Soon after that meal when the 11-year-old Jason saw Kroc smiling down from the plaque for the first time, he learned the true story of what had happened to his grandfather. “It’s upsetting to hear that your family member was kind of duped,” he says. “But my grandfather always had a great respect for the McDonald’s Corporation as a whole. He never badmouthed the Corporation publicly, because he just wasn’t that type of man.”

Today, McDonalds' corporate website acknowledges the McDonalds brothers as the founders of the original restaurant, and credits Kroc with expanding the franchise. The McDonald’s Corporation was not involved with the making of The Founder, which outlines this story. I have contacted it for a response to this story, but it does not wish to comment.

***

Dick McDonald’s principles jar with the modern connotations of McDonald’s – now a garish symbol of global capitalism. The film shows Dick’s attention to the quality of the food, and commitment to ethics. In one scene, he refuses a lucrative deal to advertise Coca Cola in stores. “It’s a concept that goes beyond our core beliefs,” he rants. “It’s distasteful . . . crass commercialism.”

Kroc, enraged, curses going into business with “a beatnik”.


Photo: The Founder

Dick’s grandson agrees that McDonald’s has strayed from his family’s values. He talks of his grandfather’s generosity and desire to share his wealth – the McDonald brothers gave their restaurant to its employees, and when Dick returned to New Hampshire after the sale, he used some of the money to buy new Cadillacs with air conditioning for his old friends back home.

“[McDonald’s] is definitely a symbol of capitalism, and it definitely sometimes has a negative connotation in society,” McDonald French says. “If it was still under what my grandfather had started, I imagine it would be more like In'N'Out Burger [a fast food chain in the US known for its ethical standards] is now, where they pay their employees very well, where they stick to the simple menu and the quality.”

He adds: “I don’t think it would’ve ever blossomed into this, doing salads and everything else. It would’ve stayed simple, had quality products that were great all the time.

“I believe that he [my grandfather] wasn’t too unhappy that he wasn’t involved with it anymore.”


The McDonald’s Museum, Ray Kroc’s first franchised restaurant in the chain. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Despite his history, Dick still took his children and grandchildren to eat at McDonald’s together – “all the time” – as does Jason McDonald French with his own children now. He’s a cheeseburger enthusiast, while his seven-year-old youngest child loves the chicken nuggets. But there was always a supersize elephant in the room.

“My grandfather never really spoke of Ray Kroc,” he says. “That was always kind of a touchy subject. It wasn’t until years later that my father told us about how Kroc was not a very nice man. And it was the only one time I ever remember my grandfather talking about Kroc, when he said: ‘Boy, that guy really got me.’”

The Founder is in UK cinemas from today.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.