Everybody has a skeleton in the closet. In his sunny home library, in a small town outside Manchester, the comedian Russell Kane is dragging out those skeletons and dancing on their bones.
Einstein? “Shagging his cousin and abandoning his young sons, then saying to the cousin he was shagging, ‘I also quite fancy your daughter!’” Dickens? It’s been suggested the novelist seduced his wife’s underage sisters. “It’s hard to read Little Dorrit and phrases like ‘child wife’ knowing what he got up to. Is that pure imagination there, or has he got his breeches around his ankles when he’s writing?”
The BBC? “There’s a statue by someone outside one of our broadcasting institutions who was into bestiality, as well as abusing his kids” – Eric Gill, whose sculpture Prospero and Ariel stands over Broadcasting House – “so that p—es me off.”
Icon-toppling is all in a day’s work for Kane, whose wildly popular radio series-cum-podcast Evil Genius transfers to TV next week. In each episode, guest panellists vote to label a historical figure either “evil” or “genius”, while Kane plays devil’s advocate, building a counter-intuitively damning case against, say, Gandhi, or defending the overlooked cuddly side of Sid Vicious or Pablo Escobar.
He wanted to question our inconsistent attitudes about cancel culture and art. “As far as I know, every single person if they see ‘Produced by Joe Bloggs’ still watches the film, even though they know it’s highly likely that on that film many people were verbally, physically or even sexually abused. Yet when Joseph Bloggs’s tune comes on, we don’t grind to the music. And I found that profoundly interesting.” (Replace “Bloggs” with the name of any disgraced film producer or pop star of your choice.)
Has Evil Genius changed his mind about anyone? “I don’t like looking at Picasso’s art any more,” he says, pointing to the artist’s uncomfortable relationships with his young models. “I’ve got a daughter, she’s eight now. I think it’s questionable – what was his mind doing when he wanted to break the form and create cubist shapes to express women? There’s something disturbingly sex-offender-y going on there.”
Cubism is “sex-offender-y”? “Not cubism itself, but the way Picasso was distilling femininity and expressing it on the page. If we go and do a chin-stroke with our vegan dips at the National Gallery, we’re joining in with paedophilia a little bit.”
The first TV episode tackles a man often called the “greatest Briton”: Winston Churchill. It celebrates his achievements, but also highlights his inaction over the Bengal famine, his bellicose nature and his alcoholism.
Drinking “a month’s worth of units each day”, Kane tells me, might not be conducive to good decision-making. “I wouldn’t even let you drive my car around the block without calling the police if I thought you were drunk, yet apparently you can send our granddads and great-grandads off to be shot through the face, p—ed off your tits. How can that be right?” Still, if Kane were on the voting panel himself, he’s unequivocal that he’d have labelled Churchill “genius”.
Beneath the show’s brash “keep-or-cancel” gimmick, it’s making a subtler point: there are two sides to everyone, and maturity means acknowledging both. But people have strong feelings about Churchill. Is he expecting a backlash? “Hopefully, yes. Because that backlash to me – I’m a bit old-fashioned – means debate and conversation.”
Kane drinks coffee continually, and speaks faster than many people think. He’s charming and funny, fizzing with a kind of bookish energy, but with a hard edge to it; an autodidact’s flint and fire. In his library, he points out four bound volumes of Churchill’s History of the English Speaking Peoples (“What books those were! I raced through ‘em”) and pulls a signed Iris Murdoch first edition off the shelf to show me.
When Kane won Celebrity Mastermind, his specialist subject was the life and novels of Evelyn Waugh – also the subject of Evil Genius’s pilot episode. “I already knew he was a vicious cold snob who treated his children like s— and yet his writing was wonderful… Cruelty is what you want in a satirist.” What drew him toward Waugh? “He was sort of pathetically obsessed with the next class above him. He was middle-class, so he was obsessed with aristocracy. I’m obsessed with being middle-class, I’ve spent my whole life trying to be it, sycophantically clawing at academic elite culture – so that’s why I connect with Evelyn Waugh.”
His bookishness came out of “jealousy and rage,” he jokes. “I started reading not out of a love of literature – which I have now, with a passion – I started reading as a ‘f— you’ to where I’m from… and accidentally got hooked, like someone who’s hanging out in a drug den as an undercover police officer, and gets hooked on heroin.”
Lord Russell Grineau (he added “Lord” by deed poll for a laugh, and later changed his stage-surname to “Kane”) grew up in Enfield, on “the poorest street of one of the poorest boroughs of London.” His late father – a bouncer and builder called Dave – always longed to escape. “He wanted to be just over there in Chigwell, and he died miserable, clawing for that.”
Dave “was a knuckle-dragging, old-school, shaven-headed, triple-ripple-steroid-injecting, aggressive, depressed, Essex male Right-wing bully racist,” Kane says, in a single breath. “I loved him.” Dave still looms over his life. Kane’s planning to play his father in a sitcom he’s currently writing, called You Can’t Say Anything Now. The title’s sentiment isn’t one Kane holds: “You can say a hundred times more now than you could in 1966.”
Dave’s pessimism was infectious. “My dad said, “You’re not going to uni, there’s nothing you can do about it,’” Kane says. “I lost interest in my A-levels, started taking things I shouldn’t be taking, drinking when I shouldn’t be drinking, and ended up with two Ds and an N.” He got a job in a watch shop, selling “Rolexes to Quentins”, and felt that would be his lot forever.
Then, at 19, he had a blazing row with his father about race. “I was dating a white girl whose ex was black. My dad wouldn’t let her in the house” – not even for a cup of tea. “I moved out that night.” He went to live with his maternal grandmother, “the most foul-mouthed woman I’ve ever known. Her favourite word was the C word in the present participle: ‘Get my c—ing slippers!’” After having Kane’s mother aged 16, she “went through six husbands – she lived the life she unashamedly wanted”. She got through 60 cigarettes and a 750ml bottle of vodka a day, and “lived to 70 – I’ve no idea how.”
It was his grandmother who encouraged Kane to apply to university. “Just go there to annoy the f—ing toffs,” she said. He went to Middesex, only to find that it was “the one uni in the land with no stand-up society”. Although he half-watched a friend’s Eddie Murphy tapes – “American comedy has never made me laugh” – he never saw a live stand-up show till years later, when working at an advertising agency. As soon as he did, he knew it was what he wanted to do.
At a birthday dinner in 2004, Kane told his father, “Dad, I’m going to try standup.” He was immediately slapped down: “You’re wasting your time, boy. Load of old s—.” The next week, Kane had his first proper gig at the Edinburgh fringe. Two weeks after that Dave dropped dead – a heart failure. “He needed to die for me to become a man. It’s almost Shakespearean.”
In his memoir Son of a Silverback, Kane relates how his father’s death led, indirectly, to his first marriage, to comedian Sadie Hasler. “In 2006 I began chatting to a girl online about it, we thought it only proper to immediately start grief-shagging and then get married (and divorced within six months)… trauma sex was an awful foundation for long-term love.”
Long-term love would come later, via a comedy gig. Onstage in Chester in 2012, he joked with a woman in the front row called Lindsey about her mink coat. Later he tweeted about missing “minky”; her friends saw it, put them in touch, and in 2014 they were married.
It’s a sweet story – one he’s told many times – and practically the first one he tells me once we sit down to talk. But after our conversation, I get a string of emails from his PR team urging me not to mention it. They later ask me not to compare the relationship with MeToo – which I had no intention of doing, even in jest. Who would make that sort of comparison? Kane would, it turns out. “Technically, I’m in a MeToo marriage,” he joked to Heat magazine in 2019, leading to headache-inducing headlines in other papers. I feel a little sorry for Kane’s PR team. He’s a brilliant talker, but an irrepressible, unfiltered one; trying to control his mouth is like attempting to dam up the Atlantic.
Kane also brought the story up in the David Bowie episode of his podcast – an episode which led to weeks of online backlash. (Bowie devotees are an unforgiving lot.) Kane points out that Bowie allegedly slept with a teenage fan, then asks where the line is, pointing out that his second wife is 12 years younger than him, and was a fan, too.
“My dad was a doorman and a model at the local Essex nightclub and all the girls fancied him – he was older than my mum,” he tells me. (When she was 21, Dave was 35.) “It’s the exact same pattern, that’s what I learnt as a little boy I suppose, that the dad is a little bit older than the mum, I don’t have an issue with it.”
He now says that if anything happened to his marriage, he would not date a woman from the audience. “I think you can no longer do that without it being problematic.”
It wasn’t problematic at the time? “No, because we both fancied each other, and she’s an adult female, has a faculty to consent – the last time I checked, post 1890, women have free will.”
Then why would it be a problem now? “Because people around our decision will construe that [because] I’m holding a mic, I’m older, I’m more powerful, I’m wealthier, and it erodes the purity of the relationship.”
So dating a fan isn’t problematic, the issue is just that other people think it is? “It’s problematic if there’s a gap of power between someone pursuing someone else – it just is and always has been.” If it has always been problematic, doesn’t that mean it was back in 2012 too? I get the feeling we’re going around in circles.
Today, at 48, Kane has an enviable head of black hair, although side-effects from anti-hairloss medication – and perhaps also from his insistence on wearing tight skinny jeans – have left him functionally infertile, as he learnt in a TV documentary earlier this year. The test result was a blow to his confidence, which surprised him – as he’d been expecting it, and “I’m hardly Gary Lager. So how does Gary Lager feel when his sperm count’s low? That’s why we live in a culture where men are blamed for fertility issues – because men don’t want to approach it.”
It was a brave bit of documentary-making. Kane showed similar taboo-busting courage earlier this month when, to raise awareness about testicular cancer, he underwent a testicular examination on live TV, while cracking jokes about his own anatomy (“left-leaning – typical comedian”).
Kane takes so many different supplements he calls himself “a rattling pillpot”. “I’m experimenting. It’s called biohacking. I’m trying to keep my cellular age at about 34 – which I am at the moment. You can get a blood test done in America. My epigenetic age is 33-34. I’m botox-free, I’m filler-free, I’ve managed to press pause in my mid-30s physically.”
Kane is the face of Jolt, his wife’s business, designed as a simpler alternative to Kane’s cabinet of pills. It sells one pill advertised as “the ultimate age-blocker”; for just £839.88 a year, you too could end up looking “weirdly ageless”.
Earlier, Kane found a simpler way to cut years off his age – by lying about it, until in 2015 a tabloid reported that he was five years older than he’d claimed to be. “Do I regret it? Yes, apart from the [stand-up] tour that came out of it, Right Man Wrong Age, where I unpacked it. Foibles are a good thing in comedy, up to a point. You don’t want to be jizzing into a plant pot, or on Dispatches.”
And, of course, it’s the foibles that make Evil Genius so compelling. In each episode, unexpected facts and unlikely details (Churchill’s habit of taking dictation while stark naked, for instance) are pulled from plain manilla envelopes to upend everything we thought we knew about a person. If there were to be an episode about Russell Kane one day, what would be in his own envelopes? He laughs: “I firmly believe my envelopes are as yet unstuffed.”
Evil Genius premieres on Sky History at 9pm on Nov 20