Matthew Norman: Memo to the BBC: stay calm at moments of national crisis

The Ross/Brand episode isn't edifying. But nor is it a matter for prime ministers

Thursday 30 October 2008 01:00

The Prime Minister has lobbed in his two pennorth. One of the fools at the furore's heart has resigned. The other has been suspended, and in a cunning bid to dispel any suspicion that this is the liberal media elite opening a new front in its revolutionary quest to obliterate Middle English values, the director-general has flown back from his hols in Sicily. But is it enough? Does even all this do justice to the gravity of the crisis? For, ladies and gentlemen, it would appear we are at war.

Not since the ague-inducing revelation that Kate Moss, a whippet-thin supermodel known to surround herself with rock and showbiz types, had been merrily a-snortin' has there been so explosive an eruption of cultural skirmishing. Perhaps this is just me being alarmist, and I wouldn't go so far as to suggest a curfew or state of emergency yet, but a no-fly zone is indicated. If only to clear the skies for a squadron of those wizard aircraft the Americans deployed in 2003, to such splendid effect, to commandeer the airwaves of Iraq and broadcast propaganda to those wavering below over whether to festoon their invaders' shoulders with rose petals.

"People of Britain, this is Mark Thompson of the BBC," the recorded message, broadcast on every radio wavelength and TV channel, could run. "Normal programming has been suspended, much like my outing to the charming historic town of Taormina, for the duration of this crisis. I can barely express my deep regret at the distress and trauma occasioned by Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross.

"The idea that two comic figures employed by me at huge expense for the risqué thrust of their adolescent humour would have said something so childishly and crudely offensive ... the notion that Mr Ross, who asked David Cameron if he ever masturbated at the thought of Mrs Thatcher, and Mr Brand, who recently informed US viewers of an MTV awards show that their President is a retard, would ... I'm so sorry, I'll need a minute to collect myself. Right. And now, on the newly reconstituted BBC Light Programme, here is David Jacobs with an edition of Pick of the Pops from July, 1959."

The eye of the storm is no vantage point from which to see the wood for the trees, and at this stage the fog of war hangs over everything anyway. Which of the aggrieved, for example, deserves first call on our sympathy? At one point, the smart money was on Andrew Sachs, dear old Manuel, whose answerphone was peppered with such mesmeringly witless references to the ravishing of his granddaughter by Mr Brand. But he has now accepted apologies, however insincere, from the latter and Mr Ross.

As for Georgina Baillie, it has become trickier to empathise with the shock to which she lays claim since learning that she's an erstwhile "glamour model" who thrice enjoyed coitus with Mr Brand, and may well remain his friend. If her sensibilities are less delicate than she lets on, the sound of Max Clifford on those curiously unsequestered airwaves yesterday, in his guise as purveyor of choicest publicity to the synthetically scandalised, told a tale of its own.

Georgina will make a great deal of money from this, and so she should. For playing even an unwitting part in the provision of such mirth (Corfu one week, this the next; really, have you ever felt so spoilt?), no reward is too lavish. So I guess, all in all, that the only people entitled to take to their beds with a fit of the vapours right now are you and me and anyone else who belongs to what's invariably styled, at moments like this, as the Great British Public.

Returning to Mr Sachs, his pivotal position in what is fundamentally a generational cultural war, albeit won and lost long ago, is too cute for words. His father Leonard was for 30 years the chairman of The Good Old Days, that knowing celebration of late Victorian music hall in which he was as artful an alliterator when acknowledging the artistic appeal of amazing acts as any there ever was. Now we find his granddaughter following that tradition, nicely illustrating the development of tastes in mass light entertainment by playing in the burlesque girl band Satanic Sluts. Parody obviously runs deep in the blood of the Sachses, but it would be a struggle even for them to pastiche this national crisis when it does such a bang-up job of pastiching itself.

That Brand and Ross are cocky twerps is in no more doubt than that editorial judgment took a holiday, presumably to a Sicilian farmhouse, the day this tape was cleared to air. Yet the only unpleasant element is, typically, the only one no one seems bothered about ... Mr Brand's implication, in the cause of dramatically boosting sales of ribcage repair kits, that he first had sex with Georgina, on a swing, when she was nine. Hardly the ridiculing of paedophilia hysteria that Chris Morris unleashed with such laser-guided acuteness in Brass Eye. Not even dangerous or cutting edge. Just brazen idiocy, seasoned by a dash of arrogance and garnished with a flake of indistinct, puerile nastiness.

None of this edifies, of course, but nor is it a matter for police and prime ministers. And however much some newspapers might regret it, we cannot go back to the Good Old Days. Goddammit, we're Brits, not the Middle Americans who took such crazed umbrage when Janet Jackson flashed a nipple at the Superbowl.

This maniacally conflated row is merely another twitch from the corpse, so strangely immune to rigor mortis, of that small but loud body of citizens who pine for the Victorian values of harmless showbiz innuendo and Mother's Ruin in the age of cocaine, Satanic Sluts and potty-mouthed mock Regency dandies.

So yet again the advice to Mark Thompson is to get up off his knees, where he and the BBC have cowered since the day Lord Hutton delivered his report, and quit the mea maximae culpae. His cringing to the forces of reaction, some motivated by commercial rivalry, others by envy and spite, others still by genuine but anachronistic distaste, has led the BBC halfway to perdition already. Another year or two of perpetual panic and sorry spinelessness (he has a lot to answer for, that Leonard), and the number of truly great British institutions will be reduced to 0.00.

Andrew Sachs, odiously portrayed as a befuddled duffer at an age when Churchill was still PM, is over it, while Georgina will be dreading its end. Grovelling apologies from all concerned have been made for a pitiful, misfired gag that drew precisely two complaints from Radio 2 listeners when broadcast.

A top-level internal BBC inquiry has been completed, a perfectly fine Sicilian trip foreshortened, and Gordon Brown's salvation of the global economy interrupted. Meanwhile, life in this cauldron of crazed hypocrisy and inflated despair continues much as ever, the fabric of society largely unchanged, and without so much as a single tank (at the time of writing) on the streets.

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