Naughty Phone Prank Brings Down BBC Stars

By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, October 30, 2008

LONDON, Oct. 29 -- Junior high-school boys everywhere, listen up: One highly paid BBC personality was forced to quit and another was suspended Wednesday for making a prank phone call using dirty words.

The two radio and TV stars, Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand, have been subjected to a public flogging all week on TV news and radio talk shows and on the front pages of British newspapers.

The Sun tabloid dismissed Brand and Ross as "sickos." Prime Minister Gordon Brown took a few minutes away from meetings in Paris on the global financial crisis to reprimand their "inappropriate and unacceptable behavior."

Brand, who recently starred in the Hollywood film "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" and hosted this year's MTV Video Music Awards, resigned from his BBC radio program late Wednesday after more than 27,000 people complained.

Ross, who earns almost $10 million a year as a radio and TV host, was suspended and apologized for his "juvenile and thoughtless remarks." He will remain off the airwaves until top BBC bosses meet later this week. BBC chief Mark Thompson cut short a vacation to return to London to deal with the fallout.

Ofcom, Britain's broadcasting regulator, is also investigating, and politicians across the spectrum have condemned Brand, Ross and the BBC.

The problems started Oct. 18, when BBC radio aired a show of Brand's on which Ross and Brand made a phone call to Andrew Sachs, a 78-year-old actor famous for his role on the British TV comedy classic "Fawlty Towers."

Brand, 33, had once had a romantic fling with Sachs's granddaughter. On the prank call, he and Ross left a message on Sachs's answering machine describing graphically what Brand had gotten up to with the young woman. After they hung up, the two said on air that they might have to make it up to Sachs by breaking into his house and performing a sex act on him.

In announcing his resignation, Brand also apologized, saying, "I got a bit caught up in the moment and forgot that at the core of the rude comments and silly songs were the real feelings of a beloved and brilliant comic actor and a very sweet and big-hearted young woman."

This is not Brand's first go-round with controversy. He was fired from his job as a VJ on MTV when he came to work on Sept. 12, 2001, dressed as Osama bin Laden. At the MTV Video Music Awards ceremony in Los Angeles last month, he called President Bush "that retarded cowboy fella."

Ross, 47, has also had his share of purple moments, such as in his 2006 interview with Conservative Party leader David Cameron, when he asked Cameron if he ever had sexual fantasies about former prime minister Margaret Thatcher.

Many in the blogosphere and on talk radio have defended Brand and Ross this week for what they see as a genuinely funny and "edgy" prank. But far more Britons appear unamused by the targeting of an elderly and beloved British figure.

"What's funny about humiliating a lovely old man who has never harmed anyone in his life," Sachs's granddaughter, Georgina Baillie, 23, told the Sun. Baillie said she had a short relationship with Brand after they were introduced in 2006 but now feels "utterly exposed and betrayed" by him.

The Sun reported that Baillie had "tried out" to be one of its topless "Page 3" models before starting a career as a burlesque performer in a "tongue-in-cheek troupe called Satanic Sluts."

Sachs, who played the hapless Spanish waiter, Manuel, on "Fawlty Towers," said he appreciated the apologies he had received from the two men but said they needed to apologize to his granddaughter.

Despite widespread speculation in the media that Brand and Ross could be prosecuted for harassment, Sachs said he was "not out for revenge."

Much of the public anger this week has been directed at the BBC, particularly when it was revealed that the offending show had been recorded in advance. That meant the prank call was not a momentary lapse on live radio but had been approved by someone up the BBC chain of command.

The world's largest broadcasting network, funded by taxpayers, has a special place in British public life. Once a dowdy and conservative operation known affectionately as "Auntie," the BBC has come in for fierce criticism in recent years as it has modernized its programming.

In his apology, Brand said he hoped his departure would quell the latest storm to hit the broadcaster.

"I take complete responsibility and offer nothing but love and contrition, and I hope that now Jonathan and the BBC will endure less forensic wrath," he said, signing off with, "Hare Krishna."

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