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Not the messiah

Yesterday was my birthday, and my very kind friend Lilah gave me one of the best birthday presents ever – surprise tickets to see the one and only Russell Brand.

If I was being mean, I would say Russell was out on the prowl looking for sex – he’s been quite open about this tendency in the past and now he’s single again who can blame him.

But I think it’s a bit simplistic to say all that Russell is looking for is sex – obviously I don’t know what Russell is looking for, as I don’t know Russell, just the version of Russell he chooses to present in his performances. I guess what I felt is that Russell is looking for validation and even though he seemed a bit stressed by the crowds, I sensed he felt comforted by the fact that they were there – why else would he want to cuddle them (sex I guess could be the obvious reason…).

The last time Lilah and I went to see Russell was about 3 years ago – at the Albert Hall no less – and back then, his act focused on how he was pilloried by both press and public for the prank calls he made to Andrew Sachs (Manuel in Fawlty Towers) with Jonathan Ross.

The moral panic that ensued resulted in a whopping fine for the BBC and Ross suspended without pay for 3 months
Fortunately for Brand, the loss of his BBC radio show was more than compensated for by a burgeoning Hollywood movie career – and a burgeoning romance with pop’s most provocative princess Katy Perry.

Fame in the U.S. might have brought big bucks but it also gave Brand a new bunch of haters – in his 2009 show he read out reams of death threats emailed to him by angry Americans who found him far too rich for their palates. I’ve spent far too much of my life working in TV to feel that sorry for celebrities – protected as they are by money, minders and PRs – but the sheer malice directed against Brand was quite breath taking.

Fast forward to August 2012 and a we saw a very different Russell Brand on stage. Yes, he could be said to be part of the establishment now in that he had just performed in the Olympic closing ceremony – he chatted about this in his usual Russell Brand way. But I felt that his relationship to celebrity is slightly more ambivalent – after all his relationship with Katy Perry, just beginning when I saw him in 2009,had now ended in divorce.

He’s massive in Hollywood but you feel his mind is elsewhere and that Russell wants to do more. You also have the distinct feeling that although we see him as a naughty boy, he sees himself as some kind of messiah. For example, last night Russell expressed sympathy for the much derided David Icke (lizards anybody?), while his spiritual leanings have emerged in several TV interviews, such as this one with Jeremy Paxman in 2010.

As the interview with Paxo shows, Russell has become quite a hit on the news and current affairs circuit – he tells a good joke but is also surprisingly well informed on a number of issues. Drugs being one of them. A former addict and recovered alcoholic, Brand has lots to say about the treatment of heroin users – he thinks it’s wrong to give them methadone and thinks that a better solution is to encourage abstinence (with a lot of support and therapy as you do this).

He has made a documentary on the subject for BBC3 which goes out tonight, and was invited to share his views on Newsnight earlier this month.

To a liberal viewer like myself, Russell comes across as the voice of reason against Daily Mail columnist and rent a right wing troll Peter Hitchens, who drones on about how drugs are illegal and how taking them is a crime, yadda, yadda, yadda. Here’s Hitchens’ account of it on his blog (quite funny if you like laughing at Tories)

Big tick for Rusty. But watch the clip a little longer and you see Russell applauding the comments of the weasel-like Tory called David Burrowes, who also wants to stop giving out methadone to heroin users. Presumably because it costs a lot of money and we all know how keen our government is to stop spending money on poor, sick or unfortunate people – heroin addicts often being all three.

I felt Russell was being played. His obvious humanitarian and progressive instincts are being articulated by a lackey in a regime that wants to stop spending money, but is cunning enough to claim that it’s somehow doing something liberal. It reminded me of the reasons behind so-called Care in the Community in the 80s and 90s; the fact that liberal health professionals wanted to release people with mental problems from grim Victorian asylums was music to the ears of the people who wanted to close down those hospitals and sell them off to developers.

Friern Barnet, one of London’s most famous mental hospitals is now luxury flats – this gives a fairly clear account of what happened.

I totally understand Russell Brand’s desires to use his celebrity to do more than just tell jokes and think it is great that people like him exist. Even if a side of him thinks he’s Jesus. But I guess I worry that someone as quirky and authentic as Russell can be owned by shark like politicians who latch on to his thoroughly well meaning ideas to help addicts in a bid to push through their vile spending cuts.

One Comment

  1. Roger says:

    The perfect match between the libertarian ideas of radical psychiatrists like RD Laing and Thomas Szasz and the needs of governments and property developers to turn the vast Victorian asylums which in the UK in 1955 housed 155,000 patients into prime building land does at first glance look remarkable.

    But it’s not the whole story: Laing, Szasz, etc had more impact outside of the profession than inside and the real key was a huge improvement in the flexibility and power of the psychiatric pharmacopeia (lithium for instance was approved by the US FDA for manic conditions as late as 1974 but tricyclic antidepressants were being trialed from 1955 and really took off in the 1960s).

    So new drug therapies provided a technological solution for what was in the early to mid C20 as a pandemic of mental illness necessitating a vast extension in the sector (when I grew up in Croydon in the 1960s there were at least 4 huge mental health hospitals within walking distance of my house – none of which I believe now remain).

    The Laing’s, Szasz’s etc only provided the superstructural narrative for changes that had already occurred down in the base due to the creation of huge new markets for psych pharmaceuticals.

    And it was neither ideology nor greed that emptied those asylums but pills that did indeed make most of their beds unnecessary.

    Re Brand having lost someone very close to a methadone overdose (give junkies something which reduces the high and they’ll just use more of it) its not a subject I can think or talk 100% rationally about – but mass producing and doling out methadone is not in itself hugely expensive given the huge numbers of addicts involved in the programme – while the intensive face-to-face human support Brand is actually demanding is.

    And a large segment of the £235m or whatever it is (all figures quoted by the media in connection to drugs need to be taken with a pinch of salt) the NHS spends on Methadone goes straight into the pockets of big pharma companies so there are capitalist vested interests on both sides of the debate.

    So I really don’t think that there is a simple explanation for all the media he is getting other than that he is a popular celebrity and can do and say pretty much anything he likes that will make programme makers money.

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