The headlines in the UK for all of forty eight hours have been the case of two BBC entertainers who pushed creative expression beyond acceptable limits. Are they members of a latter-day brat pack?
Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand have won accolades for their laddish-style media performances. Jonathan Ross is controversial for having allegedly the highest salary of all BBC performers. He also does cheeky interviews with other celebrity figures. Just the sort of stuff labelled ‘pushing out the envelope of creative culture in the interests of artistic expression’. Or something like that. He famously asked Conservative leader David Cameron in a TV chat show whether he had had sexual fantasies about Margaret Thatcher. (Expressed more pungently). Brand, with whom he does a Radio programme is younger, arguably more gifted . Together, they form part of a latter-day brat pack.
The case has a critical incident which makes for easier study. The dynamic duo star in a radio show involving much jokey humiliation of public figures. In the most most recent broadcast they became caught up in a creative frenzy directed against someone who had had the effrontery to duck out of the victim role he had been persuaded to accept.
The two performers acted out the rage of the humiliated lover ridiculed and publically humiliated by being stood up on a date. Ross in particular played the wealthy prince slighted in public by the showgirl. Brand, perhaps in the role of the understudy: ‘you’re too good for her Johnnie, but you’ve still got me. See, we have fun together don’t we? We can do this show without her!’ Whadya say Johnnie?
My bit of creative licence over what happened is based only on a glimpse of the incident which just happened to be televised. Which is why the drama was oh so public.
As the victim did not answer their call, they left a ‘see how much I care, you bastard’ message on the answerphone. As in South Park tantrums, it got a bit out of hand. The increasingly frenzied pair made more calls, seizing on some highly personal and gratuitous stuff about said victim, and also a close family member of his.
A storm brews up
And there it might have ended. There were no floods of outraged calls from listeners. But this story took an unexpected turn.
The victim was an aging but much-loved comedian. Ideal for stand-up comedy target practice. The rant had also been directed crudely against his show-business granddaughter, who had been a fringe member of the brat pack.
With a little help from other media figures, the Great British public awakes from its slumbers. MPs ask questions. David Cameron had his say (remember his early bit-part as victim?). The Prime Minister is rather busy saving the world from economic melt-down, so can only comment briefly. In one day [Wednesday October 29th 2008] nearly twenty thousand protests flood into the BBC. The Director General, famed for his belief in tough talking, talks tough. Calls for an enquiry, and grounds both of his naughty boys.
Brand decides he doesn’t want a full-time role in the brat pack and makes a decent stab at an expression of regret before quitting the BBC and all its ways, walking away into the sunset
Creative licence and the BBC licence
There is an interesting story here about creativity and licence, although the opposing view is that everything been blown out of all proportion.
The BBC sees itself under threat from several directions. It has to demonstrate that it is still working on the creative edge (as one of its commentators deftly put it). Various laddish programmes have sprung up to critical acclaim, earning enough outrage from the wider public to demonstrate their edgy and creative credentials. The celebrities compete for leadership of a latter-day brat pack.
Rat packs and Brat packs
Only in hindsight is a more balanced view is possible. Strictly speaking I was thinking abut the hell-rasing rat pack (not brat pack which is the label for a different movie crowd). My lapse. The association still holds: Of that earlier pack, Frank Sinatra was a performer of genius. Arguably, so was Sammy Davis junior. Part of the fun of being in the rat pack was shocking the fuddy duddies outside the charmed circle with unpleasant and outrageous public outbursts. But the members had varying degrees of talent. What they most had in common was a destructive streak, shared by the talented and the inadequate alike.
Creativity has a role to play in challenging comfortable beliefs. It often induces reactions of shock and outrage. Unfortunately, the same reactions are also induced by boorish inadequates.
An eloquent obituary of Sinatra puts it this way:
Now that my man Francis has bought the Big Casino, who are we gonna look to as our guide for masculinity with style?
… Did they sometimes cross the line with the racial comedy bits? Hell yeah. Women? Love ‘em and leave ‘em. But they had the freedom to make asses of themselves, something the homogenized “please everybody and offend nobody” entertainers of today wouldn’t consider attempting. And let’s be honest–a lot of the “insensitive” routines they performed were pretty damn funny, baby.
They came from an era where entertainers didn’t solely rely on attitude to carry their act. Today, far to many entertainers lean on an “image” to get their message across. It’s as if they hope that all their bullshit posturing masks their innate lack of any real talent. With most of them, when you look past the slick, prefabricated veneer, you find a surprisingly shallow act underneath