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Thoughtful Aesthete or Cheerful Philistine?

On art, artists, and the divided soul of comedian Russell Kane.

· 8 min read
Thoughtful Aesthete or Cheerful Philistine?

In his 2010 book Encounter, the great Czech novelist Milan Kundera examined the modern trend for “venomous” biographies of artists. The malignant mission of such books, Kundera wrote, was to sniff out the transgressions of the subject and then, with tenuous citations, fix the darkest possible image in print. Calling our time “the age of the prosecutors,” he saw this perverse drive to expose and undermine its best creators as running in tandem with a widespread loss of self-confidence in the West: “Europe was no longer loved. Europe no longer loved itself.”

Back in the 1980s and early ’90s, novelists and painters were revered like rockstars and were often front-page news. The BBC had its Arena and Omnibus series (the former is still with us, but in watered-down form), in which a creative giant of one kind or another would be given the documentary treatment for an hour or so each week. ITV had the South Bank Show (now neutered on the margins of Sky Arts) presented by the blokeish and erudite Melvyn Bragg, the best teacher some of us ever had. For many, this was our real education—heralded by the thrilling Paganini music of the credits sequence—and it drummed home an important lesson: art and artists are not an ornament to life but the heart of it, and have the capacity both to enrich our experience and inspire. As the television writer Dennis Potter said of his chosen medium at its best: “Turn on. Tune in. And grow.”

Today, the “age of prosecutors” is raging at the BBC. In such a climate, asked Kundera, “what does a life mean? A long succession of events whose deceptive surface is meant to hide sin.” According to the public service broadcaster, Picasso was “not the greatest artist of the 20th century but an evil, angry, misogynist little shit.” John Lennon was “a touch wife-beaty and a touch psychological child-abusey.” Oscar Wilde was a “child-buggering selfish bastard” who just wanted “to get his end away, stuff his mouth with chocolates and grope everyone with a lavender glove.”

Each of these quotes comes from Evil Genius, a Radio 4 programme presented by Essex-born comedian Russell Kane, which first aired in 2018 and continues to this day. The format of the programme is simple: each week a dead artist, politician, or luminary with a stellar reputation is submitted to the scrutiny of Kane and his three guests, who are often fellow comics. After the sketchiest of introductions to the subject’s career, three envelopes—“fact bombs”—are opened to disclose key details from their life. Some are benign but at least one is potentially reputation-destroying. At the end of the programme, the guests are asked to decide whether the subject is “evil” or a “genius.”

Kane can be an astute and thoughtful comedian, but he stewards the show with a desperate Yellow-Coat mateyness, as if he were addressing nine-year-olds at a holiday camp: “The show where we take icons from history and sling so much mud at them that termites could colonise the heap of dirt we finish up with!” Or, “Prepare to have your heroes sprayed with the botty-smears of uncomfortable truth!” At its best, the programme opens up mid-level debate on a wide range of topics—art, race, pornography, the nature of comedy—but this is rare.

Familiarity with a subject’s work is by no means a requirement for serving on the jury. During an episode devoted to Evelyn Waugh (which attempted to skewer the novelist for the mistreatment of his children), a panellist airily declared that he’d never read the man’s work and for a moment seemed to believe Waugh was born in 1966 (the year he died). That did not stop him from pontificating on Waugh’s moral failings (the same happened on a more recent episode about Virginia Woolf). As Waugh was ultimately damned, another guest remarked, “Anyone can write pretty.” Roald Dahl was criticized for his antisemitism (rightly) and his private life (nobody’s business), while his genius for creating a savage, vivid universe for kids was dismissed as a mere talent for a “turn of phrase.”

The whole programme operates on the assumption—contentious and often demonstrably untrue—that the modern West has reached an apex of enlightenment from which it can condemn the past. As its guests routinely question the existence of genius at all, you’re forced to wonder: must the Great and Good be cut down to size simply because the arbitrariness with which talent is distributed contravenes our modern egalitarian Holy Trinity of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusivity?

Evil Genius has been attacked for its reductive view of its subjects and its apparent contempt for their achievements. In response, Russell Kane has found it necessary to ask people not to attack him on Twitter: “No hysteria. This is a comedy podcast.” Though billed on the BBC website as “very, very funny,” many listeners will beg to differ. The humour, forced as it is, is decorative rather than structural, and though the guests frequently cackle sycophantically at each other’s jokes, they are usually having a better time than the audience.

Kane has elsewhere described Evil Genius as an ironic comment on cancel culture, but this also seems like chaff. An Internet search of the phrase “separate the art from the artist” returns pages of results hostile to this theme, so it is hardly countercultural comedy. And the prevailing narrative invariably dictates the panellists’ responses—as nice and BBC-progressive nearly always trumps interesting or complex, it’s reasonable to conclude that genuine moral judgements are being handed down. John Lennon snapped at his son, Virginia Woolf mistreated her husband, and Marlon Brando mistreated his mistresses. Seldom does anyone pause to acknowledge that plenty of people are lousy parents or feckless spouses but don’t leave a storehouse of creative works behind them.

“Artists are artists” composer Benjamin Britten once observed, “because they have an extra sensitivity—a skin less, perhaps, than other people, and the great ones have an uncomfortable habit of being right about many things, long before their time. … So when you hear of an artist saying or doing something strange and unpopular, think of that extra sensitivity—that skin less … before you condemn him.” Was this special pleading on Britten’s part? After all, he was known to have at least a spiritual obsession with little boys, not much more acceptable then than it is now. Or was he simply stating something that most of us sense to be true?

What makes Evil Genius such a conundrum is the character of the presenter himself. Although I loathe aspects of this programme—loathe them like I loathe graffiti on memorial benches or “for your own safety and comfort” public address announcements or people eating katsu curry in train carriages during an August heatwave—I find Russell Kane almost impossible to dislike. Watch his hour-long Leicester Square Theatre interview with Richard Herring, and tell me you aren’t left wanting more. Candid, down-to-earth, perceptive, reckless, and self-aware, Kane is the boozing companion of most people’s fantasies. And though the ultimate blame for Evil Genius rests with his willingness to wheel out his heroes to be urinated over on a weekly basis by a snickering panel, you can feel him straining throughout his programme for something better.

At times, Kane is almost agonisingly keen to defend his idols from the rabble but checked by an unwillingness to isolate himself from his guests (predictably, the best episodes are those in which a much-maligned character like Richard Nixon or Mary Whitehouse is defended rather than a fallen hero’s corpse hung out to suppurate). There can be no elitism at the BBC these days, so Kane seems to feel it is his duty to represent the common man. Whenever he’s tempted to say something thoughtful, he sends it up in an ironically mimsy, Fotherington-Thomas voice. He may be an aesthete at heart, but the Essex boy who’ll have no truck with this sort of ponciness is in the mix too, and both sides sneer at the other. It must be tiring keeping these two natural enemies apart, but it can be creative too: this is a man who wrote, as if to chuck a bone to both Russells, a play in Shakespearean blank verse about an Essex banker. As he later remarked of these tensions in an interview, “You’re shy about showing your learning because it doesn’t match your accent.”

Kane grew up in working-class Enfield and his father, he says, was a fanatical bodybuilder. He then went off to study literature at university, where he began (but did not complete) an MA in modernism. Perhaps anyone with this background would find themselves entangled in the same contradictions, travelling between two worlds. A self-proclaimed lefty and admirer of Corbyn’s values (if not the man’s transmission of them), Kane nonetheless admits to loving the Spectator magazine (Britain’s oldest conservative weekly), the works of Evelyn Waugh (no socialist), and the Farrell biography of Richard Nixon, a right-wing politician Kane clearly rates highly. Since he’s prepared to swim against the tide, it can be hard to understand why he is happy to abandon himself to it, and even contribute to it, with Evil Genius.

As journalist Jemima Lewis has pointed out, it is instructive to compare Kane’s Evil Genius episode on Evelyn Waugh and the Great Lives episode he did on the same author with Matthew Parris. Kane is brilliant on Great Lives—clear-eyed but respectful of Waugh’s talent, insightful, passionate, and often even reverent. Yet when he describes Evelyn Waugh’s ability to move between classes as “socially bilingual,” he’s capturing something of himself as well. The Kane of Great Lives and that of Evil Genius are speaking, fluently, in different languages. But which is his native tongue?

Evil Genius bills itself as light entertainment, but as a straw in the cultural wind it’s also in earnest. It’s a short step from finding a person’s life more important than their art to judging the social use of a work more valuable than the artistry with which it’s been created. From the DNA of this programme, one can trace a direct line to the dreary sanitising of Roald Dahl’s and Ian Fleming’s books; the closure of the Tate Britain restaurant for a tiny, misunderstood detail in Whistler’s mural there; the passion-killing prescriptive “historical disclaimers” on National Trust properties; the deadening “immorality warnings” attached to Gauguin’s paintings at London’s National Gallery. Evil Genius has more in common with these things than its host will admit. It is the anti-Arena, the anti-South Bank Show, in which celebration of artistic achievement is exchanged for the cheap iconoclasm of the cheerful philistine. It is a programme, in other words, dedicated to whatever the opposite of “inspiration” is.

Does this mean we shouldn’t have the debate at all? No, of course not. But it’s not best carried out by a panel of comedians, many of whom are unfamiliar with the work under discussion and are simply trying to compete to make each other laugh. Opinion will divide along familiar lines: those for whom social engineering is paramount will see the artist’s life as key to the art’s acceptability; those for whom the artworks of the past are of value for their own sake will know that—morality aside—letting the two things overlap comes at too high a price.

“Every human life has many aspects,” wrote Kundera. “The past of each can be just as easily arranged into the biography of a beloved statesman as into that of a criminal.” Since the radio series is about the personal transgressions committed by well-known people, we are forced to wonder which envelope Evil Genius will be in when the Talented Mr Kane’s life is finally held up to scrutiny. Perhaps the same binary choice of “evil” or “genius” applies to its presenter. Which of the two Russell Kanes would he most like to be? Which value system would he prefer to plump for and in which language? And more importantly—for history will judge us as a generation too—should we opt for the path cleared for us by Melvin Bragg or Russell Kane?

Robin Ashenden

Robin Ashenden is former editor and founder of the Central and East European London Review. He is currently writing a novel about Khrushchev, Solzhenitsyn, and the Hungarian Uprising of 1956.

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