The Ross-Brand affair, otherwise known as Manuelgate or Sachsgate was the media driven scandal that occupied the attention of the British public during the last week of October 2008 and involved the broadcasters Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross together with the veteran actor Andrew Sachs who famously played the waiter Manuel in Fawlty Towers.

Comedy Capers

Russell Brand was the British comedian, radio and television presenter who might well also have been known to American audiences thanks to his recent appearance on the MTV Video Music Awards and his decision to take up acting which saw him play a starring role in the film Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Amongst other things he presented a weekly two-hour Saturday night show on BBC Radio 2, and on the 18th October 2008 the 'Russell Brand Show' featured as a special guest one Jonathan Ross, the man who had built a career in British television by aping David Letterman, but had since become the BBC's most prominent and highly paid presenter, having recently signed a three year contract worth £18 million.

The Russell Brand Show of the 18th October was to have included a telephone interview with the aforementioned Andrew Sachs. It appeared that Sachs's appearance was inspired by a reference Brand had made in the previous week's show to the fact that his granddaughter was a member of a dance troupe known as the Satanic Sluts. Indeed about ten minutes into the show of the 18th October Brand again mentioned Sachs's granddaughter and went on to refer to the "elephant in the room" being the fact that Sachs wasn't aware that he Brand had "slept" with her. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, Mr Sachs wasn't home when the call was made, and Brand simply got through to his answerphone. In the circumstances Brand decided to leave a message at which point Jonathan Ross took the opportunity to interject with the comment "He fucked your granddaughter". The pair then decided to make a further series of calls leaving further messages, ostensibly to apologise for their earlier behaviour, although in truth they simply used this as an opportunity to elaborate further on the alleged humour of Ross's earlier remark. At one point Ross claimed that "she was bent over the couch", whilst Brand stated that he had worn a condom and even sang a little song which featured the lyrics, "it was consensual and she wasn't menstrual, it was consensual lovely sex. It's full of respect. I sent her a text. I've asked her to marry me", as well as revealing her name to be Georgina. It was even suggested at one point that Sachs might feel inclined to hang himself after listening to their messages.

Brand was later interviewed on Radio 1's Chris Moyles Show on the 21st October when he referred to the Sachs interview, and noted that "Jonathan Ross blurted out an expletive" regarding Sachs's granddaughter, whom he confirmed that he had met, in fact he'd "met her brains out" as he delicately put it. Remarks which, with the benefit of hindsight, did little to help his cause.

However, despite the fact that an audience of 400,000 was claimed for Brand's Saturday radio show, it must be said that no one paid that much attention at the time and the broadcast only attracted two complaints. It was also said that both complaints were irked by the fact that Ross had said 'fuck' on the radio, rather than any concerns about who had allegedly fucked whom.

This might well have been the end of the matter had it not been for the Mail on Sunday, as on the Wednesday following the broadcast a journalist from that paper contacted Sachs's agent Meg Pool. She alerted Mr Sachs to the content of the broadcast who, having listened to the recording, was said to be "offended very much indeed" by its content. Ms Pool was therefore inspired to contact the controller of Radio 2, Lesley Douglas requesting "an unreserved apology". Apparently forewarned about the impending story Brand was spurred into offering an apology on his next show broadcast on the 25th October. It was however rather a half-hearted apology, which consisted of an admission that "you mustn't swear on someone's answer phone", which was then undermined by the excuse that it was "funny", as Brand then dragged out the old chestnut about how the Daily Mail had once allegedly "supported Hitler" as a way of justifying his somewhat lesser sin.

On the 26th October the Mail on Sunday ran the story on the front page and reported that "the BBC could face prosecution over obscene phone calls". The Mail's story was soon picked up by other news media, and was widely reported and discussed here and there on the Internet.

Initially the BBC was fairly dismissive of the whole affair. No one much had complained, and in particular it denied that it received any complaint from Andrew Sachs or his representatives. However on the following day the BBC confirmed that it had now received 1,587 complaints, as well as a letter of a complaint from Meg Pool. The BBC issued a statement offering its sincere apologies to Mr Sachs for any offence caused. This news generated more coverage for the story, and the more publicity the story received, the more complaints arrived at the BBC. The total had risen to 4,772 by the morning of the 28th October, shortly before the broadcasting watchdog Ofcom announced that it was launching an investigation into the affair, whilst the BBC Trust also announced that it had requested a report from BBC management. A long list of politicians including both David Cameron and Gordon Brown were inspired to pass critical judgement on the BBC; Brown described the calls as "inappropriate and unacceptable", as Cameron went in to some detail as to what questions he felt the BBC should now ask itself.

It turned out that one of the factors driving the surge of complaints was the discovery, contrary to what might have been imagined, that the Russell Brand Show wasn't a live broadcast, as the entire whole show had in fact been pre-recorded on the 16th October. The idea therefore that the BBC had somehow knowingly been a party to the whole affair right from the beginning, only served to make things worse. On the morning of the 29th October 2008 the number of complaints was more than 10,000, and by the end of the day the total was in excess of 27,000. By mid-day on the 30th October the number of complaints had passed the 30,500 mark, and was subsequently reported to have exceeded 42,000. The Russell Brand Show of the 18th October 2008 therefore achieved the status of becoming the most complained about programme in BBC history.(1)

Sack These Sickos

Initially little was said regarding Georgina Baillie, generally described by the media as being a twenty-three year old model. Detailed research however confirmed that she was indeed a member of a "raunchy burlesque dance group" known as the Satanic Sluts, and had adopted the stage name of Voluptua(2). It turned out that these Satanic Sluts, otherwise known as Salvation's Black Order, were a venture promoted by the Salvation Group whose Redemption Films made a living distributing "cutting edge sex, sleaze and horror films" and proudly boasted of having had more films banned by the British Board of Film Classification than any other distributor. Their act appeared to consist of bouncing around on stage in their underwear with the occasional bucketful of fake blood thrown in for good measure, and were clearly nothing more than a rather pale imitation of the Suicide Girls.(3)

Ms Baillie had indeed been performing as part of the Satanic Sluts Extreme at Club 666 in Vienna on the 25th October. However as soon as she had returned to the UK it was announced that she would be presenting "her side of the story after approaching publicist Max Clifford". This was a clear indication that money would indeed be changing hands in favour of Ms Baillie, and the results of Mr Clifford's efforts on her behalf were soon made apparent. The Sun of the 29th October duly revealed that Ms Baillie had indeed "slept with Brand" on no less than three occasions having been "introduced by a mutual pal in late 2006", and noted her complaint that Brand had embarrassed her "by making a private relationship very public in the cruellest way imaginable", together with her claim that she had been betrayed "for a few cheap laughs".

Further revelations followed in The Sun of the 30th October when Ms Baillie told the world that Brand had been fascinated by the news that she was indeed Sachs's granddaughter, and that he had subsequently "pranced around the bedroom" proclaiming such catchphrases as "I know nothing", "Qué?" and "I learn it from a booook". She also revealed that Brand was a "disappointment" in bed, although it was notable that it had clearly required three attempts to confirm that this was the case. Nevertheless Ms Baillie appeared upset about the treatment of her grandfather and called on the BBC to "sack these sickos".

Shortly before midday 29th October, the Director-General of the BBC Mark Thompson issued a statement to the effect that he had decided that it was "not appropriate for either Russell Brand or Jonathan Ross to continue broadcasting". Filming of the next edition of Friday Night with Jonathan Ross, which was due to have taken place at BBC Television Centre later that same day was cancelled, and both Ross's and Brand's Saturday radio shows were pulled from Radio 2's schedules. Later that same day however, Russell Brand rather pre-empted any impending judgement of his behaviour by announcing his resignation from the BBC.

On the 30th October it was announced that Jonathan Ross had been suspended from the BBC without pay for twelve weeks. According to Mark Thompson the suspension was an "exceptional step", but he believed it was a "proportionate response to Jonathan's role in this unhappy affair" and served as "a final warning" to Ross, presumably to behave himself in future. Lesley Douglas, the controller of BBC Radio 2, resigned on the same day, saying that the decision to do so was "mine and mine alone" and was made with "enormous regret". Dave Barber, the head of compliance department who had actually cleared the "offending material for broadcast", hung on until the 7th November when he too announced his resignation.

What went Wrong

It turned out that the reason that Andrew Sachs wasn't available to take Brand's phone call was simply because he believed that it was a live show, and he was therefore expecting to be called on the Saturday rather than two days earlier. When he then picked up the messages left by Brand and Ross on his voicemail through his mobile phone, he was actually sitting outside a cafe having lunch. Due to a combination of traffic noise and poor reception he didn't hear the remark that Ross had made that Brand had "fucked" his granddaughter, and neither did he hear the 'song of apology'. Indeed despite the impression given by the show, it did not appear that all of the material had actually been recorded on Sachs's answerphone. (Which is, of course, an old broadcasting trick.)

Although some press reports had claimed that Ross had told Radio 2 producers that he expected that they'd be "editing all that out", it appeared that both Ross and Brand wanted the calls to Sachs left in "for their comic value", although Ross expressed the opinion that they should only be included if both Andrew Sachs and Georgina Baillie consented. The problem was that since the BBC never made Sachs aware of what exactly it was they were intending to broadcast, and simply assumed that he must already have heard the Ross-Brand exchange on his answerphone, they were never in a position to actually obtain that consent. So that when Nic Philps (the producer of the Russell Brand Show) later telephoned Sachs to discuss the matter, they were largely talking at cross purposes, and whilst Philps thought that Sachs had consented to the broadcast as long as it was "toned down a bit", Sachs believed that he had simply expressed a preference to be interviewed on the following week's show. (Whilst of course no one actually spoke to Ms Baillie prior to the broadcast.)

Sachs's request that the material be "toned down" appeared to have then led to the BBC's decision to excise one brief segment in which Ross and Brand suggested that they should make it up to Sachs by sneaking into his house at night and "groping him intimately" as The Sun put it. But that appeared to be the sum total of the editorial judgement exercised. BBC management seemed more interested in the fact that it was "some brilliantly funny radio" and that both "Russ and Jonathan" were "very keen for it to go out", rather than any other consideration. Indeed whilst Nic Philps was aware of the potentially 'controversial' nature of the material and that someone at the BBC was supposed to sign off a compliance form ahead of transmission, he was also aware of the fact that there was no one at Radio 2 to receive and read the form. He therefore decided to complete the form in the following week after the programme had been broadcast, thereby rather defeating the point entirely.

It therefore came to pass that no one in Radio 2 actually took the trouble to listen to the programme before it went to air. According to Lesley Douglas (controller of BBC Radio 2) it was Dave Barber who had the "responsibility to listen to the programme and to sign it off". For his part Dave Barber ( head of compliance) was equally adamant that it wasn't his job to do so, as the Russell Brand Show wasn't an in-house production, but was rather made by Brand's own company Vanity Projects.

It also turned out that the reason why the BBC initially denied that it received any complaint from Andrew Sachs or his representatives, when Sachs's agent Meg Pool insisted one had been sent, was simply that she'd sent the complaint by email to Leslie Douglas on the 24th October, and Ms Douglas was 'out of the office' and didn't bother reading her email until after the storm broke on the 26th October.

An accident waiting to happen

As the scandal played itself out across the nation's media much was written about the exact sequence of events that preceded the broadcast of the now infamous edition of the Russell Brand Show, much of which turned out to be both speculative and inaccurate. It wasn't until the publication of the report by the BBC Trust on the 21st November 2008 that the truth, as they say, became known.

We were therefore left with the curious fact that 42,000 or so people decided to complain about a radio programme that they almost certainly hadn't listened to when it was first broadcast. For this, we could probably blame the internet, and the ready availability of complete transcripts of the "offending material" together with various audio and visual clips of sundry excerpts from the broadcast, including one of Brand performing his extempore song for Georgina. Although there were those who sought to justify the broadcast on the grounds that it was funny, and even to protest against the attempt to 'censor' comedians by those critical of their behaviour, the apparently relentless wave after wave of complaints did indeed represent a very real popular surge of disapproval. Of course it might not have always been clear precisely what was being disapproved of. But it included such things as the 'inappropriate use of language', the broadcasting of crude innuendo and even perhaps the simple notion that BBC Radio shouldn't be broadcasting claims that someone had performed the sexual act with anyone's granddaughter, no matter how humorous the intention.

The real surprise was that anyone was surprised at Ross and Brand's collective achievement in offending the nation. After all, Russell Brand's career had been almost entirely based on causing offence in one form or another. After all, he was the man who was prepared to stand before an American audience and refer to then President George W. Bush as "that retard and cowboy fella" who "wouldn't be trusted with a pair of scissors" back home in England. Indeed Brand had been in trouble before for making 'prank calls', having only recently made a hoax call to Northamptonshire Police in July as part of his stand-up performance in Northampton, in which he claimed that he had seen a man wanted in respect of a series of assaults in the area. He later apologised and was perhaps fortunate that the Northamptonshire Police decided not to bring charges.

His comrade-in-arms Jonathan Ross was similarly no stranger to 'controversy' as he had once interviewed David Cameron and felt that it appropriate to enquire as to whether Cameron had ever been sufficiently sexually excited by the former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to, well, physically stimulate himself, and recently felt obliged to ask Michael Aspel whether he'd ever "fucked" any of the Miss World contestants during his long association with that contest.

Subtlety was therefore a concept that was beyond either's understanding and placing both in the same room and broadcasting the end result was very likely to end in trouble sooner or later. This was precisely why of course, the media generally employed individuals to perform some kind of editorial function, in order to ensure that the material actually disseminated complied with various standards of 'taste and decency' and avoided the possibility of legal action. The fact that the BBC had apparently failed to exercise any kind of editorial judgement in this instance, left the organisation looking like a bunch of incompetents who were incapable of running a modern broadcasting organisation. The BBC's Director General Mark Thompson might well have concluded that "nothing like this must ever happen again", but others were of the opinion that nothing like it should have happened in the first place. The BBC therefore became the big loser of the affair, with both its competence and reputation somewhat tarnished.

The old adage states that there is no such thing as bad publicity, and it proved true in the case as sales of Russell Brand's various DVDs and books both increased as the 'scandal' raged across the nation's newspapers, and whilst he might have forgone the £200,000 a year he was receiving from the BBC for a weekly two-hour radio show, America beckoned as he flew to Los Angeles to start filming an adaptation of The Tempest, after which he had the prospect of playing Captain Jack Sparrow’s brother in Pirates Of The Caribbean 4.

Nor should one necessarily feel that sorry for Georgina Baillie, who enjoyed the largest payday of her career so far thanks to The Sun. Whilst it was very likely that the BBC had breached Article 8 of the Human Rights Act in relation to her privacy (at least according to a Caroline Kean of Wiggin & Co) it was considered unlikely that she would seek any legal redress, on the grounds that she'd already compromised her privacy by selling her story to The Sun. Of course damages might well have been limited due to the nature of her 'modelling career' in any case. Such as the various appearances she had made on the website known as SatinPlay, and however "distraught" Ms Baillie may have thought that her grandfather had been rendered by the news that she had enjoyed a sexual relationship with Mr Brand, it can only be imagined what he thought of the appearance of Georgina Baillie: The Strap On Sex Tape.

As far as Jonathan Ross was concerned it was said that he had been telling friends that he now feared that his career was "finished", a view that was endorsed by the likes of Terry Wogan. Nevertheless the BBC appeared committed to the idea that he would indeed return to the nation's screens in January 2009. After all, they were prepared to pay £6 million a year for his services, and were presumably disinclined to let all this money go to waste, and presumably the furore had not hurt sales of Ross's most recent quasi-autobiographical book, which was rather presciently entitled Why do I say these things?.

As to why the British media made such a fuss over the whole affair, it is important to appreciate that large sections of the British media were opposed to the BBC and the whole ethos of public service broadcasting. Even those newspapers who were not part of a larger media group that included a direct competitor, were resentful of the BBC's internet presence, and the fact that its dissemination of so much 'free content' rather precluded them from charging for the provision of similar content. As a result, there were always those ready to seize whatever stick was available to beat Aunty around the head. Various attempts were made to further fan the flames by trying to manufacture similar controversies. The comments that Bill Oddie made about a dead squirrel ("Better red than dead ... or grey.") which prompted a grand total of four complaints, and the remarks made by Jeremy Clarkson regarding the propensity of lorry drivers to become serial killers, were both used in an effort to recreate much the same kind of public outcry without much success. There were even attempts to stir up enthusiasm for a campaign of non-payment of the television licensing fee.

Having banked her cheque from Max Clifford, Georgina Baillie was said to be "happy" with the findings of the report by the BBC Trust, and said that it was now "time to draw a line under the matter and move on". And anyone who had any interest in making any enquiries regarding the booking of Georgina Baillie aka Voluptua, the Satanic Sluts Extreme, or the main Satanic Sluts group, was directed to contact satanicsluts@googlemail.com in the first instance. Andrew Sachs was less forthcoming; his wife Melody was reported as saying that he had "nothing to say", but that she supposed that he didn't want "to do anything more about it" before adding, "We are so tired of all this stuff. Whatever they do, they do, but we are so tired of it all."


NOTES

(1) This claim might be debatable. Since although the BBC 'only' received 8,000 complaints about the broadcast of Jerry Springer - The Opera, it received another 55,000 complaints prior to broadcast, although much of that was orchestrated by organisations such as the Evangelical Alliance.
(2) Voluptua was the name of the character played by Julie Ege in the film version of Up Pompeii! (1971), although one suspects that Ms Baillie does not know this.
(3) As once featured on CSI:New York in the episode entitled 'Oedipus Hex'.


SOURCES

  • Brand apologises for prank call, BBC News, 16 July 2008
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/7508863.stm
  • Miles Goslett, Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross could face prosecution ..., Daily Mail, 26th October 2008
    http://www.mailonsunday.co.uk/news/article-1080621/Russell-Brand-Jonathan-Ross-face-prosecution-obscene-air-phone-calls-Fawlty-Towers-actor-78.html
  • John Plunkett, Complaints to BBC over Russell Brand phone prank top 1,500, The Guardian, October 27 2008
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2008/oct/27/jonathan-ross-russell-brand
  • Ofcom to launch BBC Brand inquiry, BBC News, 28 October 2008
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/7694921.stm
  • Nick Parker and Derek Brown, My grandfather is distraught ... now sack these sickos, The Sun, 29 Oct 2008
    http://www.thesun.co.uk/sol/homepage/news/article1867800.ece
  • Laura Roberts, Meet Voluptua ...., Daily Mail, 29th October 2008
    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-1081087/Meet-Voluptua-burlesque-dancer-goth-centre-BBC-radio-prank.html
  • Brand and Ross: Apologies in full, BBC News, 29 October 2008
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/7698484.stm
  • Brand and Ross suspended by BBC, BBC News, 29 October 2008
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/7696714.stm
  • Daily Mail Reporter, Lest we forget: Or what the BBC won't let you hear, Daily Mail , 30th October 2008
    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1081663/Lest-forget-Or-BBC-wont-let-hear.html
  • Timeline: Russell Brand prank calls, BBC News, 31 October 2008
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/7694989.stm
  • Edward Fennell, The Jonathan Ross-Russell Brand affair stripped bare, The Times November 6, 2008
    http://business.timesonline.co.uk/tol/business/law/article5090149.ece
  • Anita Singh, Radio 2 executive resigns over Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand prank, 08 Nov 2008
    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/celebritynews/3400839/Radio-2-executive-resigns-over-Jonathan-Ross-and-Russell-Brand-prank.html
  • Salvation Films at http://salvation-films.com/default.aspx
  • Russell and Ross What the F*** was that about broadcast on Five at 9.00 pm, 4th November 2008

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