Don’t mess with Manuel – he’s from Barcelona

Remember Manuel, the wonderfully inept Spanish waiter from the classic series, Fawlty Towers? Of course you do. Well, Andrew Sachs, the actor who played Manuel, is back in the public eye after years of low-key voice-over work and he’s apparently more popular than ever. In fact, he’s at the centre of a major rumpus that is threatening to engulf the BBC and two of its most popular presenters.

The whole mess started on Saturday night when comedian Russell Brand and nebulous ‘media personality’ Jonathan Ross were doing their weekly ‘no-holds-barred’ radio show. With hours of air-time to fill and very little material with which to fill it, the two decided to call up Sachs who was supposed to appear on the show but had cancelled for some reason.

After leaving some vaguely disparaging comments on Sachs’ answering machine, Ross blurted out that Brand had shagged Sachs’ granddaughter, Georgina. Brand immediately picked up on this and the two then proceeded to riff on this rather ungratifying subject matter.

Over the course of their show, Brand and Ross made a total of 4 phone calls to Sachs. Each time they began by sarcastically apologising for their previous comments and then proceeded to offer more details about the liaison before hanging up. Sachs was obviously not amused.

But it didn’t end there. Oh no. You can’t insult a 78 year old television legend like Manuel and expect to get away with it – no matter how hip you are – and before you could say ‘…is Siberian hamster’, 18 000 complaints had flooded into the BBC from angry listeners. Soon, newspapers were openly calling for the offensive duo of Brand and Ross to be sacked. Even Gordon Brown stepped into the fray and demanded a response from the hitherto noncommittal Director-General of the BBC.

In short, all hell broke loose. Ross and Brand have now been suspended, pending an investigation, and the British public is bloody furious with the BBC itself for allowing the pre-recorded show to go out on air without cuts. The inflammatory apologies from Brand and Ross that essentially said, ‘we’re sorry but it was still funny’ didn’t make things any better, and the people are howling for blood.

Now, I’ve read the transcript of the offending phone calls (which is available on the Sky News website) and I agree that Ross and Brand were offensive and juvenile. However, I also think that this whole affair is something of a storm in a tea-cup. Even Andrew Sachs seems to be a bit bewildered by all the attention, especially with a team of TV reporters camped outside his front door.

In any case, comedy is a provocative enterprise and many comedians make their living by pushing the limits of taste and propriety. When things go too far, the people involved should man up and apologise properly. And, while there are many grey areas regarding what is acceptable and what is not, I don’t think that many people would argue that repeated prank calls to an old man about the sexual activities of his granddaughter serves as a compelling argument for freedom of speech.

But there is more at stake than the honour of Andrew Sachs and his progeny. Brand and Ross are two of the highest paid celebrities on the BBC’s books. Both earn millions of pounds a year and these hefty salaries are primarily funded by the BBC’s compulsory license fee and other tax revenues. In other words, the British public has to pay for the BBC much in the same way that South Africans have to fund the SABC – for better or, more usually, worse.

So, perhaps the important issue at stake here is that a public broadcaster, such as the BBC and the SABC, must never forget who pays its bills and be able to account for its spending. It also should not pursue narrow agendas or exclusionary policies and, instead, try to serve all its constituents, no matter how difficult a juggling act this may present.

I also think that Russell Brand needs a good wash and Jonathan ‘Woss’ should go for speech therapy so that he doesn’t sound like Elmer Fudd. Why is it that people with speech impediments always seem to have names that prominently feature the sounds they have trouble pronouncing? Furthermore, why does the BBC insist on hiring people with speech impediments in the first place? Is it a form of affirmative action, or is it just a British class distinction that links speaking funny with being posh?

Finally, allow me to postulate that the only reason this whole thing has blown up to such a degree is because of Sachs’ iconic role as Manuel. If Brand and Ross had called up some arbitrary old fart and insulted his grandchild, there might have been a few moans but most people would have just chided the radio rascals for their impertinence. By attacking a beloved national institution, however, the two presenters have brought down the wrath of the great British public on their heads.

To put it in a South African context, imagine if someone had prank called Nelson Mandela and made jokes about Zindzi. Now, it may not be fair to compare Mandela with the fictional Manuel, but the British haven’t had a beloved politician since Churchill saved them from the Nazis. Instead, the British have to venerate their heroes of TV shows past and, as this sort of icon goes, you don’t get anyone more saintly than the put-upon Manuel from Barcelona. IMHO.

[Originally posted 29/10/2008]

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