Henry Jeffreys recalls his time working for a certain tousle-haired comedian.
Readers who know Russell Brand from his political comedy and his podcast might be surprised that he started out as a man who made knob gags. This is to do him a disservice, because for a time in the mid to late noughties, he was probably the best knob gag merchant in the country, if not the world. Brand seemed to arrive fully formed in 2005. Overnight, he was the most famous man in Britain, like Mick Jagger, Kenneth Williams and Amy Winehouse all rolled into one. Brand was a gift to the tabloids; the Sun crowned him ‘Shagger of the Year’ three years in a row.
I am afraid that I played a small part in Brand’s rise to ubiquity. I worked on the publicity for his first book – some would say his masterpiece – which was published in 2007. A far-sighted editor at Hodder & Stoughton had managed to snap Brand up to write a book before his celebrity went interstellar. It was to be the tale of his pre-fame life of drugs and compulsive sex.
At the time I largely covered literary fiction, dealing with writers like Thomas Keneally and Siri Hustvedt. Social media and blogs were in their infancy, and my not too-taxing job involved dealing with like-minded menschy types at the Telegraph, Guardian and the BBC. Lunch was still a big thing. It was a terrible preparation for dealing with someone like Brand, to whom nobody had said no for two years, but for some reason it was decided that I would do the publicity. Something about Brand’s combination of laddiness and erudition was thought to suit me.
The book was scheduled to be the big Christmas title of 2007, but as the publication date approached, there was no book. Originally, Ben Thompson, a music journalist, had been employed to write it, but Brand apparently hated the results. So Brand and his entourage were dispatched to an Italian villa to write the thing at Hodder’s expense.
Somehow, much to everyone’s surprise, a completed book arrived in the nick of time. And the second surprise was that it wasn’t bad. Brand insisted he had written every single word. It’s hard to say but whoever had worked on it had captured Brand’s style perfectly. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief, though there was further panic in-house when Brand announced that he wanted to call it My Booky Wook – a reference to the slang in A Clockwork Orange which nobody got.
Then it was time for me to be introduced to the poodle-haired comedian. I vividly remember our first meeting in the boardroom at Hodder on the Euston Road with his agent, editor, the heads of various departments and the MD, Jamie Hodder-Williams himself. Brand was terrifyingly charismatic with eyes like Satan that bored into me. I waffled something about how we weren’t going to market the book with celebrity tittle-tattle, it would be literature. In the end, we would do both.
The campaign targeted the mass market and the more highbrow press. There were interviews in the Sun and Mirror, appearances with Jonathan Ross and Steve Wright, but with serialisation in the Guardian, reviews in the broadsheets and, oddly, an appearance on Woman’s Hour on Radio 4. Here the presenter, Jenni Murray, tried gamely to confront Brand about his past relationships. He did admit he wasn’t proud of his behaviour, but then with a flick of those deep brown eyes, she seemed to melt and didn’t push the matter.
Those were different times. Lad culture still reigned, and making a living out of boasting about your ill-treatment of women didn’t in any way seem odd. I think Brand realised that this schtick was numbered because in the time I knew him, his work became more political, with references to Noam Chomsky alongside the jokes about how small his penis was. Within five years he’d be talking to a bemused Jeremy Paxman about the revolution on Newsnight and hosting an extremely awkward Ed Miliband on his politics channel, The Trews.
This recent seriousness, however, obscures just how funny Brand was. Not just on stage, or on duty when he gamely appeared at conferences and flirted with starstruck booksellers, but doing the rounds of radio stations, TV appearances and photo shoots with Brand was hilarious, at first. Those verbose flights of fancy – full of puns, cultural references and tautology which sometimes didn’t work so well on the page – took off when delivered by Brand in the back of a taxi.
He could also be deeply unpleasant. Early in our relationship, he threw a tantrum during a newspaper interview when he noticed that one of his jokes had been removed from the book. Very soon I would feel the full force of the Brand temper. Before his signing at Waterstones Piccadilly, he demanded to know how many people were outside. I replied that the queue was round the block, which wasn’t specific enough, and he shouted and swore, and demanded to know exactly how many there were. I left the room humiliated. But this isn’t strange behaviour for a diva. I just didn’t really know how to deal with it. Booker Prize nominees like David Mitchell never did this before doing a reading at Topping Books in Bath (though I did once get into trouble for eating Bill Bryson’s cake). Soon it was made clear that Brand didn’t want me around and the only person who would accompany him was his agent Nik Linnen, son of uber agent John Noel, plus his stylist and hairdresser, without whom he would not do anything.
Every day I would receive dozens of phone calls, which would begin with the phrase ‘Russell’s not happy’ delivered in Linnen’s flat Northern vowels. One time it was because Brand didn’t like the driver we had sent, ‘he wants Keith,’ Linnen said. Keith turned out to be a cockney cabbie whom Brand had used the week before and now wanted to do all his driving. So it meant tracking down Keith and persuading him to be Brand’s chauffeur for a couple of days. This was by no means unusual. Brand would develop crushes on working-class men, whom he’d adopt as a sort of mascot. One such example was an enormous Irish bouncer at the book launch at Waterstones Piccadilly. Brand refused to do any more signings unless he was present. He’d also refuse to tour without gluten free vegetarian food. At one hotel near Birmingham, I had to order in from a restaurant on the outside of the city, because the food didn’t meet Brand’s exacting specifications.
None of this mattered in the end because the book was a massive success, selling something like 22,000 copies in its first week of publication. That number went up every week until Christmas. Brand did signings around Britain and in Dublin which were mobbed and then things calmed down. Everyone at Hodder toasted a grand success though I felt rather bruised by the whole experience.
Then I made a mistake. The following year, the Independent was doing a feature on sex addiction and wanted to run a passage from My Booky Wook. Seeing as Brand had talked about nothing but sex addiction the year before, I agreed without thinking about it very much. I even got a fee out of them. All quite normal behaviour in PR.
Somehow Brand, back from LA, where he was trying to make his career in the movies, saw the article and went ballistic that something had appeared without his permission. I was removed from the campaign, very nearly fired and eventually Brand went to another publisher for his Booky Wook 2 – which happily wasn’t so successful. It was really the end of my career at Hodder & Stoughton as I was just considered bad luck after that. I persisted in publishing for a few more years before giving it all up.
I didn’t realise it at the time, but I had caught Brand at a fascinating moment when he was trying to reinvent himself. In the inner circle, alongside Linnen and the styling crew, was a quietly amusing man called John Rogers, a writer, filmmaker and ‘psychogeographer’, who, I suspect, provided the dusting of erudition to Brand’s schtick. Later Brand would write the foreword to Rogers’ book This Other London, describing him as ‘an alchemist… [who] makes the mundane and unremarkable glow with newly imbued magic.’ Brand would disappear to Rogers’ place in east London for long afternoons to craft new material. Russell 1.0 was being retired, it’s just that nobody had told me.
These days Brand is something of a diminished figure compared to his noughties pomp. His Hollywood career seems to have stalled. His political influence was proved to be minimal, following the surprise Conservative victory at the 2015 election. With politics and cultural discourse evolving so rapidly, Brand seems increasingly like an anachronism, a throwback to the long Britpop era that came to an end in 2010. He’s settled down now with his wife and children, but I like to think that he’s working on a new persona, a Brand 3.0, regenerating Doctor Who-style with a slick new schtick and perhaps even a newer, bookier and wookier Booky Wook. I’m just glad it won’t be me scouring Birmingham for his vegetarian lunches when he does.