Russell Brand, the comedian accused of rape, sexual assault and emotional abuse (he strenuously denies all accusations), came to prominence in this country as the host of reality television spin-off show Big Brother’s Efourum in 2004. In the immediate years that followed, he became a fixture on the UK media scene, hosting his own shows on BBC Radio 2 (via 6 Music), Channel 4 and MTV, writing a best-selling celebrity memoir, appearing on the Royal Variety Performance and hosting the Brit Awards. By the end of the Noughties, Brand was spending increasing amounts of time in the US due to his burgeoning acting career in films such as Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Get Him to the Greek.
The dates that bookend his rise to fame in the UK are instructive. Culturally speaking, the Noughties were something of a cesspit in the UK. It was the era of dumbed down reality TV, grubby lads’ mags that were tantamount to soft porn, Pete Doherty’s drug-addled exploits, tabloid celebrities such as Jordan consuming acres of column inches, and racism controversies on TV programmes that purported to star “celebrities”. Even mainstream gameshows were relished as theatres of cruelty; The Weakest Link, which ran from 2000 to 2012, saw host Anne Robinson dole out tongue-lashings to quivering contestants. It’s no surprise that tabloid TV bearpit The Jeremy Kyle Show, which pitted guests against each other, launched in 2005.
All of this provides context to the meteoric ascent and widespread acceptance of Brand. Here was a very Noughties celebrity: toxic masculinity was fine because it was seen as “ironic”, humiliation became an accepted form of entertainment, and transgressive behaviour related to drink or drugs was seen as cool, as long as the protagonist was wearing skinny jeans and a tight leather jacket.
It’s always slightly dangerous to over-analyse recent history before the dust has settled. But it’s fairly clear where we were as a country over this period. The UK for most of the Noughties was still enjoying the longest period of uninterrupted economic growth it had ever had. The service economy had started to boom: the year 2000 was when the UK became more middle class than working class (i.e. there were more managerial and professional workers than manual workers), according to Ipsos Mori. Although we didn’t quite know where it was going, new technology was mushrooming. At the start of 2000, only 44 per cent of UK households had mobile phones. By 2010 this had risen to 80 per cent.
Meanwhile television was being revolutionised by the new fad of “reality TV”, which kicked off with the launch of Big Brother on Channel 4 in 2000 and was swiftly followed by ITV’s Popstars and Pop Idol (2001) and The X Factor (2004). The arrival of high-speed broadband in 2000 was followed by internet TV and on-demand and subsidiary channels, like the youth-orientated E4.
In other words, we were wealthy, aspirational, excited by the razzle-dazzle of technology, wowed by the possibilities of multifarious new content and, crucially, living in an era in which civilians could become celebrities overnight. They were heady times. But – equally – as a breeding ground for arrogance and entitlement, that combination was pretty hard to beat. And that breeding ground soon turned to mud. Almost literally.
When Channel 4 launched Big Brother in 2000, the show was a fascinating social experiment that locked contestants in a house stuffed with surveillance cameras to see what happened. Within a few seasons, though, the show was attracting a range of celebrity wannabes who knew they’d leave the house famous. The nadir of reality TV, however, came in 2004 when Channel Five aired a reality show called The Farm in which celebrities lived on a working farm.
In one scene Rebecca Loos, a former personal assistant to footballer David Beckham, was shown masturbating a pig. Many viewers were horrified. “Are there not laws against this kind of thing?” one viewer wrote on the Digital Spy website. But the scene was watched by 1.6 million people, and Loos’s actions were defended by a Channel Five spokesperson as “just a part of normal farm life” (the semen was collected to inseminate sows). It was tawdry entertainment dressed as factual TV.
This depressingly low bar was replicated in music. A 2001 garage rock revival spearheaded by New York’s genuinely-exciting-if-derivative The Strokes saw hundreds of guitar bands spring up in the UK (leading music journalist Andrew Harrison to coin the term “landfill indie”). Leading the British charge were The Libertines, headed by Doherty, a young man in drainpipe jeans who did seemingly everything in his power to squander their success. Innately talented but crippled by drug addiction, Doherty surrounded himself with a shabby entourage and was arrested countless times for drug offences – once when 13 wraps of heroin fell from his pocket during a criminal hearing. He went to prison on numerous occasions.
But here’s the thing: he was a pin-up and a hero to a generation. Such men – and their egos – were objects of desire. The genre even has its own retrospective nickname: indie sleaze. Brand fitted this mould. Sleaze was acceptable. We were so blinded by the damage being done that no one gave Amy Winehouse, who died in 2011 of alcohol poisoning, the help she so obviously needed.
Magazine publishers didn’t help. In 2004 both Zoo and Nuts were launched. The lads’ mags were stuffed with photos of glamour models, articles about sport, off-colour jokes and yet more topless models.
So what changed? Nothing happened overnight. But a series of events at the end of the Noughties nudged the decade’s tent poles out of position which – eventually – saw the roof caving in. The dawn of social media and the smartphone played a big role. Facebook became huge in the second half of the decade, Twitter launched in 2006 and the first Apple iPhone came out in 2007. These represented another huge technological leap forward, but also increased accountability. Cameras on smartphones meant people could get away with less while social media meant they were asked to explain themselves more. Then there came the credit crunch in 2008 followed by years of austerity. Lending by banks collapsed, people had less money and we all suddenly grew up.
The police’s Operation Yewtree investigations into historic sexual assault by celebrities such as Jimmy Savile at the start of the following decade was followed by the wider MeToo movement. Behaviours that had just years early been tolerated or covered up were now called out.
Kelvin MacKenzie, editor of The Sun from 1981 to 1994, pinpoints the major – and much-needed – change that has occurred since the Noughties when it comes to celebrities. “The leverage of the star has collapsed,” he says. “The star today has to be much more friendly to the creative staff on a programme – the production staff – than they ever were. Before, celebrities were like kings among the peasants. That has completely changed. In fact, the further you are towards the bottom of the rung, the nicer you get treated. It was the other way round 20 years ago.”
People in general are wiser now and far less willing to tolerate any abuses of power. At the same time, the organisations that provided the platforms that let Brand flourish – the production companies, the BBC and Channel 4 to name a few – have been forced to get their houses in order. The glistening utopia of Noughties pop culture, with its shimmering new possibilities and democratising formats, turned out to be a flea-ridden wild west. It’s a cultural decade that’s best forgotten.