Paying prostitutes. Seducing pensioners. Gay trysts in pub toilets. Even two decades ago, Russell Brand was making TV programmes that proved just how out of control he was.
Between his breakthrough presenting gig at MTV – where he was infamously sacked for coming to work dressed as Osama Bin Laden the day after 9/11 – and the stints at Channel 4 and the BBC that made him a household name, Brand fronted a largely forgotten docuseries for Play UK. Reappraising it is eye-opening – not least because, as a star five years later, Brand said he was proud of its ‘powerful’, jaw-dropping content. Play UK, a now defunct satellite channel conceived as a TV version of Radio 1, gave him £250,000 to make a run of gonzo-style comic documentaries. The show was called RE:Brand (even the title’s gimmicky styling, also playing off Brand’s initials of Russell Edward Brand, is “of its time”) and prided itself on smashing social taboos. Its near-the-knuckle material looks even more queasy in the light of recent revelations.
Created and hosted by Brand – together with long-time writing partner Matt Morgan – it billed itself as “challenging”. It certainly made for challenging viewing. In his 2007 memoir, My Booky Wook, Brand called it “swamped with willful self-destructiveness”. Each episode featured what Brand and Morgan dubbed “the money shot” – a scene of our host performing acts beyond the bounds of decency.
Even by the permissive standards of the Noughties lad mag era, this was exploitative stuff. A recurring theme of this week’s Channel 4 exposé was how TV executives failed to curb Brand’s excesses. RE:Brand was an early example.
Seven episodes aired in 2002. The opener, “Dadfight”, saw Brand challenge his father Ron to a boxing match, purportedly to examine the concept of an Oedipus complex. After punching Ron so hard that he fell to his knees, Brand asked him: “Shall we go down the pub and chat up some birds? Do something we’re both good at?” Another instalment saw Brand befriend a homeless man named James and invite him to live in his flat, even sharing a bed and having a bath together. James soon returned to the streets. According to Brand, he later died of a drug overdose.
Three of the episodes, however, had sexual themes that now appear even darker. In “My Old Tart”, he took an 81-year-old called Wendy for a “dirty weekend” in Eastbourne, bidding to woo her and awaken her sexuality. They went to a strip club together and kissed but when Brand suggested intercourse, Wendy said: “Don’t be silly, Russell.”
To explore the dehumanised nature of sex work, he moved in with a Norwich prostitute called Ali (not to mention her boyfriend Pete and their baby daughter). The idea was that he’d get to know them over a period of several days, then see whether he could still bring himself to pay Ali for sex. Fortunately, Pete was so upset by the request that it proved academic. One abandoned idea saw Brand try to turn his own mother Barbara into a brothel madam.
The series climaxed, so to speak, with a seventh and final episode “W—-y W—-y”, in which Brand challenged his own sexuality by pleasuring a gay man called Gary in a Soho pub toilet. Afterwards, he was so unsettled that he hurriedly hired two lapdancers to “do some heterosexuality” with him in a limousine. “It wasn’t for me,” he wrote about his toilet experience. “My tendencies and inclinations towards women are very, very powerful.”
The series was made before Brand went to rehab and got clean. He freely admitted in My Booky Wook and mentioned on his radio shows that he was frequently drunk or on drugs during RE:Brand. Aged 26 at the time, he’d drink a bottle of gin or vodka before filming. “Had I not already been a heroin addict,” he wrote, “I would very likely have become one to cope with this silly show.” He admitted he was “in a psychologically damaged place”. Caught up in his trail of destruction were vulnerable people such as James, Ali and Pete.
Despite the Daily Star’s esteemed critic calling it “the best thing I’ve ever seen on TV”, RE:Brand wasn’t recommissioned. The following year, Brand is alleged to have made a sexual assault against a woman in Soho. Brand “absolutely refutes” the accusations levelled at him, claiming his relationships were “always consensual”. The year after that, he would be hosting Big Brother spin-offs Eforum and Big Mouth where, according to the Dispatches documentary, he made production staff “act like pimps” by procuring the phone numbers of female audience members. RE:Brand, in retrospect, was yet another red flag that went ignored.