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 and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
music review
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Boy George performing with Culture Club at Heaven

musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years

Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

    The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

    Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

    Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
    The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

    Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

    The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

    The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
    Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

    Paul Scholes column

    I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
    Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker