How we saw off Brüno

Murray Echols was a 75-year-old Alabama pensioner innocently indulging his passion for ballroom dancing. Then along came Sacha Baron Cohen and his film crew ...

Looking back, I should have seen it was a set-up, but they were smart. The caller introduced himself as Todd Lewis, a Los Angeles producer. His company, he explained, was making a film for a German broadcaster about the American south, in particular my home town Birmingham, Alabama.

The patter continued. Todd's company was called Amesbury Chase Productions, one of a group of four. He gave me their internet addresses – they looked legit. Would it be possible, Todd asked, to film some ballroom dancing?

I've always enjoyed dancing. I learned as a teenager – waltz, swing, tango, Latin – and now help run a large dance club in Birmingham. It's been good for me. At age 75, the exercise is great and, more importantly, it's how I met Brenda, my girlfriend of 10 years. It was agreed that Todd and his cameras would shoot a dance at the Vestavia Hills civic centre in a suburb of Birmingham on Monday 9 February. The people there are mainly in their 70s. I was there with Brenda, who's 64. Todd's operation was impressive. They turned up in a motorhome with four cameramen and a crew chief. There were also two front men, and one woman, all aged between 30 and 35.

Our visitors were thoughtful. They'd taken along 100 or so 12in red hearts to put on the wood panel walls (it was a Valentine's event). Entrance to this dance is $5 (£3), but the crew paid that for the 110 people attending. All we had to do, they told us, was sign sheets of paper at a card table set up by the door. The generosity continued. They gave the man running the dances $300 and the band leader another $100. What nice people, we thought. All the while, though, they were drawing us into their game. After 30 minutes of dancing, a man who was obviously a performer appeared. He had short blond hair and two tufts near the front. He wore a sleeveless white shirt, black leather waistcoat and trousers, and 16in pointed gold boots. Oh, and a black tie. I've seen slim ties in my time, but this was a little hokey.

The man said he was Austrian and didn't speak English; occasionally he pulled out an English-German phrasebook. I now know this was Sacha Baron Cohen. Then the crew asked to put on their own music – probably on an MP3 player – to avoid copyright infringement, they said. It was lousy, a cross between an Argentine tango and swing. The "Austrian" started dancing with a second actor who'd walked in from their vehicle and was less flamboyantly dressed. As they danced, they would throw each other to the side and then pull one another back, leaping up into each other's arms.

To be honest, they were good, although at most ballroom dances in the US we tend to dance with the opposite sex. One couple walked out, but no one else was shocked. At the climax of the dance, the other actor dipped Sacha's head back and kissed him on the lips for about 15 seconds. Little shocks me. I lived all over the States for eight years working as a consulting engineer and was based in San Francisco for two years in the 1960s. Folks from Alabama aren't easily offended and, contrary to what you might think, are inclined to live and let live. But one thing really gets to them – knowing they've been duped.

This is when it hit the fan. The crowd erupted, five or so people screaming at the top of their lungs: "Get out of here. Leave the building." The second actor started lecturing us, barely making himself heard in the chaos. "Our love is wonderful. Ours is true love and you should not feel the way you do." All of course, rehearsed to try to push us further. At that point, I walked over to him and said: "You need to leave." The man ignored me and continued to lecture me close to my face. I wasn't mad but I was irritated. I shoved him hard. Another dancer turned off the lights to stop the filming and someone called the police. When a patrolman arrived, he told the crew: "I don't want to see your faces in Vestavia Hills again."

At some point, the crew realised that things could get out of hand. Maybe they weren't sure what this crazy bunch of old folks were going to do. The last I saw of them was the tail of their long trailer leaving in a hurry.

It wasn't until the following weekend that I grasped what had happened. A Birmingham woman television reporter (a real one this time) called and asked: "You don't think it was Sacha Baron Cohen, do you?"

I'd seen the Borat movie so I knew something about Sacha, a lanky 6ft 3in Englishman. This man didn't have a moustache and black hair, and didn't look that tall from 20 feet away. "Oh, he was that tall," said Brenda. "I saw him standing by the drinks machine."

It had all been a carefully planned operation – aimed at making us look dumb. And those sheets of paper we signed were release forms, giving our consent to the footage being used in Sacha's forthcoming film about Brüno, the gay Austrian television reporter. We were, it turned out, extras working for a pittance.

Calling friends in other ballroom groups the next morning, I found he'd booked to film more dances – in Huntsville, and also Chattanooga and Nashville in Tennessee. Sacha's organised, but we're very organised, too. We put out the word on the internet and they were all cancelled. He was on our territory, so we could do what we liked. Sorry for messing up your schedule, Brüno.

It turns out we were lucky to get off lightly. The Alabama National Guard didn't fare so well. A few days after our dance, Sacha, as Brüno, had fooled them into giving him a uniform, only to strip down to a stars and stripes thong for the cameras.

The way he works is certainly like a military operation. He's highly intelligent, but as he gets more and more famous, it's harder to pull off these sorts of stunts. I don't imagine anyone in Britain would fall for it.

Perhaps he thought we're a bit slower down here and a bit more old-fashioned. I guess he was hoping we'd be outraged by a gay kiss.

I'm afraid I've got news for you, Sacha. Times have changed. Some of us have televisions and occasionally even go to see movies, including your Borat film – which, if you're interested, I thought was good for the first 15 minutes but went downhill after that.

My first reaction was anger. In the South we are taught to trust people, to show hospitality. In return we were insulted. Baron Cohen, I concluded, was little more than an empty shell. Religion has been reported to be important to him, but his personal religion seems to be based on greed and deriving pleasure from shocking others, often being cruel and uncaring – to get what he is after.

The funny thing, though, is that, as time has passed, I've come to admire his skill. It was actually a neat, highly entertaining evening. He had a job to do and he couldn't tell us in advance. So good luck, Sacha, but just one thing. We don't need any more Austrian ballroom tutelage in Alabama, thanks very much.

Arts & Entertainment
Maisie Williams of Game of Thrones now
tvMajor roles that grow with their child actors are helping them to steal the show on TV
Arts & Entertainment
Customers browse through Vinyl Junkies record shop in Berwick Street, Soho, London
music

Arts & Entertainment
Who laughs lass: Jenny Collier on stage
ComedyCollier was once told there were "too many women" on bill
Arts & Entertainment
Ian Anderson, the leader of British rock band Jethro Tull, (right) and British guitar player Martin Barre (left) perform on stage
music

VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
film

Arts & Entertainment
Don (John Hamm) and Megan (Jessica Paré) Draper are going their separate ways in the final series of ‘Mad Men’
tvReview: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Arts & Entertainment
James Franco and Chris O'Dowd in Of Mice and Men on Broadway
theatre

Review: Of Mice and Men

Arts & Entertainment
art

By opportunistic local hoping to exhibit the work

Arts & Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio will star in an adaptation of Michael Punke's thriller 'The Revenant'
film

Fans will be hoping the role finally wins him an Oscar

Arts & Entertainment
Cody and Paul Walker pictured in 2003.
film

Arts & Entertainment
Down to earth: Fern Britton presents 'The Big Allotment Challenge'
TV

Arts & Entertainment
The London Mozart Players is the longest-running chamber orchestra in the UK
musicThreatened orchestra plays on, managed by its own members
Arts & Entertainment
Seeing red: James Dean with Sal Mineo in 'Rebel without a Cause'
film

Arts & Entertainment
TV
Arts & Entertainment
Heads up: Andy Scott's The Kelpies in Falkirk
art

What do gigantic horse heads tell us about Falkirk?

Arts & Entertainment
artGraffiti legend posts picture of work – but no one knows where it is
Arts & Entertainment
A close-up of Tom of Finland's new Finnish stamp
art

Finnish Postal Service praises the 'self irony and humour' of the drawings

Arts & Entertainment
Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in 2002's Die Another Day
film

The actor has confessed to his own insecurities

Life & Style
Green fingers: a plot in East London
TV

Allotments are the focus of a new reality show

Arts & Entertainment
Myleene Klass attends the Olivier awards 2014

Oliviers 2014Theatre stars arrive at Britain's most prestigious theatre awards
Arts & Entertainment
Stars of The Book of Mormon by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park

Oliviers 2014Blockbuster picked up Best Musical and Best Actor in a Musical
Arts & Entertainment
Lesley Manville with her Olivier for Best Actress for her role in 'Ghosts'

Oliviers 2014Actress thanked director Richard Eyre for a stunning production
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

    Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
    Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

    British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

    The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
    Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

    Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

    Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
    Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
    Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

    Cannes Film Festival

    Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
    The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

    The concept album makes surprise top ten return

    Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
    Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

    Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

    Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
    10 best baking books

    10 best baking books

    Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
    Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

    Jury still out on Pellegrini

    Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

    As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
    Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

    Mad Men returns for a final fling

    The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

    Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit