Jo Brand: such a mistake to take comedians too seriously | Rebecca Nicholson

The reaction to her acid joke was hysterical and out of all proportion, so why the admonishment?

The BBC’s executive complaints unit has finally issued its ruling on the furiously disingenuous upset over a joke made by Jo Brand on Radio 4’s Heresy in June. You will have heard the joke, probably out of context.

In a discussion about the milkshake’s unlikely transformation into a tool of protest – I think I truly out-lefted myself when I tutted about the food waste – Brand drily remarked: “I’m thinking, why bother with a milkshake when you could get some battery acid?”

Brand, asked to be on the panel to be humorous because she is a comedian, who tells jokes, which sometimes involve exaggeration or saying things that are taboo, not because they are the truth but because they are funny, found herself dragged over the coals.

Last week, the BBC’s line on it was mildly disappointing, as the executive complaints unit dished out a minor admonishment, saying the gag “went beyond what was appropriate for the show”. However, the ruling also made a point of saying that “in the right context and with the right treatment, there is no subject matter which should be beyond the scope of comedy”. So that is something, if a diluted something, though I am not sure it is anywhere near enough to stem future damage by pre-empting what might be “appropriate”. Excessive caution will surely be par for the course now and there’s nothing like having to say “it’s a joke” after a joke to kill a joke.

But what really stuck in the throat was the faux outrage of those claiming to be offended by it. They weren’t offended by it, not a bit. They pretended this was a world in which the host of The Great British Bake Off: An Extra Slice could be Che Guevara. They manufactured hurt feelings to gain political ground, which is a snowflake move if ever there was one. This deliberate false offence popped up again last week, when Philip Pullman tweeted: “When I hear the name ‘Boris Johnson’, for some reason the words ‘rope’ and ‘nearest lamp-post’ come to mind as well.” Upon mostly well-intentioned advice from some of his followers, he deleted it, admitting to “a tactical error”, but was forced to clarify that he was angry and not literally calling for Johnson to be hanged. It was in poor taste, but no one thought he was advocating murder; it is a smarmy lie to claim otherwise.

What a world this is, when comedians and authors exaggerate and we pretend to take them seriously, then argue about what we pretended in the first place, as if it had nothing to do with us.

Harry Styles: hats off to the prince of pop

Harry Styles
Harry Styles: ‘ difficult not to love him’. Photograph: NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

Harry Styles is on the cover of the latest Rolling Stone magazine, grinning like someone who has just realised that he is Harry Styles, a man so confident in his own visual appeal that he could easily embrace the Outward Bound via Are You Being Served? aesthetic of the accompanying photoshoot.

Only he could get away with a peacock feather fascinator. In the interview, Styles reveals tidbits of information about himself: he did mushrooms, he lost his favourite yellow corduroy trousers while on mushrooms and he was so obsessed with the dulcimer on Joni Mitchell’s Blue that he tracked down the woman who made it and got her to make him one too, which is certainly a more niche way of using one’s wealth than splurging on a yacht or private jet.

Styles also explained his consistent respect for his fans. Plenty of flogged-too-hard, dead-behind-the-eyes pop stars thank their fans in a familiar neutral, obligatory tone. But Styles has an analytic eye for the people who made him. “They have that bullshit detector,” he said of his teenage girl audience. “They’re the people who listen obsessively... they’re running it.” With that and his services to promoting your nan’s headgear, it is difficult not to love him.

Emma Hayes: who would be a football manager?

Emma Hayes
Emma Hayes: ‘I was not at my best last season.’ Photograph: Chelsea Football Club/Chelsea FC via Getty Images

As the new Women’s Super League season kicks off, the Chelsea manager, Emma Hayes, talked to the Evening Standard about what went wrong last year.

Her team finished 2018-19 without a trophy, losing to Lyon in the Champions League semi-finals and finishing third in the WSL, behind Arsenal and Manchester City. “I was not at my best last season and I understand even more how tough it is for working mums,” she said.

She gave birth to her son in May 2018, and went on to explain the impact on her work. “I have never experienced sleep deprivation like that before. That was excruciating, when [you are] breastfeeding and you are up all night, then you have to get up and go to work for a full day, operating on maybe two hours’ sleep, on a regular basis.”

Hayes’s candour was as brilliantly casual as it was unusual. In admitting that she might have been off her game last season because she had been up all night with a newborn, she made a simple and crucial point: women and men may have to deal with experiences distinct and unique to them when it comes to professional sport. Not always, but sometimes, and it should be discussed openly. To talk about differences as well as similarities, weaknesses as well as strengths, nudges everyone forward in the right direction.

Without wishing to place all women’s experiences into one cosy box of sisterhood, I was reminded of Heather Watson explaining a poor performance at the Australian Open because she was on her period. She was hailed then as “breaking the last taboo” for women’s sport, but there is still work to do and the work keeps being done.

• Rebecca Nicholson is an Observer columnist

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