During an episode of The Young Ones there was a scene in which Vyvyan tries to impress some girls at a party by doing some press-ups. As it was a comedy show I felt I ought to make the press-ups as funny as possible.
With a huge effort that belied my 40 fags a day at the time, I managed to effect some kind of wiggly-lizard-on-hot-sand-type press-ups that got a pretty good laugh. Much later, after the show was broadcast, our producer was hauled into the controller's office and asked why he'd allowed images of Vyvyan "fucking" the floor to go out – they'd had complaints.
Bad taste is in the eye of the beholder. Well, mostly. As Michael Palin once said, "One 'wank' and the BBC switch board is flooded".
I'm not a fan of the word "edgy", especially when it's describing comedy. "Edgy comedy" usually means "not recorded in front of an audience because we were frightened it wouldn't get a laugh". "Dark and edgy" is even worse – it usually means "The Emperor's New Clothes".
I don't think of Russell Brand as edgy, I think he's just really, really funny. Like most good comics he uses the shock of the unexpected to get laughs. This is different from trying to shock people. At the MTV Awards recently he described George Bush as "that retarded cowboy fella". That's funny, not because it's actually shocking, (it's obviously fairly accurate), but because it's not the sort of thing you expect the usually anodyne presenter of such an event to say. He's clever, sharp, surprising, and charming with it. If a little cocky... and that's what this little "scandal" is really about. It's a little witch hunt.
When it was broadcast the show in question apparently got two complaints. The media, tired of trying to find new angles on the current financial meltdown, have leapt at the opportunity to whip it up into something huge. And of course the BBC have taken it up bigger and better than anyone else, because there's no other organisation that enjoys self-flagellation quite as much. The number of complaints grows by the minute. When I started writing this it was somewhere around the 30,000 mark. By the time I finish it may be around a quarter of a million. Most of those complaining didn't listen to the original show. Soon the number of complaints will outstrip the number of people who were tuned in.
I didn't listen to the show either, but I have read the transcripts of the messages left on Andrew Sachs's phone. I understand entirely why Andrew Sachs is upset. But he and his grandaughter are the only people who should be really upset about this. In the transcripts you can hear Brand and Ross getting overexcited in each others company. Or perhaps, to put it less kindly, you can hear Ross trying to keep up with someone much funnier than he is.
This isn't a dig. Ross doesn't particularly pretend he's a comedian. He's a charming, affable, if slightly over-exposed chat show host. But the peer pressure is pretty obvious. In a year or two Brand will probably have Ross's chat show slot on Friday nights.
But back to the show. They get overexcited and forget that by ringing a real human's phone they're suddenly in the real world rather than the beautifully surreal world that Brand usually creates around himself, and they go slightly over the edge. Not too far over the edge, but enough to elicit two complaints. Though the complaints were about Ross using the F-word, rather than about telling an old man that his new best friend had slept with his grandaughter (again, as the grandaughter makes clear in the tabloids, it turns out Brand was at least being accurate). Perhaps their only crime is that it just wasn't particularly funny.
What the millions are really complaining about is Brand's success with women, and Ross's extraordinary salary. They're fed up with how good Brand looks in his skinny jeans with his crazy hair, how his life seems such effortless good fun, a whirlwind of humour and debauchery, how he managed to sleep with Andrew Sachs's grand-daughter. I mean, have you seen her? And I don't know anyone who isn't incredibly jealous of Ross's 6 million a year.
The noise about BBC editorial procedure is a smokescreen, but a dangerous one. Once we start passing all jokes through endless "taste" controls we'll cripple people's ability to make jokes. If we'd had the kind of controls people are talking about implementing I wouldn't have been able to do my silly wiggly press-ups – not the high point of comedy history perhaps, but a pointer as to where we might end up - in some kind of puritanical Britain where they start putting underpants on church spires because they look a bit phallic.
Mind you, strange that Ross hasn't offered to resign. Wonder why?