On Monday evenings in Britain, many millions tune in to this triumvirate of gentle programming: Mastermind, followed by Only Connect, rounded off with University Challenge. Early-week BBC Two is a theatre of the staid, safe and mundane. If Middle England – with its big grey skies and multi-lane roundabouts – were a night of entertainment, this would be it.
It is a long way from the hedonistic, cocaine-addled vision of Britain that dominated the 2000s: the ritual humiliation of “normal people” on The X Factor; the brazen exploitation of the working class on The Jeremy Kyle Show; the hero-worship of spiteful comedians on Never Mind the Buzzcocks. In 2023 television is, on the whole, boring again. And that’s the way it should be.
That old world resurfaced on 16 September when, as part of an investigation by Channel 4’s current affairs programme Dispatches, the Times and the Sunday Times, four women accused Russell Brand of rape, sexual assaults and emotional abuse between 2006 and 2013. (Brand strongly denies the accusations.) On 18 September, the Metropolitan Police said it had received a report of an alleged sexual assault by Brand in London in 2003. On the same day, the former BBC One controller Lorraine Heggessey said that she was “amazed” action wasn’t taken against Brand at the time. “It’s not actually that long ago,” she said. “This was the 2000s, so let’s not think it was the dim and distant past. It wasn’t.”
Russell Brand was the spiritual leader of the nihilism that gripped TV, and the wider culture, in the early 2000s. But his influence lasted well into the 2010s. Brand was born in Grays, Essex, in 1975. He began using drugs such as cannabis and amphetamines as a teenager. By 2001, when Brand was making his first forays into entertainment as a stand-up comic and a television presenter, he was addicted to heroin. That addiction, and his addiction to sex, became key details in his confessional memoirs and comedy shows.
He discussed politics on BBC Newsnight and was a panellist on Question Time. Yet in 2007 Brand offered over the airwaves of BBC Radio 2 to take his female assistant – “naked” – to meet Jimmy Savile. In the same year, Brand broadcast his sexual fantasies about an “erotic” Radio 2 newsreader, and is alleged by production staff to have exposed himself in the studio while urinating in a bottle in front of guests. The Sunday Times reported that a complaint about Brand’s behaviour was made to BBC management. “Russell did urinate in a cup in the studio,” a Radio 2 spokeswoman said at the time, “and someone has shown him where the toilet is.”
[See also: Mark Fisher was not Russell Brand]
Brand received the Sun’s “Shagger of the Year” award three times. The BBC commissioned him to make a documentary on drugs in 2012. He guest-edited the New Statesman in 2013 and called, nebulously, for a revolution. He wrote columns for the Guardian. Ahead of the 2015 general election, Ed Miliband sought Brand’s endorsement, appearing with him on his YouTube channel a few days before the poll. Perhaps he had forgotten or chosen to ignore the creepy and lewd comments the comedian made on air in 2008 about Georgina Baillie, the granddaughter of the actor Andrew Sachs that resulted in Brand leaving the BBC.
The response to the allegations – some have claimed, as Brand did himself in a YouTube video released on 15 September, just before the Dispatches programme, that there is a conspiracy against him – makes it hard to avoid the conclusion that Britain writ large is absolving itself of responsibility. The country in the 2000s (and up until, at least, 2015) was not a passive observer of Brand’s rise to stardom, but an active and willing patron. Britain wanted to be entertained by him and so did Hollywood, where he was welcomed and starred in several movies, including a remake of Arthur (which originally starred Dudley Moore).
Britain at the turn of the century was the land of Philip Green and “subversive” reality television. Big Brother – with its voyeurism and public indecency – and Little Britain – with its blackface and ethical squalor – were beamed into millions of homes.
Perhaps it was all a natural reaction to a decadent culture that was not then interested in transformative political change: in the period before the financial crisis, when Labour was in power, the nation resorted to sleazy indulgence and rewarded TV programmes that were transgressive for the sake of it.
This was the perfect Petri dish for someone like Brand – a shallow thinker but unembarrassed exhibitionist – to thrive. And so the “edgy” comedian-cum-pseudo intellectual would tell the country: we should destroy the state! Don’t vote! The bankers, the bankers, the bankers… Brand was the noble savage on Newsnight, jostling with Jeremy Paxman, taking on the establishment with his antic disposition, long hair and revolutionary rhetoric. But the writing was on the wall: Britain was no longer a serious country. The narrow space between outrageous and offensive had disappeared.
Brand would not flourish in mainstream entertainment today; in recent times he has become a conspiracy theorist and wellness guru. Revelations about Jimmy Savile and Harvey Weinstein forced the entertainment industry to clean up its act. Even before #MeToo, in 2014 the comedian Dapper Laughs was forced to apologise on Newsnight for his jokes about rape – another pin in the ever-inflating mania that gripped Britain during its swaggering, laddish, cool Britannia years. We can see it in the footballers back then as well: the day after the attacks of 11 September 2001, Frank Lampard, then of Chelsea, was fined by his club for drunkenly mocking stranded American tourists at Heathrow Airport. Today Marcus Rashford only wants to make sure schoolchildren eat proper meals.
Only the rampant cynicism of the 2000s could see someone like Brand invited to give evidence in a cowboy hat to the House of Commons Home Affairs Select Committee. But not everyone fell for it. The conservative commentator Peter Hitchens suggested on Newsnight in 2012 that Brand was not capable of serious debate – openly sneering at the credentials of the obvious charlatan. But others, such as the writer Mark Fisher, admired Brand’s boldness.
Brand’s period as political oracle – in 2014, his political manifesto, Revolution, was published by Penguin Random House – is behind us. Perhaps cultural boredom is not the worst thing in the world, after all. Peter Hitchens may come across as a stuffy prig, but perhaps British television should be a bit stuffier in the age of unregulated social media platforms. Today, the acme of British programming might be Michael Portillo on a long train journey, Bargain Hunt and Antiques Roadshow; or well-informed local business-owners participating on Question Time. More Ray Mears steaming fish on a beach, less Bear Grylls sleeping in a hollowed-out camel carcass. The age of clown reverence is over.
This article appears in the 20 Sep 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers