Yesterday, I was at Brunel University in London, where their Centre For Comedy Studies Research had a panel discussion on Comedy, Class and Offence.
Mark Boosey, esteemed and eternally mysterious British Comedy Guide boss, brought up the 2008 ‘Sachsgate Affair’ in which vast offence was reported after a BBC Radio 2 edition of The Russell Brand Show.
On the show, Russell and guest co-presenter Jonathan Ross had phoned up actor Andrew Sachs (Manuel in Fawlty Towers) to invite him on as a guest. When he did not answer the phone, four messages were left mentioning that Russell had had sex with Sachs’ granddaughter, who was one of the performers in a ‘baroque dance group’ called Satanic Sluts.
Some extracts from the messages are below:
Jonathan Ross: ”He fucked your granddaughter… “
Russell Brand: “I wore a condom.”
Jonathan Ross: “She was bent over the couch…”
This caused a furore. And Ofcom fined the BBC £150,000.
However, yesterday, Mark Boosey gave the timeline for the public’s outrage:
SATURDAY 18th OCTOBER 2008
The pre-recorded show was transmitted.
SUNDAY 19th OCTOBER
The BBC noted two complaints in its log of listeners’ views. One referred directly to the Andrew Sachs section.
SUNDAY 26th OCTOBER
Eight days after the broadcast, the Mail On Sunday ran a main story on the Andrew Sachs answerphone messages.
MONDAY 27th OCTOBER
The BBC received 1,585 complaints.
TUESDAY 28th OCTOBER
The total number of complaints rose to 4,772.
WEDNESDAY 29th OCTOBER
By 10.00am, the number of complaints had reached 18,000 and, at 11.30am, the BBC suspended Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross. At 5.45pm, Russell Brand quit his show.
THURSDAY 30th OCTOBER
By 11.30am, the number of complaints had reached 30,500. At 5.50pm, BBC Controller of Radio 2 Lesley Barber resigned. At 6.21pm, with complaints now at 37,500, the BBC announced Jonathan Ross was being suspended without pay for 12 weeks.
FRIDAY 7th NOVEMBER
Radio 2’s Head of Compliance, David Barber, resigned.
Mark Boosey yesterday pointed out that only two people who heard the broadcast on transmission had been offended (perhaps only one) and it had taken eight days for 1,583 other people to have been offended second-hand.
What it all proves I do not know, but it must prove something. I personally thought what was broadcast (which I have listened to) was way-way-over-the-line into unacceptable offensiveness.
Yet, on 9th November 2008, Russell Brand told the Observer that what had been broadcast had been “toned down”: that “the worst bits” were cut out before the broadcast – presumably they believed the new version was not offensive.
I guess it also shows that, in a world of instant TV, radio and internet, newspapers still have a big effect. And it had a lasting effect even after it ‘ended’.
On Friday 21st November 2008, after publishing a report on the incident, the BBC Trust said that a list of “high-risk radio programmes” should be put together to prevent a repeat of what happened.
That is simultaneously sensible and unsettling and the BBC have, arguably, been running scared ever since.