John Walsh: Tales of the City

'Like a Frankenstein's monster made up of different rock-star affectations, Russell Brand is utterly fake'
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The Independent Online

There was something touchingly vulnerable about the photos of Fidel Castro that appeared in the Cuban newspapers on his birthday. The figure we know so well - the tall, heroic, perma-bearded, cigar-smoking Comandante in his khaki fatigues, gesturing at crowds of faithful while making a nine-hour speech about the sugar harvest - was replaced by a more quiescent image.

The photographs showed a game old patient in a care home, sitting in an Adidas trackie jacket proudly showing off a picture of himself looking healthy on the front page of Granma. You felt like going "ahhh". You could practically hear him telling one of the staff: "I'm 80 years old, you know, and I'm a world-famous dictator," before being reassured that, yes, he'll be allowed out for a lovely walk in the sanatorium grounds after tea. Something about the title of the newspaper brought up memories of St Winifred's School Choir in 1980 with their hit song "There's No One Quite Like Grandma".

But it's never possible to write off Castro, is it? After 50 years as perhaps the only dictator in the world for whom it's possible to feel a sneaking admiration, he remains unsinkably there, as though carved into the Cuban landscape. He presides over state-run newspapers, but doesn't always trade in propaganda.

Confronted with the likelihood of his demise, he remains blackly humorous: "To say [my] stability has improved considerably is not to tell a lie," he told the Cuban press. "To say that the period of [my] recovery will be short and there is now no risk, would be absolutely incorrect." A lifelong sportsman and spear-fisherman, he's the only octogenarian in a tracksuit who's likely to go running in it. (And, while we're at it, Granma isn't anything to do with elderly ladies, but a title of epic resonance - it's the name of the leisure yacht on which Castro, his brother Raul and 80 followers sailed from Mexico to Cuba to try to wrest power from Batista in 1956.)

You have to doff your hat to someone who has been a thorn in the flesh of American governments since Eisenhower, who has survived umpteen attempts to assassinate him (the CIA tried to poison the mouthpiece of his snorkel), and who has managed to square his Communist principles with strategic nods towards the coming, inevitable age of capitalist democracy.

When I visited Havana, six years ago, I was struck by the fact that private restaurants were flourishing - surely a galloping symbol of decadent consumerism. As a gesture to hard-liners, Castro specified that restaurants must be family-owned and family-run, and profits must remain in the family. Every restaurant I visited featured a front-of-house mock-up of a family unit, with a couple of oldsters snoozing in armchairs in front of a TV set. You had to pick your way past the somnolent seniors before you could find your table and be given the menu and wine list. It was a fascinating image of the Acceptable Face of Capitalism - just one detail from the political balancing-act Castro has pulled off for years while holding off the day when Starbucks, McDonald's and the benign dictatorship of American culture come marching in.

I'm not a natural viewer of Big Brother's Big Mouth, but for weeks I've been gazing wide-eyed at the spectacle of Russell Brand, and trying to fathom who he thinks he is. To watch him lurch around the studio, gurning and ranting away in that hectic flood, alternately ignoring the audience and sitting on its lap, is to rediscover the concept of the Man you Love to Hate.

It's not so much that he's dim (his satirical thrusts, when you can understand what he's saying, are rather clever) as that he's so egregiously fake. I don't think I've ever clapped eyes on a television performer who is so flagrantly a construct: a mascara-ed Frankenstein's monster made up of a dozen different rock-star affectations bolted together and subjected to a few thousand volts of lightning.

The thrombosis-inducing tight leather trousers are pinched from Paul Rogers, in his days singing "All Right Now"; the faux-elegant slurred insults ("The swine...") is a nod to Richard E Grant doing Withnail; the little beard is borrowed from Barry Gibb, the handsome one from The Bee Gees; the eye make-up is courtesy of Gary Glitter; the falling-over walk seems to be modelled on a new-born foal attempting its first tottering steps across a meadow; the pointy microphone is an echo of the late Freddie Mercury's posing on stage with a pointy microphone-stand; the neckerchief (the neckerchief??) comes from I know not where, unless it's John Wayne in Stagecoach...

See what I mean? It's too postmodern to be true - like a song being sung in seven different styles simultaneously. No wonder one's main response is to want to poke a hand through the TV screen and give him a good slap.

But I read something at the weekend that made everything clear. For a Sunday newspaper, Brand visited Cologne and had "an audience" with Keith Richards towards the end of The Rolling Stones' world tour. The audience lasted, by my calculation, all of three minutes and involved a total exchange of 30 words between the two men, before Richards (perhaps having spotted the deranged, wannabe look in Brand's eyes) told him: "I gotta go. I've got a gig to do."

And that's when the penny dropped and I realised what Russell has been up to all along. He's been trying to impersonate Cap'n Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise - a part played by Johnny Depp in an alcoholic swoon, as a bleary, elegantly wasted hommage to Keith. So here we have an English television presenter (Brand) taking off an American actor (Depp) playing an English pirate in the style of a Dartford guitarist. I give up. Bring back Cliff Michelmore.