Russell Brand has singled out the "Oxbridge" education of Robert Webb, as he hit back at his fellow comedian for urging him to "read some fucking Orwell" after Brand called for revolution and urged young people not to vote.
Webb, best known as one half of the comedy double act Mitchell and Webb and star of Channel 4 sitcom, Peep Show, wrote an open letter to Brand after he published an essay in the New Statesman entitled "We no longer have the luxury of tradition", which implored readers to abandon the current political system.
Brand repeated a call for a "total revolution", encouraging young people to abstain from voting, adding "I will never vote and I don't think you should, either."
Webb wrote in reply: "I understand your ache for the luminous, for a connection beyond yourself. Russell, we all feel like that. Some find it in music or literature, some in the wonders of science and others in religion.
"But it isn't available any more in revolution. We tried that again and again, and we know that it ends in death camps, gulags, repression and murder. In brief, and I say this with the greatest respect, please read some fucking Orwell."
In an interview with the Huffington Post UK, Brand responded by joking that Webb, a University of Cambridge graduate, could have written a private letter, and criticised his Oxbridge education.
He said: "Why didn't he just write me a normal letter? He don't know where I live, I suppose. And no, no death camps. Just for the record, in case anyone else from Peep Show is worried, I'm definitely against death camps – just in case the bloke who plays Super Hans thinks I'm a Nazi."
"Definitely no killing. I'm against that; I'm a vegetarian, I think we're all equal. I'm not saying smash people's stuff up, and definitely no killing."
In his letter, published on 30 October, Webb challenged Brand to value the "vanishingly small" chance of being born in 21st century Britain, asking: "What were the chances, in the course of human history, that you and I should be born into an advanced liberal democracy?
"That we don't die aged 27 because we can't eat because nobody has invented fluoride toothpaste? That we can say what we like, read what we like, love whom we want; that nobody is going to kick the door down in the middle of the night and take us or our children away to be tortured?"
In response, Brand told the Huffington Post's Mehdi Hasan: "Maybe [it's good] for him, mate. Maybe it's okay for Robert Webb; no one is going to take his kids away, but I've heard some examples.
"I don't claim to be a politician, like all things I'm sure there are people in the room who know more about this than I do, I didn't have an education like Robert Webb had. But there are people from Leicester in Guantánamo Bay.
"If you went to Oxbridge, if you went to a private school, no one is coming for your kids. They're not coming for you if you're from Oxbridge. That's my open letter to Robert. I hope it doesn't go to the other one by mistake – David Mitchell – who I really like."
Although Lost in Showbiz doesn't really care to have the effluent of Fleet Street in the house, it is dimly aware that Steve Coogan's been in a bit of a bate with newspapers of late. The temptation to throw the baby out with the bathwater must be immense – and yet, if only the comic and actor would heed the wise words of Andreas Whittam-Smith, former editor of the Independent, who once observed that to write an open letter was an act of journalistic madness.
Last weekend, you may be aware, Coogan opted to respond to a column by the Observer's David Mitchell by writing him an open letter, also published in that newspaper. Mitchell consequently wrote an open letter of reply to Coogan, which was itself published in the Observer – at the very same time at which his frequent comic partner, Robert Webb, was engaged in another, unrelated act of open letterdom somewhere across town. Webb was displeased by something Russell Brand had written to readers in the edition of the New Statesman the latter guest-edited last week, and has written an open letter to Brand about it all, which is published in this week's New Statesman.
What a thrilling turn for the epistolary public life has taken! In fact, it is to be hoped that by 2019, all political debate in this country will be framed by various comedians writing frothingly cordial letters to each other.
Even now, some funnyman or funnywoman could be dipping a fountain pen in to the special open-letter ink, and preparing to join this esteemed fray, like the various unreliable narrators of Les Liaisons Dangereuses. "My dear Vicomte MacIntyre …" "I received your letter, Madame de Millican, but suggest on that contrary that …" "Would you do me the immense courtesy of having a word with yourself, Chevalier Carr?"
Before we move on to the detail of the various missive wars currently raging, it feels time to ask what on earth the open letter thinks it is. It is not really a letter at all, despite being framed as such, though it seems stagily anxious not to be seen as a column. In the end, perhaps, the biggest problem with the open letter is its condescending relationship with the readers. It does not purport to be addressed to them at all, you see, preferring instead the pretentious pretence that it is being sent over their heads. It affects not to attempt to engage them in the slightest, except perhaps in the role of admiring plebeian bystander. It's like some weirdly misguided op-ed equivalent of the fourth wall, with readers invited to press their miserable noses up against the glass and be grateful for the sight of two famous people indulging in some hot quill-on-quill action.
Perhaps in the age of Twitter, where pseudo-conversation between the well-known is increasingly public and performative, this is acceptable to some. To Lost in Showbiz, though, it looks like a bit of a famewank.
In the circs, it must be said that the open letter is not a million miles from that other essentially absurd and self-regarding piece of posturing, the newspaper column, of which – FULL DISCLOSURE – your correspondent types out three a week. (In fact there is only one column – it's a bit like that episode of Bagpuss where the mice on the mouse organ claim to have a chocolate-biscuit mill, but in fact have only a single chocolate biscuit which they keep wheeling around the back before producing it again and claiming it's new product). But at least a newspaper column doesn't affect to be addressed to someone far grander than the people doing it the favour of reading it.
Still, on with the show, and a now-overdue recap of the disagreements in question. David Mitchell doesn't back the royal charter on press regulation, but Steve Coogan does. Meanwhile Russell Brand opines you shouldn't vote, and Robert Webb disagrees and says Russell's article on the matter made him rejoin the Labour party.
And so to the open letters. There were the obligatory tetchy air kisses. "I've been a big fan of yours over the years … you are consistently well above average," wrote Coogan to Mitchell, before observing that the column in question was not "up there with your most rib-tickling stuff. So I can only assume it's, er, what you actually think." "I just thought you might I might want to hear from someone who a) really likes your work," wrote Webb to Brand, "b) takes you seriously as a thoughtful person, and c) thinks you're talking through your arse about something very important."
"David, if your article were a schoolboy's essay," concluded Coogan, "it would score highly for style. But it would be covered in red ink with frequent use of the word 'sloppy', finishing with 'see me'."
Mitchell's response, it must be said, felt as reluctant as it was restrained, ending with a pointed: "I don't think you're insane to think [what you do] – I just don't agree." His comic partner took a rather more sledgehammer tack with Brand. "I'm aware of the basic absurdity of what I'm trying to achieve here," he wrote, "like getting Liberace to give a shit about the working tax credit." Like Coogan, he felt moved to mark Brand's work. "You're a wonderful talker but on the page you sometimes let your style get ahead of what you actually think … keep an eye on that … it won't really do." His signoff to Russell? "In brief, and I say this with the greatest respect, please read some fucking Orwell."
If it is unfair to pick out these faux-chummy digs as opposed to whatever was the substance of either man's argument, it is regrettably inevitable. The nature of the open letter form dictates that it is not the argument, but the cod-familiarity, the this-comes-from-a-place-of-love needling that ends up being most excruciatingly memorable thing about it.
As for the reader, maybe they are left marvelling how lucky they are to live in this golden age of comedians writing to each other, and allowing them a squiz. Or maybe they feel like adapting the old saw about eavesdroppers only hearing the worst of themselves, and observing that those forced to play the role of voyeur to an open letter only hear the worst of whoever penned it. Many who read Coogan or Webb's classics of the form might rather wish they hadn't, and could preserve a more flattering picture of the people whose other work they have long enjoyed.
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