“Don’t be afraid of your own sexuality,” Russell Brand says in a chat show clip dating back to the height of his fame in the mid-Noughties. The comedian, his hair backcombed into his then signature birds’ nest, takes a pause, before adding a caveat in a slightly more hushed register. “Do be a bit afraid of mine though.”
It’s just one of many such scenes, painstakingly unearthed by the producers of Dispatches’ Russell Brand: In Plain Sight, which have acquired a sinister layer of meaning in the wake of disturbing allegations levelled against the 48-year-old, in Channel 4’s documentary and an investigation by The Sunday Times and The Times.
Both the film and the Times report detailed allegations of rape, sexual assault and emotional abuse by four different women, which Brand strenuously denied in a YouTube video posted before the story broke. He maintains that all of his past relationships during his “time of promiscuity” were “absolutely always consensual”; now a self-styled wellness guru who shares dubious conspiracy theories on his social media channels, he has also suggested that “mainstream media outlets” are “trying to construct… a very coordinated attack” on him because of his controversial views.
By the time that In Plain Sight aired on Saturday evening, the horrifying accusations had been laid out in black and white on the Times website for several hours, but the Dispatches film still managed to add new dimensions to the already harrowing claims. With its montage of clips from Brand’s TV and radio back catalogue (many of which have been taken from Channel 4’s archives, from shows such as Big Brother’s Big Mouth), the 90-minute film suggested how his comedy threw up alarming red flags, over and over again. It opens with footage from Brand’s 2006 stand-up special Shame: appearing on stage wearing one of his standard dishevelled, quasi-Dickensian ensembles, he embarks on a joke about oral sex, before doing a stomach-churning impression complete with gagging sounds.
This sort of thing was totally par for the course in Brand’s stand-up: his whole, well, brand played on his tabloid persona as “shagger of the year” (as The Sun crowned him for three consecutive years), and on his willingness to shock. The phrase “in plain sight” is often used when we attempt to look back at an alleged predator’s past behaviour, but it feels particularly (and horribly) appropriate here. Later in this routine, Brand admits to enjoying “them blowjobs where mascara runs a little bit”. It’s an almost exact echo of testimony from one accuser, referred to in the report as “Alice”, who was a 16-year-old schoolgirl at the time of her relationship with Brand, then 31. She claims that he “forced his penis down [her] throat”, then later told her: “I only wanted to see your mascara run anyway.”
From what was shown in the documentary, it appears that the signs were all there, brazenly present and correct in his live act, and on his BBC 2 Radio show (in which, we’re reminded by way of a shocking audio clip, Brand once called up Jimmy Savile and promised to send his female assistant over to visit him, naked – long before the “Sachsgate” scandal forced him off air). We just didn’t bother to question it. In Brand’s mid-Noughties heyday, remarks like this were seen as edgy, but acceptably so – they might have elicited nervous laughter, but laughter all the same. It is telling that it took Brand insulting a (male) national treasure – when he and co-presenter Jonathan Ross made lewd remarks about Fawlty Towers actor Andrew Sachs’s granddaughter, Georgina Baillie – to force him off the airwaves.
The film serves as a grim indictment of the ingrained, quotidian misogyny of the Noughties, but it also emphasises how little has changed. Early on in the film, we learn of allegations about Brand’s inappropriate behaviour towards young female runners working on his shows. As an adult, “Alice” went on to get a job at Channel 4: with thudding inevitability, Brand was suggested as a potential host for a project she was working on in late 2013 or 2014. When fears about his alleged behaviour were raised, an infuriating solution was offered, she claims: that female staff would be taken off the crew.
The fact that only one comedian, the Scottish stand-up Daniel Sloss, was willing to go on record, to discuss how the allegations against Brand had been something of an open secret in comedy circles for years, feels particularly depressing, too. Many male comics are happy to share platitudes about the need for diversity and inclusion in their industry, and about the value of the #MeToo movement (indeed, Brand himself did so in past interviews). But what does that mean if they aren’t willing to speak out against one of their own?