Saturday, June 11, 2011

Russell Howard - The signs of a flawed character


When a TV star fouls up then it is usually other people who carry the can ... their producer, the production company, the commissioning editor.

It is also other people who end up with the mess to investigate and explain ... the regulators and the broadcaster.

And, where expensive productions are concerned, nobody wants to admit fault. That would mean a show they can't repeat or sell on elsewhere.

Whatever happened to personal responsibility though?

For there is a way of saying sorry even when the system demands you can't admit doing wrong.

The Russell Howard Affair

For those who don't know, the story goes like this....

Russell Howard is a young, baby-faced, new generation entertainer, supposedly appealing to a certain kind of young viewer demographic.

He has a show that's screened on BBC TV. It's called "Russell Howard's Good News".

The format is based on taking items from recent news and making jokes about the subjects involved. In that sense it is a one man stand up derivative of established shows such as 'Have I Got News for You' ... except that the latter is designed for more mature mainstream audiences.

On April 1st, Howard's show picked up on news that a Thai charter airline, PC Air,  was recruiting Kathoey flight attendants in a novel employment initiative.


This was never going to be a story that was intelligently examined. Far too much titillation value. Reuters, for instance, misspelled 'Kathoey' and employed the demeaning term 'ladyboy' in their syndicated headline.

Some versions of the story, repeated widely around the world, at least acknowledged that in any western country's language kathoey would be described as transsexual or transgender, and that the initiative was addressing a serious employment need.

In Thailand, the job roles open to kathoey are severely restricted. Many are often ejected from public spaces such as bars. For some there are limited openings as beauticians. For the rest, street work becomes a necessity for survival. Western eyes see the street work without questioning the social back story.

However, Russell Howard and his writers had no interest in that. They spotted a cheap visual gag, playing on the received idea that ... well, you can guess.


Their treatment of the story can be seen here on You Tube. It portrays large men with stubble in stewardess costumes; women passengers being sick at the sight of them; the men exposing their bras; and finally grotesque scrotal sacs viewed between their legs from behind.

I'm linking direct to the video page rather than embedding the video, as the comments under the video form part of understanding the horror of many parts of the trans community.

A complaint

Trans Media Watch were among the first to be on the case. Their press release about the programme was picked up and reported by Pink News.

Again, the 300+ comments under the story form part of judging peoples' reaction.

I'm sure Russell Howard would have no difficulty finding feedback like this. He would also be able to pick up on how people were reacting to the video on You Tube as well. The concern was widely discussed.

Initially there was confusion over who would handle the complaint. First, complainants to the media regulator OFCOM were told that they should contact the BBC. Then that line was reversed and OFCOM decided that would adjudicate the complaint themselves.

In a nutshell, the BBC defence was that the video sketch was not about trans women but about what a British budget airline would do if they tried to implement the same thing. The joke, we are supposed to believe, would be that they would employ these grotesques.

On Friday 10th June, OFCOM sent copies of its' judgement to those who had complained directly. A copy is available here, along with more background.

Accepting the BBC's claim that the sketch was about budget airlines and not intended to denigrate trans people, OFCOM said:

"It is Ofcom's view that the sketch was not likely to encourage transphobia as there was no intention to denigrate or demonstrate hostility towards the transgender community"


Although it is early days, and most reaction has been confined to the Trans Media Watch group and a few blogs, the reaction of trans people has been predictable dismay and disbelief at the OFCOM decision. "Whose side are they on?" said one correspondent.

Journalist and Trans Media Watch activist Paris Lees, approached the news by blogging a photo of Russell Howard and, beneath it, telling the very sad story of how programmes like this create the climate in which vulnerable trans people can be literally terrified to death.

And the OFCOM decision certainly seems strange.

If this was a sketch that was supposed to be picking fun at shoddy budget airlines, then there was a conspicuous absence of easy laughter cues about the well known shortcomings of the business approach. The 'stewardesses' were pictured serving meals and giving other at-seat services ... definitely not the hallmark of any modern budget airline in Britain. All the gags were about the grotesques, around which the laughs were milked.

But lots of people are doubtless going to write about that. Personally I just want to focus back in on the performer whose name is on the programme.

The days when gags didn't need victims

I'm old enough to have watched many generations of comedians. I admit the ones that stay in the mind are the real entertainers. The ones who learned their craft the hard way, and who got their well deserved laughs from the care with which they crafted their scripts. They created comedy that stands the test of time. It's as funny today as 40 years ago, in spite of massive changes in society.

What I noted about those entertainers was that they were aware of the relationship with their audience, and the responsibilities that came with that.

There is no avoiding the fact that a complaint to a regulator or the broadcaster becomes something that is out of the original performer's hands. Money is at stake.

The consequences of an adverse adjudication could mean scrapping a show, or at least having to remove the 90 second segment occupied by the offending sketch. For a topical show recorded in front of an audience it may not even be feasible to shoot a replacement to fill the gap.

Ultimately the prospects of repeating the series, marketing a DVD or selling the show abroad are affected by whether the offending part is judged acceptable or not.

Yet that doesn't wholly constrain an entertainer from acknowledging concerns.

The signs of a flawed character

If Russell Howard wanted to show he was a principled man then there would be no problem for him in acknowledging that a section of his audience were concerned enough to complain about something he created.

He could say that the decision on whether it was right or wrong was now out of his hands. But that would not stop him from saying in public that he is sorry to hear that people were upset, and assure them it wasn't his personal intention to cause offence.

A man of integrity would find that kind of way to acknowledge hurt without necessarily admitting liability. If he's done that and I missed it then I'll come back and make a note of that.

However, I'm not sure whether a man who could dream up that kind of 'point and laugh' humour would have that kind of integrity.

Regardless of OFCOM's disappointing (and frankly astonishing) decision, we are left wondering about the flaws in Russell Howard's character.


Ashlee Kelly said...

Good article, although I must point out that Russell Howard is straight.

Christine Burns MBE said...

My apologies. I was informed that he was openly gay. I'll edit that immediately.

Jo said...

It remains unclear whether Howard really has any knowledge at all of the hurt he has caused. Perhaps. He is an immensely highly paid performer, and, like others of his ilk, he and his writers will be aggressively protected by minders from many of the production team, or others who might be exposed to the impact of his material.

I fear he either knows nothing of it, knows only the mildest, most sanitised details of the deep upset he caused, or frankly, doesn't give a damn.

Lucy said...

As I pointed out on Twitter, this witch-hunt you seem keen to perpetuate is becoming rather unpleasant. You seem to be turning things into a personal vendetta now OFCOM have outlined the obvious to you.
OFCOM's response was in NO way astonishing; it made complete sense.
Any fool can see that sketch was not a realistic depiction of transgender people. It was a light-hearted comment on how a British version may be less glamorous than the Thai. That's all. To attempt to use this as a scapegoat for the despicable thuggery, violence and phobic bullying which occurs in society is ridiculous. This culture of complaining and demanding in the media has got far out of hand. Nobody cares about making a real difference; instead they wish to knee jerk response what they see without considering what it actually is saying. We are losing the targets of intolerance, phobia and inequality if we insist on making a mountain of inoffensive comedy sketches and the like. Demanding heads on spikes just because *you* have not had the response you wanted is childish; so is targeting a person's character in the process. He does not need to make an apology because he has done nothing wrong. It may have offended a small proportion of people, but I think you'll find that there are complaints on pretty much everything that is broadcast.
You have had an explanation. Neither he nor anyone involved needs to apologise for something they haven't done. They have explained the intent of the sketch (shame they needed to) and that is the situation. It is unfortunate it has been taken badly by some, but you can't expect an apology for your own interpretation.

Martha said...


imagine if the sketch was about the Paralympics and the Government had run out of money so they had to do a budget version, and the grotesques we would be invited to laugh at.. getting the picture yet?

Dru Marland said...

I recognise that Lucy found nothing wrong with the Russell Howard sketch, and that she believes OFCOM to be infallible. That is, of course, her prerogative, as it is mine to disagree with those conclusions.

At least, Lucy, you recognise that "despicable thuggery, violence and phobic bullying" exist.

Me too. I've also seen, at first hand, that sort of behaviour framed in the terms of reference supplied by crap media portrayals of trans people. Like this odious man's work.

I don't blame Howard for all the wrongs of the world; but he is part of the problem. So I deem it legitimate to criticise his work. Crapness should be attacked wherever it sticks its head up. It's not for you, or anyone else, to tell anyone where to direct their energies.