From demeaning sexual remarks on radio to offering his assistant naked to Jimmy Savile, every disturbing detail of this cogent documentary makes it mind-boggling that these alleged abuses have taken so long to surface
Passing off the grim sexism of the late 00s as a distant bygone era is very difficult … Russell Brand: In Plain Sight.
The modern news cycle is brutally quick. On Thursday and Friday, the 90-minute special episode of Channel 4’s investigative documentary strand, Dispatches, which was to air on Saturday night, was trending on social media because of the mystery around it: Channel 4 had declined to offer any information about what it contained. But by the time it did air, we knew exactly what it contained.
The programme is a collaboration between Dispatches and the Sunday Times and, as happens often when a TV show and a newspaper mount a joint investigation, the newspaper went public first. With the online print version published a few hours before broadcast, many viewers found themselves in the unusual position of watching a documentary having already read its key allegations.
Those allegations are that the comedian turned political commentator and wellness guru, Russell Brand, has a history of abusive interactions with women. One woman alleges he raped her. Another says he seriously sexually assaulted her at the end of a relationship that began when she was 16 and he was 31. A third claims physical abuse and sexual assault.
As well as the allegations being known, by the time of broadcast Brand’s denial was also out there. On Friday night, Brand outed himself as the target of the investigation, releasing a video made for his millions of social media followers. He talked of “some very serious allegations that I absolutely refute”. Insisting that “the relationships I had were absolutely always consensual”, he speculated about “coordinated media attacks” with “another agenda at play”. This garnered him support from thousands of his existing followers, and new allies with an interest in self-identifying as brave media disruptors: several GB News presenters posted on social media appearing to take his side.
So with its allegations and the alleged perpetrator’s denial already known about, and even the culture-war battle lines around it already drawn, what currency does Russell Brand: In Plain Sight have? Plenty. As well as organising deeply harrowing testimony into a cogent narrative, the Dispatches film places the women’s claims into a wider context within the industry and our culture as a whole, pinpointing a collective culpability that resonates well beyond whatever one man might have done.
The allegations themselves are disturbing enough. Being able to see and hear the words spoken, even by anonymised interviewees filmed in silhouette or, in one case, replaced by an actor, lends every awful detail alleged a piercing immediacy.
Surrounding the interviews are the words of Brand himself, on stage, TV and radio. Even in the best-case scenario for Brand – the one in which all these specific, independent accusations turn out to be false – we view him as a sleazy, sexist creep because he has told us.
“Don’t be afraid of your own sexuality,” we see him tell a guest on his chatshow, in a clip dug up by Dispatches. “Do be a bit afraid of mine though.” During an interview on Conan O’Brien’s US talkshow, Brand told the host: “You don’t wanna be around when the laughter stops.” One old standup routine, joking about enjoying “them blowjobs where mascara runs a little bit”, spookily echos the exact words of one of the programme’s allegations.
The title In Plain Sight has been carefully chosen. Dispatches has found further evidence of Brand not hiding his misogyny, drawn from the same stint as a Radio 2 presenter that led to his biggest previous controversy in 2008, when he was fired for broadcasting crass voicemails he’d left for the actor Andrew Sachs. In retrospect, it is amazing Brand lasted as long as he did: Dispatches plays the audio of him making demeaning sexual remarks about his show’s female newsreader, and conducting an interview with a celebrity guest where he joked about sending his (named) female assistant to visit the star, stripped naked. The interviewee in question: Jimmy Savile.
Speaking to Dispatches, former BBC One controller Lorraine Heggessey boggles in retrospect at Brand’s broadcasts: “A predator, live on air on Radio 2.” Previous entertainment-industry exposes have largely concentrated on the 1970s and 80s; passing off the grim sexism of the late 00s as a distant bygone era is more difficult.
The warning about not ignoring red flags, and not indulging toxic behaviour to prioritise talent or fame, is a strong one, with acute relevance to a comedy world still riddled with misogyny: the only performer willing to be interviewed about the problem for Dispatches is Daniel Sloss, who is already known for including serious oratory about male violence in his standup routines. Why work still needs to be done – Brand is not the only comedian whose alleged behaviour is often described as an “open secret” in the industry – is summed up by a female Dispatches contributor, musing on women who might have embarked on a comedy career, met Russell Brand, then sought other employment. “Culturally, what are we missing?”
Russell Brand: In Plain Sight is available on Channel 4 now.