10 years of Sachsgate: how a puerile prank call broke the BBC and made comedy more boring

Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross prank calling Andrew Sachs in 2008
Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross prank calling Andrew Sachs in 2008

“Compared with leaving the EU or the election of Donald Trump, it was of no magnitude whatsoever,” says the comedy producer Jon Plowman when asked about the impact of the BBC bungle enshrined in history as “Sachsgate”.

And while Plowman's statement may sound self-evident, back in 2008 there was no storm quite like it. A decade ago today, in fact, we were reaching peak hysteria over some truly lamentable “banter”.

To recap: on Saturday October 18, an edition of Radio 2’s The Russell Brand Show had featured Brand and his pal Jonathan Ross leaving a series of lewd messages on the answer machine of actor Andrew Sachs (aka Fawlty Towers’ linguistically-challenged Manuel) about Brand’s liaison with Sachs’ granddaughter Georgina Baillie.  

On Thursday October 30, Ross - the real instigator of the whole affair, following his fateful decision to yell “he f_____ your granddaughter” down the line - was suspended without pay for 12 weeks. At the same time, Radio 2 controller Lesley Douglas tendered her resignation.

The furore plunged the Beeb into crisis and indelibly changed the careers of those involved. And if it was, too, a relatively trivial incident blown out of proportion? Well that’s exactly what makes it so significant. Here was a defining example of the exaggerated cycle of condemnation and contrition, ever more fuelled by social media, that now keeps the world on its axis.

In hindsight, you could say that from the moment Brand walked through the doors of Broadcasting House, a bomb was waiting to go off. The piratical faux-Cockney had made his name as the archest of provocateurs, ever since pitching up to work at MTV on September 12, 2001 kitted out as Osama Bin Laden. Initially signed up by the Beeb to 6Music in 2005, he then graduated to Radio 2 in 2007. Even given his Saturday night slot, the self-declared “ex-junkie twerp” seemed a surprising choice for the nation’s favourite station.

Which was perhaps the point, says Jane Arthurs, Professor in Television at Middlesex University and co-author of Russell Brand: Comedy, Celebrity, Politics. “The general age of Radio 2 [listeners] has always been a matter of concern. There’s a constant need to keep trying to renew the audience, and so I think it was his youth appeal that was key.”

As well as his very unpredictability: “One of the things in the criteria of the BBC charter is that maintaining quality involves creative risk taking and that’s particularly so in comedy,” as Arthurs also points out. In 2018, by contrast, you’d look in vain for much comedy or riskiness on the Radio 2 roster.

Andrew Sachs with John Cleese in Fawlty Towers Credit: PA

Making things more hazardous was the fact that Brand’s show was made his by own company Vanity Projects - part of an increasing trend for BBC stars to take the reins behind-the-scenes via their own production stables. “The BBC hadn’t become aware of the risks involved in having a more independent set of presenters. Brand had his own producer on the show who wouldn’t have been trained up into the more  cautious approach of the BBC staffer,” says Arthurs. (A consequence of the fallout was that, soon afterwards, the BBC banned stars or people from their agency from executive producing their own shows.)

Yet, in another sense, the uproar was no means inevitable, even after broadcast. When the offending show went out, there were just two initial complaints. It was only the following weekend that a “scandal” suddenly fell into the BBC’s lap, after The Mail on Sunday picked up on the incident. They ran a story that that the “BBC could face prosecution” over the messages, crucially noting that the segment had been cleared for broadcast by various senior executives. Subsequently, the number of complainants rose to nearly 45,000.

Did each of those listen to the show and bide their time for a week or so? It’s fair to say this may not have been the case. “With Sachsgate people were told they should be offended by this, even though they hadn’t heard it, and thus they were offended,” notes Jon Holmes, BBC radio presenter and erstwhile panellist on Radio 4’s satirical news review The Now Show. It was the portent for a new age of convenience, where offence is increasingly enjoyed as a second, or many more, hand experience.

Even taking into account the intervention of the press, why did the story raise our collective hackles quite so sharply? In a recent interview with The Telegraph, the comedian David Mitchell offered one intriguing theory: that far from being a curious aside to world events, Sachsgate was intimately tied up with them. “It looked like it was the end of the world with the banks, so it was like, ‘Let’s get furious about something which in our heart of hearts we know doesn’t matter,’” he said.

Georgina Baillie in 2008  Credit:  Mark Large / Associated Newspapers

You could add that the credit crunch had created a wellspring of “sticking it to the man” sentiment that spread from dodgy bankers to heavily-remunerated BBC stars with nattier suits. “The public [did] feel that they were short-changed by the big institutions and once they're given something to lash out at, [they’ll take it],” as Holmes says. Ross’s £18 million three-year pay deal in 2006 was the touchpaper for the BBC pay debate that continues to rumble on; given it was rather more than pocket money, he had little scope to act like a teenager.

The price of Brand and Ross’ actions extended to writers and performers across the Beeb. Looking back now, Holmes remembers how an atmosphere of mortal fear set in which led naturally to a “hell of a lot of red tape”. “There were suddenly hundreds more forms to fill in for producers … and everything had to be referred upwards, and I mean everything - every slightly contentious thing that wouldn’t have been contentious before.”

In one instance, as he noted in a Guardian piece at the time, he was required to remove the word  “arse” from a Now Show script. “And [it wasn’t] just words, it was subject matter, it was everything - everything was scrutinized through the lens of what might happen if the Daily Mail took umbrage, which seemed ridiculous to everybody, including the people who were having to do it.” “To some extent that [culture’s] gone away now,” he adds. “You can probably say ‘arse’.”

Did Sachsgate really change the tenor of comedy as we know it? Certainly, there were complaints of the BBC’s increased risk-aversion in its wake: in 2011, the comedy writer and producer John Lloyd wrote a piece for the Radio Times blasting “the Commissioning, Legal, Compliance and Editorial Policy police” and their “blanket proscriptions, passed down from on high, which reduce, which reduce everything to a bland vichyssoise.”

“Certainly for eight of the last 10 years, the BBC has been a bit cautious and maybe the pendulum is swinging back a bit more now,” says Steve Bennett, the editor of comedy website Chortle.

Russell Brand leaving home on October 29. 2008 Credit: Heathcliff O'Malley

Plowman, a former head of BBC comedy and the man behind everything from Absolutely Fabulous to The Office and Little Britain to Inside No. 9, has recently bemoaned the lack of laughs in today’s TV schedules, while promoting his new memoir How To Produce Comedy Bronze. He’s ambivalent about whether that’s tied up with post-Sachsgate cautiousness, though.

Mostly, he says, it’s a problem of a post-cable, post-Netflix world where the traditional broadcasters are pouring their cash into drama to compete with the likes of Game of Thrones. However he does concede that it may also be something to do with a “new puritanism, of which Sachsgate is a tiny example - maybe that gave TV a bit of a licence not to do comedy.” (He also hastens to point out that what “Jonathan and Russell did was [not] in any way anything like comedy, and/or anything like acceptable.”)

Some would argue that it helped shake up comedy for the better. At the time, this newspaper suggested it “could spell the end for the comedy of cruelty” - and certainly, the kind of gratuitous cruelty it showcased is not as revelled in as it once was. “People will think we’ve lost something in that comedy can’t be so vicious, but I also think it’s a positive in that you have to think why you’re being vicious and be more targeted,” says Bennett.

He points to Frankie Boyle, who came under fire again and again in the wake of Sachsgate for jibes about the Queen, Rebecca Adlington, and Katie Price’s disabled son Harvey, among others. But in the last few years, he’s become almost respectable, with his recent TV projects, like his Election Autopsy and New World Order series, more worthily channelling his vitriol towards politics.

Jonathan Ross in 2009 Credit: PA

Meanwhile the comics occupying today’s zeitgeist are not the bullishly controversial but the avowedly vulnerable. One of the biggest comedy phenomenons of the last year has been Australian performer Hannah Gadsby’s Netflix special Nanette, a gut-wrenching set about homophobia and female trauma. Mental health has become one of the stand-up circuit’s favourite themes. For better or worse, comedy has become more confessional and more personal, says Bennett. “It’s almost like 30 odd years ago, when Bernard Manning went out of style - society moves on.”

If there was one person involved in Sachsgate who received precious little compassion from any side, it was Baillie. While sympathy poured in for her grandfather, the then burlesque dancer was portrayed as trouble - perhaps because she sold her story to The Sun under the guidance of Max Clifford and perhaps because she was a member of a troupe with the headline-friendly name “The Satanic Sluts.” But here was a 23-year-old woman, who had her sex life aired to the nation, in the most baldly objectifying terms possible, by two men without her consent - and had to deal with the ensuing infamy as best she knew how.

Arguably, Baillie suffered the greatest repercussions, ending up estranged from her grandparents for years afterwards. “After what Georgie has done, I’m sorry we can never see her again. If she hadn’t told [Brand] who her grandfather was, this would never have happened,” her grandmother Melody told The Mail on Sunday in January 2015, though she did forge a reconciliation with them before Sachs’ death in November 2016.

You can only imagine that if  Sachsgate had happened now, given the cultural shift of the past year, her humiliation would be front-and-centre of the story. Bennett agrees: “I do think there would certainly be more about [her] - in some ways it might be even worse for them, because there’s that context.”

As for what really happened to the duo? In the short term, the commotion just was grist to the mill for Brand, who used it to fertilize his 2009 live show Scandalous. “It did extraordinarily well. He pranced on stage looking like a rock star and used all the footage from Sachsgate to enhance his transgressive status,” says Arthurs.  The problem came when he then decided he wanted to become a serious political activist; when you’re calling for revolution against the capitalist system, notorious prank calling doesn’t sit so well with the personal brand.

“[The issue] kept coming up and he struggled to get beyond his reputation that he was untrustworthy because of it, that he wasn’t a serious person and therefore couldn’t be listened to on serious matters,” she adds. These days, he seems to have shrunk into maturity: now married with two daughters, he hosts an earnest philosophical podcast Under the Skin and writes self-help books, while tickets for his recent live dates came with a free freshly-baked Hare Krishna cookie.

Georgina Baillie in November, 2008 Credit: getty

By contrast, North London Halloween parties aside, Ross was pretty well buried as a cultural force. He struggled on at the BBC for a couple of years, before moving to ITV in 2011, where his chat  show has mostly become a repository for stars who wouldn’t get onto Graham Norton. The problem for him was that Sachsgate shone an unflattering light on his general shtick, echoing the kind of boorish behaviour he’d long shown on his TV chat show with female guests.

“He did trade in sexual innuendo, and that would be hard to sustain in a tasteful way in light of him having actually gone too far,” as Arthurs notes. At the time of his ITV transfer, he told the Guardian that he wouldn’t be doing any “faux flirting” from now on, because “that looks wrong when you get older. It just looks creepy.” Unfortunately, he’s never really found an alternative register to call his own.

But if Ross isn’t likely to make the same mistake again, how much potential is there for another misplaced attempt at comedy to create a juggernaut of outrage? “It almost certainly wouldn't happen now because there are just more people in place to look at things - at least in my world [of TV], I don’t know about radio,” says Plowman.

On the other hand, says Holmes, even as broadcasters have become more risk-averse, so the risks have become less obvious. “Broadcasters are acutely aware of the shift in what is socially acceptable to some people - and certainly to the, I don’t like to use the term, but the 'snowflake culture' as people keep referring to it.. there’s a lot of 'is that offensive now?' The shifting sands are such that nobody quite knows...there’s a hell of a lot more mines in the minefield these days.”

How to Produce Comedy Bronze by Jon Plowman is published by Bonnier Books; Russell Brand: Comedy, Celebrity, Politics’ by Jane Arthurs and Ben Little is published by Palgrave Macmillan