Thursday, November 20, 2008

Indies hit out at celebrities

Non-UK readers of this site may not be familiar with the Jonathan Ross/Russell Brand affair. Indeed, they can be forgiven for not having heard of one, or even both, of the individuals concerned. Let me give a quick re-cap. Jonathan Ross is a witty, down-to-earth, distinctly non-Oxbridge talk show host, his nearest US equivalent perhaps being Jay Leno. Russell Brand is a radio presenter, comedian and entertainer, arguably better known in the States, thanks to the film Forgetting Sarah Marshall for which he did the publicity circuit, appearing on the aforementioned Jay Leno’s show.

Ross can be brilliantly funny, cleverly improvising on his guests’ comments, but on other occasions – and there are too many – he is crude and puerile, too fond of juvenile innuendos. His fellow host Graham Norton is like this too, all the time – at least Ross has a more serious side when he wants to.

So far, so what? Why am I even wasting my time talking about all these overpaid people? Well, celebrities occupy an increasingly large part of the UK book trade and the Ross/Brand affair – of which more below, or click the link ( - has recently led to an outburst from independent bookseller Polly Jaffe of Jaffe & Neal in the pretty village of Chipping Norton. She’s admitted to being fed up with them and fed up with their books – the smiling face, the name underneath, the words ‘My Autobiography’. Look at her Bookseller blog and read the comments and you’ll see how many agree.

As some of you know, on Brand’s radio show, the pair played a prank on the actor Andrew Sachs (he of Fawlty Towers fame), leaving a message on the actor’s answer phone on which Ross shouts, of Brand: “He fucked your granddaughter!” I don’t even like writing that: it is so offensive. Apparently, they did this because Sachs had been due to appear on the show but cancelled.

The consequences of this have been extraordinary. The media laid into the BBC for its poor handling of the furore; the head of Radio 2 resigned as a result and Gordon Brown even commented ( Now, Ross has been banned from broadcasting on the BBC for three months during which time he will not receive a salary (big deal – he’s already earned enough to retire). Sales of his book have dropped by around 50%, and his publishers, Transworld, must be wishing they had included a ‘reputation clause’ in his contract so that they could claw back some of the advance.

It is clear that some booksellers, particularly independents, have had enough of celebrities. They’re happy to let the chains and supermarkets battle out the celeb’ books war, with their tedious identical window displays and their endless price battles. The hope for indies is that there are enough ‘proper’ books around for them to make better margin business, although, in fairness, some people say the Dawn French and Paul O’Grady are good books.

Why does any of this matter? Well, it is of interest because a foolish, rude, throwaway sentence on a radio show by a key Christmas author has not only led to questions being asked about the editorial judgement of the world’s most famous broadcaster, but also led to booksellers venting their frustration at the nation’s obsession with celebrity. It has also shone a spotlight on an unsavoury element of British culture: namely, yob behaviour and lack of respect. If the affair leads to less gratuitous bad language and pointless offensive behaviour – as opposed to satire which attacks hypocrites in public life who should be attacked – then some good will have come of it. Meanwhile, Transworld must wish they could wind back the clock and leave Ross’ book in the ‘green room’.

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