Channel 4’s favourite self-appellation is “edgy”. Edgy – working on the edge of the acceptable – is how C4 wishes to be seen by the youthful audience it seeks. Big Brother, which began in 2000, was seen as “controversial”. But audiences have nearly halved since then; it’s thought boring now. The current series is the last. C4 must find edgy elsewhere.
Hence its transmission of Russell Brand: Scandalous (Saturday), a year and a half after it was recorded at London’s O2 centre for release on DVD. This was C4 saying: “The BBC cast out this talented performer: we celebrate him.” Brand is edgy made flesh – witness the young audience, mainly (it seemed) women, loving him. He flourishes in the no-man’s-land between the remains of public morality and the celebrity-entertainment complex, a powerful and burgeoning industry. In that pock-marked strip, he plies his trade: he’s among the most fascinating men in the complex.
You remember Brand: big fellow, bigger hair, apologised to the actor Andrew Sachs after he and Jonathan Ross called Sachs, live, from Brand’s Radio 2 show to tell him that Brand had “f**ked your granddaughter” – the erotic dancer Georgina Baillie. Once the Mail on Sunday picked it up, complaints flooded in, and for some days the story took precedence over the financial crisis. Brand and Ross apologised (the former said he offered “a personal Russell Brand apology ... but it was quite funny”); they sent flowers and more apologies to Sachs (who forgave them). Brand resigned from the show, and offered another apology, saying that “I forgot that at the core of the rude comments and silly songs were the real feelings of a beloved and brilliant comic actor and a very sweet and big-hearted young woman ... I offer nothing but love and contrition.”
We now know that Brand had a private bad conscience about parading a public bad conscience, and that the nature of a personal Russell Brand apology is not an apology, but an “up yours!”. We know it from the C4 show, which was a celebration of, yes, his scandalousness.
Those who can’t stand Brand, which often includes me, hate his preening egocentricity, his colossal arrogance as a celebrity of sin, his juvenile rubbishing of (among others) the military in Afghanistan and the supporters of George W Bush.
But it’s when he gets really dirty that you pause. When he says that given a few minutes at a computer, he finds porn and starts to masturbate. When he tells a joke about the late Michael Jackson (recorded before the singer’s death) – “there’s only one Michael Jackson; there are millions of children. Couldn’t we let him ’ave a couple?” When he says that on being primed to meet the Queen, he forgets the protocol he’s been told, grabs her breasts and exposes them (it’s much more graphic than that: the audience was hysterical).
You pause because what Brand is doing is claiming the guilty hinterland of the male mind as the source of his wit. It’s been done before – often – but he’s doing it more shockingly, making us confront what indecency is (it isn’t, usually, the other, not in the mind). The preening and strutting; the invitation to a kind of heterosexual bathhouse promiscuity; the jokes that play on the fantasies forbidden even to the conscious mind – that’s his stuff (and “... it was quite funny”).
Most of all, Brand is saying of the celebrity-entertainment complex: “’S rubbish, innit? As rubbish as my apologies. As rubbish as those 2008 days of outrage, in which” – as he said, in mock Oxford-donnish accent – “‘I was the lightning rod for a cultural melée’.” As rubbish as the outrage of the suddenly famous Baillie, who had for some time earned a living as a dominatrix, and who did a film in which, as she told the Sunday Times, she “had to ... walk around dressed as a soldier, kicking ... men aged from about 20 to 80.”
The whole edifice depends, at key moments, on a choreography of ersatz shock and phoney outrage. “Don’t tell the Daily Mail!” screamed Brand, after the Michael Jackson joke. It is impossible to tell if the Mail needs him more than he needs the Mail. Brand has learnt what public decency calls indecency, and is more indecent than that – as Philip Larkin put it, he “adds some extra, just for you”.
If you want decent comedy, in both senses of the word, watch Rev (BBC2 Mondays). It’s very, very good, much owing to the playing of the Rev Adam Smallbone by Tom Hollander; and much too to the writing by James Wood and to support performances that have the power of restraint and observation of detail, directed by Peter Cattaneo. It’s good and funny because it takes its own subject – the state of the Church of England, through the perceptions of a liberal, principled vicar – seriously.
The first episode had Smallbone’s single-figure congregation swollen by parents anxious to get their children into the local C of E school. The second, funnier, showed him defeating an evangelical preacher who tried to take over his church. This may have held meaning for Hollander himself: he’s quoted as saying, of an evangelical group that sought to “redeem” the arts, that “the arts exist within a morally complicated zone, unlike an evangelical church which is morally infantile”. Playing a man who thinks Christ is complicated as well as redemptionist is a challenge – and Hollander is equal to it, with the result that Rev is a quiet triumph.
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