Those outside the United Kingdom will be blissfully unaware of a news story that knocked everything else off the front pages of British newspapers these past few weeks: two of the BBC’s biggest stars lost their jobs after engaging in obscene telephone calls to the actor Andrew Sachs, known to the world as “Manuel” in the legendary comedy series Fawlty Towers.
As the presidential election of 2008 writes itself into the history books, Americans may assert, “We have Howard Stern, so who cares about a pair of dirty-minded performers fired over in gentle Blighty?”
The reason why this story is significant in the wake of the McCain-Obama campaign is that decency and moral structure are the cement of civilized society, and these issues were pilloried this autumn by the anti-Palin media. Nowhere was Sarah Palin more parodied and vilified than in the overseas press. In Britain, where church attendance is at an all-time low, where teen pregnancies and knife crime are breaking all records and alcoholism in children is shocking even the most hardened emergency room physicians, a public discourse on restoring “old-fashioned values” is regarded as a precursor to fascism or evangelical hysteria.
But let us get back to Auntie Beeb: in late October Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross, two popular British television and radio personalities, devised a skit for BBC Radio 2 in which they would record a series of messages on the answering machine of the aforementioned actor Andrew Sachs, who had failed to appear on their show. (Americans will remember Brand as the lewd and disrespectful host of the MTV Awards in September, who memorably referred to President Bush as a “cowboy retard.”)
In the process of taunting Sachs by ansafone, the two men engaged with repulsive detail in describing Brand’s sexual encounter with the granddaughter of 78-year-old Sachs. The program was pre-recorded and a wise editor clipped out an indescribably execrable section about Brand and Ross masturbating the actor, but the portions of the program that did transmit on the nation’s airwaves constituted veritable garbage.
Of course, Sachs complained to the corporation but very few listeners did the same until the Daily Mail newspaper expressed its outrage and various BBC heavyweights, including the news anchorman Sir John Tusa, registered their indignation. Soon thousands of decent British folk contacted the BBC in fury. The switchboard was permanently engaged for three days. By the first weekend in November 37,000 listeners had registered their anger. The controller of Radio 2 resigned and as this article goes to press there is talk of a further high-level departure at the British Broadcasting Corporation. All of Russell Brand’s programs have been canceled, although somehow a disgusting show about people having sex with their pets did get the go-ahead for transmission in prime time in the week of the crisis. I watched this program in jaw-dropping disbelief. It must be remembered that the BBC is funded by a compulsory tax on every household. Menacing vans patrol little Britain looking for folks who have not paid their license fee. If ever there was a case for dismantling an act of big government, this is it.
Jonathan Ross was also taken off the air. To measure the importance of this national crisis, there was further popular uproar when it was revealed that he is paid £6 million ($11 million) a year. His weekly talk show is on a par with Conan O’Brien or Stephen Colbert in popularity, but there the similarity ends. The difference between American hosts and Ross is that they maintain good taste and do not dwell on sex; Ross infamously taunted Conservative leader David Cameron about masturbating to images of Lady Thatcher on one segment. In his new book, Why Do I Say These Things?, Ross talks of sex with a vacuum cleaner and about sexually arousing disabled men.
During this same period the British media have been vilifying Americans, concentrating their venom on Sarah Palin. Her wholesome image is condemned as a manifestation of American fundamentalism that must never be allowed to be promulgated outside the USA. In the Evening Standard of November 3 Professor Simon Schama, whose current BBC television series is about the darkest episodes imaginable in evil America’s history, writes, “Only Obama can make America walk tall again.” (Does he think Americans ever stopped walking tall?) What is so infuriating about what seems to be an endless fascination with “bad, vulgar, violent America” is that the Ross-Brand episode has brought considerable shame upon a very troubled nation, yet Britain and its media spokespeople seem hell-bent on portraying America as the birthplace of all known evils. It is true that Hollywood gives the world a boatload of violence and sex, but my chagrin derives from the total decline in dignity and the disintegration of a moral code in a Britain that used to be a beacon of hope to the world. Whilst condemning Sarah Palin as a freak of nature, role models in the United Kingdom aspire to making ever more obscene broadcasts on national radio and television. Thankfully Prime Minister Gordon Brown raised the Ross-Brand filth in Parliamentary Question Time, but the effect of this was canceled out by Big Brother producer Peter Bazalgette arrogantly declaring on BBC television that the good people of Britain who dared protest at the demeaning Radio 2 prank were “just an Internet mob.”
In a 2006 interview by Lord Bragg on The South Bank Show, P.D. James spoke longingly of her childhood in Britain, when respect for the police, the church, and the royal family was de rigeur. Well, the royal family may no longer manifest the iconic image of her youth, but the decline in respect for the bastions of society — violence against clergy most notable — is profound in modern Britain. Rap lyrics in America may hound parents but the Brands and Rosses do just as much damage to their enormous, young following. Indeed, the granddaughter of Sachs, who appears in a band as a “satanic slut,” symbolizes the dismaying direction in which many British youths are straying.
Those outside Britain will not be aware of a lamentable dumbing-down and crudeness that has become so much a part of life in the island kingdom. Programs like Little Britain celebrate the act of humiliation and characters like Brand and Ross become icons who encourage British youth to fall by the wayside. Gang culture is growing in London. Racist taunts of black players and violence amongst young men at football matches is at an all-time high. Americans will say, “Yes, but high school dropout rates are higher than ever over here.” Sure, this is a fact, but watching the impeccable behavior of a massive crowd of young American high school footballers, their band, and beautiful cheerleaders on a recent BBC program hosted by Stephen Fry gives one hope that the values ingrained in that culture will sustain it far more than the fractured society I see around me in Britain. Fry, a British curmudgeon of the first order, was moved to tears by the varsity event and could not speak after the playing of the anthem and a flyover by Navy jets. (It must be noted here that such massive events at the high school level are, as Fry points out, unimaginable in Britain.)
This is the year of the 90th anniversary of Remembrance of the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. In the streets of Britain citizens wear poppies to commemorate Armistice Day, as they have done for generations in this humbling week. Hundreds of thousands of young men and women lost their lives in hideous wars, and as I watched a poppy-less Russell Brand belligerently chanting “Hare Krishna! Hare Krishna!” outside his home amongst a sea of paparazzi I thought of the endless rows of crosses and stars at Omaha Beach, Ypres, the Somme, and Madingley. Whoever inhabits the White House, one prays that, as an adjunct to the “special relationship,” mutual respect and a moral code permeate the lives of the next generation, and that decency be restored to Her Majesty’s realm.