Robert Hanks: 'Ross headed towards apology, but then spoilt it'
The Week in Radio
Thursday 29 January 2009
I don't think anyone doubts now that Yeats's "The Second Coming" ("Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;/ Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world") was not a poem at all, but a prophesy – that in 1919, he was mysteriously seized by a vision of Manuelgate and all that followed. Those sinister closing lines ("And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,/ Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?") are his way of describing Jonathan Ross's return to the BBC after a three-month suspension. After that, what more is there to add but a few factual details?
Resuming his throne on the Radio 2 Saturday-morning slot, Ross said how nice it was to be back, before playing the Franz Ferdinand song "Ulysses", with its oblique reference to a king returning after long exile to his homeland. And then he proceeded to issue the long-awaited apology for his bad behaviour. Sort of.
He said that the best thing about his return to television the previous night had been the opportunity to get out there and say sorry – I'm not sure that talking about an apology is the same as apologising, but he was definitely heading in an apologetic direction; but then he had to spoil the mood by complaining about the press not having noticed previous apologies. (This is not my reading of the events of last October: I thought the press did notice his apologies, but believed they sounded graceless and insincere.)
Given that Radio 2 was where the offence took place, and had lost its gifted and popular controller as a result, it seemed odd that Ross had aimed a full-blown apology at a TV audience, leaving Radio 2's listeners to make do with descriptions of an apology. But hey, we take what we can get.
After that, it was business as usual – some nice records, nothing too edgy, Ross bantering with his sidekick Andy Davies, the odd bit of innuendo. It came as a surprise to open 'News of the World' the following morning and discover that I, and millions of other listeners, had been outraged by Ross's gross jokes about sex with an elderly woman, but I suppose we must have been. At the time, it all seemed rather tame.
Ross is, when he's on form, a sharp-witted, smooth-talking, professional DJ; but this Saturday felt distinctly slow and awkward. An awareness of the boundaries must have been part of the problem, and sheer lack of match fitness. But there's a structural problem with the show, as well: Davies is too much like Ross, a faithful echo of his master's voice, to provide comic energy; Ross needs someone who provides an alternative point of view, whom he can kick against rather than around.
One interesting aspect of the Ross/Brand affair was the generational divide: how, to people over, say, 30, the phone-call seemed repugnant, while to the young the fuss was inexplicable. I expected On the Top Deck (Radio 4, Wednesday) to provide some insights into the nature of modern youth. Ian Marchant's subject was the increasingly aggressive culture that free transport for the young has created on London buses: he travelled on some of them, asking teenagers and even younger children about their experiences. He uncovered a tribal culture with its own laws, far removed from anything understood by the courts: knives, theft, threat, the assumption that any girl sitting towards the rear of a bus must know she's asking for certain kinds of trouble (the phrase "contributory negligence" floated in the background). Interesting and mildly horrifying, but ultimately frustrating – what Marchant showed was how elusive insight is; how, to their elders, the young can be utterly impenetrable.
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