Russell Brand & JR: an iconic moment

Sachsgate: what kind of offence?

Rosemary Bechler
10 December 2008

Jonathan Ross: Let's do it …
Brand: Man … er, Andrew Sachs.
Ross: Don't call him Manuel, that's really bad manners. I apologise for Russell - he's an idiot.
Ross: Like it's really bothered us though. Here's the poor man sitting at home sobbing over his answer machine... If he is like most people of a certain age he has probably got a picture of his grandchildren when they were young and innocent right by the phone. So while he is listening to the message he is looking at a picture of her when she was about nine on a swing …
[They call for a second time]
Ross: Hello! Manuel here!
Sachs: [his answer machine message] Sorry I can't answer at the moment …
Brand: [interrupting] … I am too busy thinking about killing myself … Andrew, this is Russell Brand. I am so sorry about the last message - it was part of the radio show, it was a mistake …
Ross: Let's phone him again. Let's leave a nice message.
Brand: We'll phone Andrew Sachs back. We've got to stop upsetting Manuel. This time Jonathan I'm convinced we can make it better.
Ross: What should we not mention, the war?
Brand: Don't mention the war, don't mention his granddaughter. Don't say: 'You only ever played Manuel'... Yes! We'll just sing to him. I'll make up something as I go along.
Brand: [singing…] I'd like to apologise for the terrible attacks, Andrew Sachs, I would like to show contrition to the max, Andrew Sachs. I would like to create world peace, between the yellow, white and blacks, Andrew Sachs, Andrew Sachs. I said something I didn't have oughta, like I had sex with your granddaughter.

Above, some high points from Sachsgate, by-passing swearing: enough to suggest that it wasn’t exactly ‘bad language’ which prompted tens of thousands of people to complain. We have a verdict of sorts – to the effect that ‘those phone calls should never have been made and then they shouldn’t have been broadcast’. There appears to be a consensus that the BBC came perilously close to expunging its Reithian capacity to offer ‘programmes that bring the country together’ and alienating a core audience, ‘5 million of whom recently tuned in for the ceremony at the Cenotaph’. But before the episode disappears into the ether as just another tiff between the moral conservative readers of the Daily Mail and the BBC’s highly-valued youth audience who ‘like more risqué programming’, it is worth considering what kind of offence this was in a little more detail.

These two celebrities have an iconic status. Successful names are often interesting in themselves. ‘Brand’ is no doubt as perfect a fit for the anti-globalisation era of capital – Naomi Klein’s No Logo has as its subtitle, Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies - as ‘Bond’ was for an earlier period. As for his co-conspirator, is it fanciful to suppose that Ross’s initials remind us, subliminally, of the first truly great television villain-hero, that ultimately selfish family member who may well have paved the way for ‘the selfish gene’. Just to remind you of the impact JR made on our lives – here’s the opening mission statement of the ‘official site for the hit television series’:

For millions of people around the world the most important news of the 80`s was not the Polish Revoloution [sic]...the hostages in Iran…the catastrophic earthquakes...the Iraq-Iran war...or the American presidential elections. In fact the number 1 topic, all the way from Philadelphia to Hong Kong, from London to Johannesburg wasn`t anything real at all. It happened in America on March 21st 1980 and was the simulated shooting of a rapacious Texas oil baron at the hands of his low-life mistress, his wife's sister, in a popular American TV Series.
“I’ve never heard anything like it before" comments Linda Gray. “I’ve been talking to some people here in Hollywood who have been around television for years and they tell me that they have never seen anything like it either" adds Linda, "all the newspaper and magazine articles, all the media coverage, people gambling in Las Vegas and London... and we hear they actually showed the shooting on BBC News in Britain... I mean.......its incredible."

Historically, who cares who shot JR? The real question is, who was JR? What kind of permission did he give to our imaginations, conferring on him solidity and life in return? What kind of endorsement to the ‘casino capitalism’ whose ‘lethal London’ variety is currently being discussed by Anthony Barnett and Gerry Hassan over in Our Kingdom? Maybe it’s fanciful to see a certain taboo-breaking glamour travelling through those initials, JR, to the multi-millionaire broadcaster. Maybe it isn’t.

As for the third character in this drama, absent guest ‘Andrew Sachs, aka Manuel’ – this is where the cultural undertow gets really interesting. If you are of a certain age and probably even if you are much younger, you will find it hard to forget the precise impact of the egg-spoon which Basil Fawlty viciously applies to the pint-sized Spanish waiter’s forehead before kicking him, yelping, back into the kitchen. This too, at the time, was wickedly funny – though with one rather obvious difference. In the 70’s, the audience felt superior to bullies, and we weren’t trying to decide which side we were on.

Or maybe that is just how I remember it, and it is a question of whose selective memory one draws on. After all, Cleese himself has felt it necessary to set the record straight on the most famous episode of Fawlty Towers, "Everybody thinks that was a joke about the Germans but they missed it. It was a joke about English attitudes to the war and the fact that some people were still hanging on to that rubbish." On reflection, the magnificent fundaments of Cleese comedy were laid in the 1960’s - part of that long overdue anatomisation of British class sado-masochisms. So the roots go deep.

In the early 80’s, however, there was another shift in the tectonic plates of comedy, a bit like the slide from the monster to Frankenstein, when we stopped laughing at Basil Fawlty and began to be him. At the time Margaret Thatcher was urging journalists to limit coverage of the Falklands war ‘in the national interest’. As Michael Nicholson of ITN News later informed the Defence Committee set up to investigate the handling of press and public information during that conflict, he was told to do ‘a 1940s propaganda job’. On the 30 April, 1982 Franklin’s cartoon in the Sun, Ten…nine…eight…seven…six…, boasted a Union Jack with sleek black cannons and battleships for stripes, all targeted on an Argentinian gaucho sitting hunched and dazed in the middle, complete with poncho, sombrero and handlebar moustache – an unmistakeable Manuel look-alike – the Spanish type of congenitally stupid and always a victim. You could say that from somewhere around this point, as a nation, in our popular imagination, we began to identify with the bully.

In the British context, it is always worth keeping an eye on the connection between bullying and war and as a piece of unpleasantness, the precise motivation behind Ross’s application of ‘Don’t mention the war’ (the immemorial phrase Cleese turned into a song for the FIFA World Cup 2006) to Sachs, whose family fled Hitler’s Kristallnacht, would take some unravelling. But leave aside all the other fascinating reverberations of this script and the sheer extent of the destruction it has in its sights – the privacy of one’s own home, respect for old age, family and the protection afforded by the pater familias, multiculturalism and peaceful co-existence - and sexy women, to be sure! - it remains the single most amazing aspect of ‘Sachsgate’ how long it took for the commentariat to identify the nature of the offence as rank bullying. It is this social tutorial in humiliation, selected, urged and thereby endorsed by top Beeb celebrities and directors for our delectation - all the more dangerous for its playground and cyberbullying overtones (you can’t call them undertones) - that makes this event offensive. After all, the repeated phone calls explicitly, gleefully, reference verbal techniques for hounding someone else to death. In the event, the word ‘bullying’ was no sooner mentioned, than it was hastily dropped. Instead, we were offered a series of euphemisms to do with how young people like being ‘risqué’ and like ‘risqué programmes’. There is the merest hint of an underlying scandal which turns out to be, national fragmentation. Tell it softly: perhaps it is no longer possible to produce programmes for the whole nation at once! Perhaps you can only please one major constituency by simultaneously alienating another? Good try. But there is something altogether too tepid about the reluctant resort to ‘consumer choice’, well summed up by the exhortation in the BBC’s own accounts of the event: ‘Warning: This account contains transcripts of the calls which include language that some readers may find offensive.’ Other readers, presumably, won’t mind at all… and with a bit of luck, any residual sensitivities will be flushed away by the next healthy dose of competition, wherein one miscreant crowns the other ‘kingmaker’ of comedy, while he is voted, ‘Best Live Stand-Up of the Year’, by loyal fellow-practitioners. No - the elephant in the room I would like to suggest, remains the sheer number of programmes, whole programming genres, and comedic, cookery and broadcasting careers which now have humiliation, harassment and bullying as their sole, or at least underlying objective. From Weakest Link to The Apprentice to Big Brother to all those X factors - the list is far longer than this - what other promise lurks in the bowels of British ‘entertainment’ so tantalisingly as our collective celebration of our ability to hurt each other? If OFCOM and the BBC Trust were genuinely to ask who is responsible for this, they would have to widen their brief to include the whole of ‘reality tv’ for starters – that marvellous phrase which seals itself with the hegemonic imprimatur. And would the true villain of the piece really turn out to be - the younger generation? There may be some truth to the accusation that the brutalisation of doing business in everyday life in Britain in the last thirty years has filtered down to infect our children. (If so, it is the only area where trickledown has worked.) But it’s surely time to take our own culture seriously - the whole ‘harmless joshing’ fandango, not just what is probably the most accountable part covered by a BBC license - if we want to avoid the Neil La Bute-type future predicted by French historian, Emmanuel Todd, in his latest crystal ball, Après la démocratie, in which he conjures up the alarming possibility of a post-democratic Europe reverting to ethnic scapegoating and dictatorship… What or who is responsible for this much vaster shift in the national pathology, to be detected any day of the week in our offices, playgrounds, bars - and TV programmes - that is the really interesting question.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData