“That’s just who he is, that’s what he does. That’s just Russell,” said Alice, who was a 16-year-old schoolgirl when Russell Brand had her delivered to his house by BBC car. Like a pizza.
It was the tone that made you look again. Sickeningly familiar. It could have been any woman from any era. There was always, always a “just Russell” and his cretinous chorus.
But Alice was only 16 and this was only 17 years ago, when huge live audiences thrilled to Brand’s “hilarious” shtick. To quote from a Russell Brand live stage show gives me no joy – and anyone who watched the Dispatches investigation will have seen this offensive clip anyway. But I quote it word for word because it’s important to convey what precisely constitutes a “joke” in this context, and the extent to which Brand was indulged, encouraged and licensed to say and do as he pleased.
In this one, he mimes the distress of a woman choking on a penis – complete with choking sounds. “I like them blow jobs, right, where it goes in their neck a little bit”, he witters – “I wouldn’t suggest it” (said with a knowing smile) – and as the audience cheers, adds, “them blow jobs where mascara runs a little bit”.
The “joke” is that the mascara runs because choking on a penis makes girls and women cry. The more he made that gagging sound, the more the audience shrieked.
For the avoidance of doubt, choking is a central feature of everyday porn, the kind every schoolboy can access at a click, the kind young girls are supposed to be up for and to take some mysterious pleasure in.
Now go back to an alleged incident during 16-year-old Alice’s relationship with Brand: “I was sat up in the bed, up against the headboard, and he forced his penis down my throat, and I couldn’t breathe, he was just choking me. I was crying and he said, ‘Oh I only wanted to see your mascara run anyway’.”
As the din about his “sex addiction” grows louder and more accusers appear, it would be fascinating to find some of those fans of both sexes now – proper grown-ups even then – and ask them to dissect the “joke” for us.
What exactly made it so hysterically entertaining? Did they understand the physical reality of it? Did they laugh because they wanted to seem “up for it” – not frigid, like – in front of the lads? Or, like the “just Russells”, did they simply consider the vulnerable little Alices fair game, something less than human, more a bunch of orifices who got what they deserved because the Alices got into that fancy car, didn’t they?
Because they were blinded by celebrity and the funny persona and context-free guff about female sex positivity, confusing incontinent predators with intimations of eternal love, as young girls often do? And wasn’t 16 the age of consent after all so he’d done nothing illegal, as one supporter was pleased to point out this week. Was this the legacy then that all those fans wanted to pass to their daughters and all the Alices?
If nothing else, the wall-to-wall coverage of the Brand allegations has finally triggered some serious self-questioning about the toxicity of the 2000s.
Among the stomach-churning clips in the Dispatches investigation was one showing Brand saying a breezy sorry to Andrew Sachs (famous for playing Manuel on Fawlty Towers). In 2008, Brand and his BBC Radio 2 co-star Jonathan Ross were filmed in a radio pre-record making a call to 78-year-old Sachs who was due on the show – and leaving voice messages in which Ross shrieked “he f**ked your granddaughter”, ratcheted up by Brand with a classy line rhyming consensual with menstrual.
When it was broadcast – yes, such was Brand’s rampant power, the BBC aired it – Sachs was pitied, patronised and apologised to. There was no such fellow feeling for his 23-year-old granddaughter, Georgina Baillie, and no public apology.
Nor did she feature in the many tribal treatises about the BBC’s culture and direction, becoming instead the handy resident “slut” for the tabloids then in their misogynistic pomp – a period in which they tormented young women like Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan, gleefully reported on the countdown to Charlotte Church’s 16th birthday (sexual consent age! what a lark!) and commissioned upskirt shots of Emma Watson outside her 18th birthday party. Fun? The overriding sense was of menacing bullies and merciless predation.
Yet these “stories” were devoured and paid for by the fans too, ratcheting up the sense of entitlement of the “just Russells”. No wonder they felt invincible.
Even now, Baillie’s own attitude towards Brand and the phone calls is a revealing insight into how victim-blaming works. She was a “wild child” then, she says, and the relationship was entirely consensual. Then again, Brand “made millions of pounds doing a stand-up routine about it and that was very hard and painful for me – I was the butt of the joke, I was young and didn’t know how to process it and I turned to drink and drugs”. For a decade she blamed herself. Because that was the culture.
What has changed? MeToo felled some totems. A keener awareness of casual sexism has whittled away at some obvious tropes.
Still Andrew Tate’s videos have passed 11.4 billion views on TikTok and the founder of Everyday Sexism, Laura Bates, notes that for the first time in surveys about social attitudes, “the youngest cohort surveyed have significantly more extreme misogynist attitudes than the oldest”.
The old and new cultures haven’t merely aligned. The new one is streaking ahead. How and where the Russell Brand story plays out matters profoundly to every one of us.