When I read the Sunday Times’ allegations against Russell Brand, my disgust was constrained, I think, both by a lack of surprise and a certain sense of exhaustion. It was only when they were made again on screen a few hours later that horror fully overtook me, popular culture once more having strolled seemingly hand-in-hand with a vile and pernicious misogyny. In Channel 4’s Dispatches, interviews with four women who accused Brand of rape and sexual abuse were shown alongside clips of the comedian on stage and on television: clips in which he made jokes – wild, blunt jokes – about exactly the kinds of behaviour they’d just described. And it was nauseating and terrifying, the alleged abuse seemingly hiding in plain sight, just as it did with Jimmy Savile. The two men didn’t, in fact, know each other, but in another clip, this time from radio, we heard Brand briefly talking to Savile, and their joshing conversation about an assistant whom Brand would gladly bring along to meet the ageing DJ. She would be naked, and she would do whatever Brand told her to.
This footage, impossible to misinterpret, was almost as sickening as the women’s stories: that Brand was paid to say these things, and celebrated for it, and so recently, too. “Them blow jobs,” we heard him roar, performing to an audience. “I like them when it goes in her neck a little bit.” He made some ugly noises: the sound of a woman choking on a man’s penis. “I like it when the mascara runs a little bit,” he said. Alice, who said she was a 16-year-old virgin when Brand first had sex with her, went on to describe how she’d almost choked when he forced himself into her mouth. When she cried afterwards, she said he told her he “only wanted to see your mascara run anyway”. Brand had also, she said, forced her to swallow his spit – cue another clip, in which he announced there is no form of sex that cannot be improved by “spitting”.
In a TV chat show, we heard him joke to the model Caprice that she should be a “bit afraid” of him. Every day, he told her, he had to tell women not “to fight it”. Congratulating him on his third Shagger of the Year Award in a row – this had been bestowed by the Sun – the chat show presenter Jonathan Ross asked if he “took precautions”. Yes, Brand said: “I make absolutely sure it’s a woman first…” I listened to the sound of the live audiences – you could hear women’s voices, as well as men’s – laughing uproariously throughout all this, and I wondered if anyone I know would have found it as funny, or amusing at all; I would have walked out. I struggle to imagine the TV executive who would have signed off for broadcast a man mimicking the sound of a woman choking during oral sex, but someone did – and I wonder how they feel about that now.
The journalism involved in this deeply methodical documentary appears to be exemplary: every story corroborated; texts traced back to the comedian’s phone; multiple witnesses in addition to his alleged victims. But inadvertently, it gave us something else, too: a sense of our collective blindness, if not our collective shame. I have no idea why Brand had such a successful career as an entertainer. The voice, which was straight out of a Carry On film, nine parts Charles Hawtrey to one part Sid James. The ridiculous back-combed hair, held in place with copious amounts of Elnett. The ludicrous dandy-punk-Restoration clothes, as he’d raided the dressing-up box backstage at Peter Pan. The potty-mouthed humour (in one clip, we watched as Brand wet himself for laughs in the street). Do these things speak to us somehow? What is their allure?
And beyond this, the enabling. It seems clear that senior TV executives and many others knew of his reputation – you only had to have ears to know: his harassment of a BBC newsreader was broadcast live on air – and yet, no one ever stopped him. He had multiple chances. People – men, mostly – ask how this can be happening again. Operation YewTree, #MeToo: why isn’t it time up, they ask? I share the weariness, though really, they’ve no idea: like most women, I’ve had decades of sexual harassment, of being talked over, and belittled, and patronised.
But there’s so much hypocrisy in play here; the same men won’t listen – not properly – to women’s concerns about their safety. Male indignation on this is extremely selective, and extremely limited. Dispatches found only one male comedian to talk about Brand and the way women on the comedy circuit have long warned each other about him: Daniel Sloss. (A hero to me now – and shame on any others who were approached and declined to speak.)
Meanwhile, it’s hard not to wonder about what happens next. Dispatches got next to nothing out of those it asked for comment: the BBC, Channel 4, Endemol – which made Big Brother. And the world has changed even in the scant years since the conviction of Harvey Weinstein. Russell Brand, now a wellness expert and global conspiracy theorist of sorts, has millions of followers on social media, and many of them have been vocal in supporting him since the allegations broke (several well-known journalists also stuck up for him). As Dispatches went out, he went on stage at Wembley Park Theatre in London. The applause of the crowd was, by all accounts, deafening.
This article appears in the 20 Sep 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers