LONDON (Reuters) - The British Broadcasting Corporation suspended two of its most successful and highly paid presenters on Wednesday after they verbally abused a 78-year-old comedy actor in a radio stunt that went wrong.
Russell Brand, a motor-mouth comedian with a burgeoning Hollywood career, and Jonathan Ross, one of the most highly paid presenters on British television, were suspended for a “gross lapse of taste” during a radio appearance 10 days ago.
In the pre-recorded show, the pair left insulting messages on the answerphone of Andrew Sachs, a comedy actor best known for playing the hapless Spanish waiter Manuel in the well-known British comedy series “Fawlty Towers” in the 1970s.
In the off-the-cuff calls, the pair joked about how Brand had slept with Sach’s 23-year-old granddaughter, and how when Sachs heard the messages he was likely to kill himself.
The program was broadcast late at night on October 18 and initially attracted little attention, with the youth audience it pulls in apparently not shocked or surprised by the content.
But following coverage in the rest of the media, including transcripts of the calls in which Ross, 47, and Brand, 33, swear and make sexual innuendo, complaints rocketed, with more than 18,000 people making a point of registering their disgust.
Ross and Brand, who caused controversy in the United States earlier this year with his hosting of the MTV music awards, apologized to Sachs and the public. But the apologies were perceived to be too late and not sufficiently sincere.
Stunned by the furor, the BBC announced that Brand and Ross, who is said to have a three-year, 18 million pound ($27 million) contract with the broadcaster, were suspended.
“This gross lapse of taste by the performers and the production team has angered license payers,” the BBC’s director-general, Mark Thompson, said in a statement.
“I have decided that it is not appropriate for either Russell Brand or Jonathan Ross to continue broadcasting on the BBC until I have seen the full report of the actions of all concerned.”
Brand later issued a statement analogizing again and announcing that he was quitting his program on BBC’s Radio 2, an easy-listening station that now has a strong youth following.
“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,” Brand said.
The debacle is a thorny one for the BBC, which plays a central role in British life as a broadcaster of culture, sports and arts as well as the nation’s leading provider of news.
Because its output is funded by the taxpayer — all Britons must pay a license fee of around $300 a year to receive BBC TV programing — there is a sense that what it produces belongs to the people and should reflect their limits when it comes to what is considered to be in bad taste.
Yet while Brand and Ross’s self-described juvenile behavior
has outraged Britain’s middle-class mainstream, it is notable that many younger people interviewed on television about their thoughts on the affair say the performers did little wrong.
It is far from the first scandal to strike the BBC, which started transmissions in the 1920s and is affectionately known as “Auntie” because of its almost familial role.
In 2003, its coverage was strongly criticized by the government after the broadcaster suggested the case for war in Iraq had been “sexed up.” An inquiry sided with the government.
Last year it was admonished alongside commercial channel ITV for misleading the public through fake quizzes and competitions.
As satellite and cable channels have grown in Britain, the BBC has sought to keep itself cutting edge and relevant to the youth market, paying large sums of money to keep stars such as Ross and Brand from defecting to competitors.
Editing by Paul Casciato