I didn't really want to post about this. I'd intended to write about something entirely different here, but the bizarre furore which has overtaken the British media in the last few days has seeded thoughts which are clamoring to be set down. And until I've got them out of the way, it seems like there's no room here in the front of my brain for anything else. Which is kind of annoying, because it's not really Secret Of Life material - and it's going to take a lot of explaining for most of you reading this who don't even live in the UK.
And yet, if I don't write about it here, where else am I going to put it? I don't have any other blogs. And maybe, now I think about it, it's not so irrelevant to the things I usually talk about here after all, illustrating - as it does - the sheer lunacy of the current state of human consciousness. British consciousness, to be precise - but I'm not sure the rest of the world is so very different.
So here goes. What is all this about then?
It involves the following people and two British institutions:
Russell Brand, a young TV and radio presenter and budding movie star, who may be best known in the US for disparaging George Bush while presenting this year's MTV awards.
Jonathan Ross, a middle-aged TV and radio presenter, at £6 million a year the highest-paid presenter at the BBC.
Georgina Baillie, Sachs' granddaughter and member of the burlesque dance troupe, Satanic Sluts Extreme.
The BBC. You've probably heard of this lot: the world's largest broadcasting corporation, with numerous TV and radio channels in the UK and worldwide. It carries no advertising and is funded primarily by the license fee which is paid by all British TV viewers. Non-payment of this fee carries a substantial fine.
The Daily Mail, a 'popular' daily newspaper which thrives on prodding what Eckhart Tolle would describe as the 'pain body' of its readers, favorite topics including such matters as asylum seekers, social security 'scroungers', the trade unions and (as you might have guessed) the BBC and its license fee, with particular reference to highly-paid presenters such as Jonathan Ross ("he's got six million pounds of our money..." etc etc).
So what unfortunate series of events has brought these protagonists together?
The whole affair started about two weeks ago, when a prerecorded BBC radio show was broadcast in which Brand and Ross phoned up Andrew Sachs, who was scheduled to be a guest on the show. When it turned out that Sachs was unavailable, Brand and Ross left a series of lewd messages on his answerphone. The full transcript can be found here but to summarize, the messages contained foul language and allegations that Brand had slept with Sachs' granddaughter.
Understandably, Sachs complained to the BBC and asked that the show should not be broadcast. In a gross error of judgment, the BBC decided that the show should be aired anyway. At the time, two (that's two) listeners lodged a complaint about the show.
Which might have been the end of the matter except that, about a week later, the Mail got hold of the story and ran an article complaining about it, emphasizing the fact that Jonathan Ross was being being paid £6 million pounds worth of license payers' money for such behavior. In the wake of this, and the subsequent publicity, there were 35,000 complaints to the BBC, overwhelmingly from people who had not even heard the original broadcast.
In the days that followed, the 'Sachsgate' affair became the top story all over the country, drawing comments from the prime minister and the leader of the opposition; and driving the world financial crisis, dodgy dealings on yachts by top politicians, and the growing humanitarian crisis in the Democratic Republic of Congo out of the headlines. Apparently, those messages left on Andrew Sachs' phone were the most inhumane and outrageous event on the planet.
After several days of trying to shrug the whole thing off, the BBC was finally forced to take action to try to stem the furore. Brand ended up resigning and Ross was suspended without pay for twelve weeks (which amounts to over £1 million pounds worth of suspension). Accepting ultimate responsibility, the boss of the BBC radio station which broadcast the 'outrage' (who was generally highly regarded) also resigned. Brand and Ross apologized to Sachs, who accepted their apologies. They have also apologized to Sachs' granddaughter, but if reports are correct, Georgina Baillie appears to have her own agenda, having negotiated a contract to explain her reaction to the affair in a TV special.
This probably won't be the end of the matter. With The Mail still after his blood, it may be difficult for Ross to carry on at the BBC. He has been told that he is on a final warning. When he returns to the airwaves, his every word will be scrutinized mercilessly. Is it possible to be funny under such circumstances?
I titled this piece 'I Like Jonathan Ross' to make it plain where I stand, but I'm aware that in Britain today this is a controversial statement. When I visited the Guardian web site to offer my opinion that the fuss was all a bit over the top, I found that my words were heavily outnumbered by countless disparaging comments about the presenters. 'Brand and Ross are scum,' would be a representative sample of these. One could have been forgiven for thinking that the two presenters had, say, taken a gun to the local shopping mall and aimed pot shots at passers by. And this is the Guardian web site I'm talking about here, the Guardian being the most left-wing, 'liberal' paper in country.
What really gets to me is the seemingly random nature of the whole thing. Why have 35,000 people chosen this issue - of all things! - to get so worked up about? Why not all the other manifold injustices in the world, petty and otherwise?
No one (not even Brand and Ross in retrospect) are denying that the phone calls were a mistake - and everyone agrees that it was an even worse mistake to actually air them - but the way I see it, it is Brand's and Ross' job to go on air and be spontaneously funny. It's what they're paid for. And part of what makes them funny is that they skate close to the edge of what is acceptable. Their listeners like that and the BBC likes it because it brings in a big audience. Occasionally, by the very nature of things, they are bound to get it wrong. That's what editorial control should be there for: to let them know when they're stepping over the boundary of what is acceptable taste.
The incident happened because (for the first time ever, I think) Brand and Ross were hosting the show together. They normally each broadcast with a straight man to rein them in a bit. But on this occasion they egged each other on, with disastrous consequences.
I can't explain about Russell Brand because I don't usually find him funny. This isn't surprising, because I'm about twenty to thirty years over the age of his target audience. I do, however, find Jonathan Ross very entertaining. He has developed a remarkable larger-than-life persona which radiates a kind of faux naivete. He can get away (usually) with making outrageous remarks because the version of himself he's portraying doesn't realize he's saying anything wrong. The humor comes not from the embarrassment of his guests but from his own (pretended) gulf of understanding.
That's the way I see it, anyway. Of course, a lot of people (particularly Mail readers) don't see it at all - hence the problem. But a lot of people do find Ross funny, which is why the BBC had to pay him so much money to stop him being poached by other organizations.
Even so, I have to admit that there is one element of Ross's act, in common with those of other broadcasters such as Ricky Gervais and George Lamb (who is apparently being drafted in to replace Russell Brand) with which I am less comfortable, and that is a certain bullying quality. Ross treats his radio sidekick Andy abominably. That isn't a problem for Andy, who is no doubt being paid far too much to care, but to what extent does such on air behavior serve to legitimize bullying out in the real world?
I have similar reservations about, say, the quiz show The Weakest Link, which promotes and celebrates petty vindictiveness. When set against such deliberate nastiness, inherent in the very format of the show, the accidental misdemeanor of Brand's and Ross' answerphone messages seems positively innocent. They were trying to be funny and they got it wrong. It seems to me that there are worse crimes.
But such in depth analysis of what is moral and why and its possible effect upon society is unlikely to stem from this affair. All the BBC is going to be worrying about is what upsets Daily Mail readers and what doesn't. The complexities - as so often - are going to be overlooked.
It is worth remembering, though, that humor is always subjective. There is probably no one thing that everyone finds funny, so when humor skates close to the edge, there is always a chance that someone will be offended. I think it is the ultimate irony of this whole business that Andrew Sachs has been portrayed as a much-loved exponent of classic comedy: 'How could this much-loved old man be treated in such a way?'
I do not intend any criticism of Sachs, whose behavior throughout this whole sorry affair has been entirely measured and reasonable, and whose role as Manuel in Fawlty Towers has always had me rolling about on the floor laughing, but even so it is interesting to look a little more closely at what that role actually entailed. What Sachs played in the show was an empty-headed immigrant worker, lampooned for his poor grasp of English and physically abused by his employer, all of this played for laughs.
Can you imagine Brand and Ross trying to explain away that if they'd been involved with it?
And yet everyone is now agreed that it was hilarious. No doubt about it. Very funny. And I seem to remember that the bit where Basil Fawlty was actually hitting Manuel was considered to be especially good.
What makes us laugh is always subjective.
The things we get upset about are also subjective - and often random.
Perhaps when it happens, it is worth asking ourselves if we are really upset for the reason we think we are. Or has someone just been poking our caged emotions?