Sarah Britten
Sarah Britten

Why did the Brits stop laughing?

If Australia is riveted by the saga of the poo in the gelato, the British are being distracted en masse by a scandal involving a comedian, a talk show host, a member of a Gothic burlesque group called Satanic Sluts Extreme, and Manuel from Fawlty Towers. It sounds like a set-up for a joke, and it would be, but now Gordon Brown is involved and it appears that the edifice that is the BBC has been shaken to its very foundations. And all of this over the kind of radio prank call that Darren “the doos” Simpson specialises in.

The question is, why on earth has a nation famed for its sense of humour suddenly stopped laughing?

It all started when notorious British comedian Russell Brand and stupendously overpaid BBC television personality Jonathan Ross teamed up to make a prank call to the 78-year-old actor Andrew Sachs, who is most famous for his role as Manuel, the inept waiter, in Fawlty Towers. Sachs was meant to appear on the Saturday night show but had to drop out, so Brand and Ross, a guest on the show, decided to make up for it by calling him up anyway.

In several messages left on Sachs’s answering machine, Brand and Ross joked about having sex with his granddaughter and laughed that if he found this humiliating, he’d probably commit suicide.

Soon the complaints started flooding in. Apologies were issued and flowers delivered. Gordon Brown himself and the leader of the opposition, David Cameron, joined the outcry. The granddaughter herself — who is not, as I initially assumed, some peaches-and-cream horsy Sloan Ranger type, but a performer in a Gothic burlesque group that goes by the name of Satanic Sluts Extreme — also condemned Brand and Ross and said she hoped they got fired. (She goes by the name of Voluptua. And she and Brand did have a sexual relationship back in 2006.)

Brand, who has his hopes pinned on a Hollywood career, has quit his radio show and Ross is hanging on for his career. (Generally consensus seems to be that he is a tosser of note and should be fired forthwith.) The number of complaints to the BBC has reached 27 000 and, according to The Guardian, the BBC is “teetering on the edge of a civil war”.

Why should this have gone so badly wrong?

I think there are a number of factors that have coincided to turn this into a much bigger issue than might otherwise have been the case. For a start, the British are in the midst of a horrible economic slump; the headlines are supremely depressing and there is clearly a need for distraction of some kind. This story, which couples righteous outrage with nostalgia (who could knock poor Manuel?) fits the bill perfectly.

Secondly, there is the off-putting element here of the invasion of privacy. Comedy is often vicious by its very nature; British comedy generally involves somebody being nasty and cutting about somebody else, in a frightfully witty way. Where would Blackadder be without Baldrick to abuse? But in this case, Brand and Ross personally went after an old man who had done nothing in his own right to invite the abuse and humiliated him (and his family) on live radio for the entertainment of others. Clearly, they went too far.

Ultimately, the scandal speaks to the role of public broadcasting and its accountability to the public it is meant to serve. The lewd and childish behaviour of Brand and Ross are both funded out of the public purse (Ross is paid £6 million a year, so being a self-fascinated, floppy-haired twat is clearly a lucrative line of work). So taxpayers have every right to feel angry. Question marks have been raised around the pursuit of the commercial success associated with “edgy” comedy for years now and this may well mark the turning point in which projects are considered worthy of being funded, and which are not.

This is not to say that public broadcasters should not be producing content that offends somebody, somewhere. The nurturing of material and performers that risks should be part and parcel of public broadcasting, because it is part of the role of a public broadcaster to foster the ongoing development of public (and national) culture. The BBC has ensured that comedy of quality such as The Office , the New Zealand duo Flight of the Conchords and, arguably, the earlier series of Little Britain, has reached the small screen. Similarly, the ABC has produced The Chaser’s War on Everything, We Can be Heroes and Summer Heights High, all outstanding examples of Australian satire. (And say what you like about the SABC, but they did broadcast Sorted, probably the best South African television comedy ever produced and which appears to have vanished into unjust obscurity).

Neither Ross nor Brand can be considered “quality”, however. They epitomise a kind of brain-dead perpetual adolescence comedy that shocks for the sake of being shocking rather than having anything interesting or thought-provoking to offer. If this scandal means the demise of the public funding of unfunny intellectual offal, then perhaps that prank call to Andrew Sachs was the best thing that either of them ever did.