The Opera House, the Winter Gardens, Blackpool: here, in this magnificent theatre, a metaphor as good as any for decline, Russell Brand meditates on the stage, which I think is another metaphor for decline: not of buildings, but of a political system. Brand is on his knees, sideways to the stage by a single candle, eyes closed, hands on his knees, as if in prayer.
Blackpool is odd: a suicide on morphine. Shops sell fake breasts and dildos made of sugar, or mobility scooters and junk food side by side. The pavements are smeared with filth. And yet, when you think all the ugliness in the world has gathered, you will find a ballroom dancer in black tie stealing down a street in patent shoes. Brand, too, was made for Blackpool. Destruction, and renewal.
Brand’s tour, which ends today at the Brixton Academy, is a display, and the meditation is the most important part: the part that is most meaningful to him. It’s the reveal of a show he calls “33” because he thought that was the age at which he would die. What is public meditation for a man as noisy and self-destructive as Brand: health signalling? Performative recovery? WELLNESS in lights? Brand is myriad — actor, polemicist, activist, comic — his most dominant self is former heroin addict. Though he is almost 20 years sober, addiction can chase a man his whole life, and terrify him with a glimpse of what he was. And yet, the man thinks, if he can meditate in front of a thousand strangers in Blackpool, he must be safe. It’s a truism that a comic needs an audience more than an audience needs a comic, but it’s truer of Brand than of anyone. He needs us. He says so. “How much attention does one man need?” he asks. “We don’t yet know. We haven’t found the upper threshold”.
I am not here for Brand: not really. I have read his memoirs, and I feel I know everything he is prepared to tell us, and himself. I couldn’t get through his polemic Revolution, which he wrote at his wealthy girlfriend’s country house. His childhood was broken. He thought his mother’s recurring cancer was his fault, and his father, on holiday, ordered prostitutes for them both in a room they shared. He almost killed himself, and then didn’t. He is candid about everything except his anger: the kind of addict who is so ashamed he tells you everything. He is a very typical comedian in some ways: a man seeking his father’s affirmation from the stage. He very obviously finds it agonising when hecklers interrupt him. He must be heard. He is a very typical addict too: softness and savagery twinned.
What interests me most about Brand is not him, though he is charismatic. It is his reach, the people who come to see him, and what they can tell us about political alienation. If he was a movie star in 2010 — he is an under-rated actor, not least by himself, but he’s less afraid of his rage on screen — he is now a YouTube demagogue flirting with conspiracism and posting to 5.65 million followers. Typical posts are: “So…Trump was RIGHT About Clinton & Russia Collusion!!”; “You’ve Been LIED To About Why Ukraine War Began”; “Can We REALLY Trust Vaccine Fact-Checkers??!”
The doors open at 5pm. I watch them gather. I would call his constituency either fragile and seeking, or angry and untrusting. The first group, many of whom have risen from a sickbed, admire his personal transformation — his recovery from heroin addiction and the book he then wrote, ripped off from AA’s 12 Steps: Freedom from our Addictions. You aren’t supposed to monetise AA, but he has a very personal definition of humility. “You feel he really does care about people,” says one woman. “He’s been through so many things himself and he’s still keeping going. He still comes out for people.”
The second group admire his YouTube channel which segues from mistrust of the Establishment to disinformation and alienation. They ask me who I write for because they do not trust the press. “He knows exactly what’s going on,” says one woman. “He just makes people aware [of corruption]. I wouldn’t vote for anyone. There’s no one worth voting for.”
I meet a superfan videoing herself by the stage door. Social media is important: as if by broadcasting, you will be listened to. It’s one of his contradictions: Brand says that if we were forced to carry iPhones we would smash them up ourselves. Yet he depends on them. “Much as he is an intellectual,” she says, “he teaches you in a nice way and actually I’d like to rip his pants off.” Her friend likes “his videos about conspiracy things. Well, they aren’t conspiracies. They are conspiracies for six months and then they are facts.”
For another man, it’s a modern political — or apolitical — encounter: he and Russell found each other through algorithm. “He’s saying the right thing,” he says. “A lot of the information that Russell finds is what I’ve found. Covid is an excuse for where they want to take us. It’s all through fear.” He fears tyranny, this man, but another contradiction is that Brand, who despises conventional political practises, will take him closer to it. “All political parties are the same”, he says. “He [Brand] manages to channel anger or discontent in a positive direction.”
I sit in the gods, which are like a velvet cliff edge, next to a serene sex therapist and her Italian husband. She is disappointed that Jeremy Corbyn is no longer leader of the Labour Party. She has no plan to vote in a general election: she thinks there is no point. I look up her constituency, which is a Tory/Labour marginal. Her vote does matter. But Brand, despite his personal message of empowerment, would have his followers more disempowered. It’s the one thing I can’t bear about him: his anti-voting message. It’s fine for a rich man to shrug off politics. He doesn’t need them. He can invent his own, and he does. He is not so very different from the men he despises. They lay false trails.
The show is in four parts. The first is pandemic-themed stand-up, and it is good stand-up. It’s self-aware, and therefore bearable. He mocks the audience and himself. During the clap for carers, he tells us, he was a medical worker so the applause would be directed at him. He collects testimony of pandemic-themed shame from the audience — he’s very interested in shame — and tells a story about a man who wiped his bum on a face mask, and a woman who drunk wine in a Zoom work meeting, and pretended it was tea. When he gets to the audience member who masturbated to something under every letter in the Pornhub alphabet, he invites us to shout the words: tea-bagging; wanking; zebra.
The second part speaks to his YouTube audience, and it’s a lie: that you can be more politically engaged by placing your faith not in your democratically elected politicians but in him. Love is not a mandate — if it is even love, rather than the narcotic of attention and praise — but the root of this is clear enough: he didn’t trust his father. “I don’t like being told what to do,” he says. “I start there”. This sounds like his most authentic self. “I start at ‘fuck off’.”
“The system wants you hypnotised and stupefied,” he says, as if government is only a meeting of Spectre. “We are told that we are participants in our democracy. That we are adults. That we matter. That our voice will be heard. That we would be able to organise society through the ballot box because you are adults and your voice matters. That is one of the myths of our time.”
Brand is weirdly Manichean. He appears to divide the world into two parts, and they are solid, and immutable. The evil are evil, and will remain so. The good are here, as if buying a ticket to “33” is a kind of protective spell. Sometimes he tends to Luddism and talks as if he would like to live in some kind of idealised village, or circle, and why wouldn’t he? He’s strong, and a man.
The third part is the hug part, and it’s the weirdest part. Having divested us of the desire for representative democracy he becomes a healer. It begins in the interval. He jumps down from the stage, and waits there, and people fill the aisles to hug him. It looks intensely silly, but they are moved by him. I wonder if this is the replacement — and true destination — for his sex addiction: intimacy, which other people have paid for. (I return, in my mind, to his father and the prostitutes.) I wonder if this is the real point of the exercise. They come, one after the after, for hugs of all kinds — swift, flirty, soulful — and photographs, and a combination of the two: the soulful hug selfie.
At the end of the show, he puts on a blue pointed party hat, like a wizard, and leaves the auditorium through the main exits, to hug people in the street outside. I notice he has a personal photographer and videographer: a slender man in black with a professional expression who follows him and who records every interaction. Does Brand archive them, and look back on them: on every piece of love? People cry in his arms. He whispers to them. He takes a picture of himself with us all behind him, like an army. It’s so obviously his new addiction there is barely anything left to say: a delusion into which he carries others, by the sheer force of his charisma, and his silly pointy hat. And he won’t know where to stop. He never does. And then he goes back inside for a mass meditation. The audience at Lancashire’s biggest theatre close their eyes and pray.
At the end, when he has hugged everyone who waited, I listen to them praise him. “You can’t have control over what’s going on in the world, but you can have control over yourself,” says one. It’s a doctrine of renewal, but so atomised as to be meaningless. “He’s got that attention to the working class,” says another. “He is like us,” says the third, “a free thinker [who] cares about everyone in the world, not ground down by politicians and big corporate companies. He cares about individual people.”
But does he? I think he is using them, and, worse, they let him. Brand is another symptom of our alienation: of the fracturing of the institutions that we need. We will see more, and different Brands in future, as the centre falls away. They will blow in on the wind. His doctrine of disengagement will change nothing for them. Will they notice? Will they care? I wonder if, in the end, they have confused politics with love. Or, rather, magic.