Sorted Issue 63
A fantastic edition featuring an interview with Russell Brand, Kelsey Grammer , Jon Burton and many more. Plus our great team of columnists. Don’t miss this limited edition magazine.
And Gadgets, Entertainment, Motoring, Movies, Technology
Plus, the greatest team of Christian writers ever assembled.
From Bricks to Screen - by Jim Lockey
Jon Burton and his team at TT games have worked on video games from licensed franchises for many years. They have worked with film properties, and mascot video game characters like Sonic the Hedgehog and Crash Bandicoot. It would be fair to say that TT was another run of the mill middle tier developer, that was until 2005 when they released Lego® Star Wars: The Video Game.
This title was another licensed game, only this one had two parents to please – both LEGO® and the Star Wars people. Despite the restrictions, TT games managed to infuse the game with original ideas; unique, lovable humour; and fresh gameplay mechanics that more-or-less singlehandedly revitalised couch co-op. Lego® Star Wars was a fan favourite and critical darling that has spawned sequels and what feels like a genre unto itself, as each year another intellectual property gets the Lego® video game treatment.
Jon Burton was the creative director on that first Lego® Star Wars game, has since gone on to direct many other games in the series, and act as executive producer on The Lego® Movie - perhaps one of the best family films of recent times.
We sat down with Jon to talk about his success, his passions and his vision for making experiences people of any age can fall in love with.
Did you play with LEGO® as a child and do you like LEGO®?
Yes, and yes. Our family didn’t have a lot of money when I was growing up so we didn’t have many toys, but we did have a big box of random LEGO® and that’s what I played with the most. I vividly remember trying to make an X-wing fighter, and a car that had windscreen wipers that moved when you pushed it along.
Many of the LEGO® games encourage playing collaboratively with friends or family. Did you envision that they would have such generational appeal or was it a surprise?
The plan from the start was to have ‘drop-in, drop-out’ gameplay so people could join in with your game or leave at any time. The idea was that parents could help kids get past sections they were struggling with without having to wrestle the joypad from them. That meant the kids still felt in control in the game while the parent helped with a section. The parent could then drop out and go and get on with chores or whatever else, if needed. Of course, in reality what ended up happening was the kids joining in to help their parents!
How does the huge success of the LEGO® games affect you when taking on the next project?
Well, each game is a hard act to follow for sure, but for me I’m always interested in creating new and interesting things, whether that’s movies, games, tech or whatever. So, the success of LEGO® is only a positive thing to me.
Is there a message or principle that guides the style of the games and films that you make?
I certainly never wanted to tackle games for adults. I hated the thought that a game I had made might influence someone to do something illegal or violent etc. So, I stuck to games for kids. With the films, I have two aims; for you to either leave the theatre having seen something you’d never seen before (awe/amazement) or to leave thinking about something you hadn’t thought of before. And a redemptive story where possible.
How do you know when an idea doesn’t fit the vision, and does your Christian faith play a part in the process?
My Christian faith absolutely plays a part. There have been many projects I’ve turned down because they didn’t ‘feel’ right. I believe you know what’s right in your gut – that God can speak to us that way – so I always trust my gut. If I can’t get comfortable with something it’s usually because it’s the wrong thing to do.
Despite being licensed games, the LEGO® series feels distinct; it has a clear identity through its humour and animation style that is unique to itself. How much does the team bring of themselves to a project like Lego Star Wars, or Lego Marvel’s Avengers?
I think the licence and the LEGO® minifigures give a nice structure to each game. They are immovable objects, if you like. Which means that everything else can be played with within those constraints, and indeed needs to be, to express what’s different about our games. So, we pretty much let the team run with everything and nothing is off the table. When I design a game I have the broad strokes of what the mechanics and layout of the levels should be, and I fill in a few areas where I think a certain thing might be cool, but beyond that the team is free to express whatever they feel is the right direction for the humour and animation and so on.
Star Wars, Batman, Marvel, Lord of the Rings – your work on the Lego games has allowed you to work with some of popular culture’s best known franchises. What was your favourite IP to work on?
I really enjoyed the Portal and Dr Who sections of LEGO® Dimensions. Peter Capaldi gave me and my kids a tour of the Tardis when we visited the Dr Who set – I love my job!
Is there a story or franchise out there that you’d like to make into a LEGO® game?
Star Trek would be cool.
When working with a well-known and loved franchise, how do you balance the trademark LEGO® humour and references with authenticity to the source material?
All our teams fall in love with the franchises we work on. It’s so important they live and breathe them. And then the humour just flows. When you love something, you know how to respect it, so the humour is always additive not destructive to the franchise. And because we need to have so many secrets hidden in our games, we dig deep into the franchises to find all the little touches that only true fans would ever notice – because we become true fans (if we’re not already!)
The Lego Movie, wow! As an executive producer, how much did the LEGO® video games inform the film?
I spent quite a bit of time with the directors, explaining how we’d tackled the humour and animation in LEGO® games, because that was really the starting point for the movie. I think they went too far with the humour at first and had to pull back when LEGO® didn’t like it, so a lot of time was me giving notes on the script to try and keep them within the bounds of what I’d learned LEGO® would accept. But they certainly managed to make the humour a lot more edgy than in the games, which I think was fantastic. The directors are extremely funny and talented guys.
Making video games and Hollywood movies is a huge undertaking. What advice would you have for readers who themselves have a project ahead of them, or a big life event?
I think to stick to your vision of what you are trying to achieve. One of two things can happen if you do – you either achieve your vision, which means you will likely have a successful future, confident in your ability to execute on your vision, or you won’t, which means you probably shouldn’t be doing it in the first place. If you compromise your vision, or try to execute someone else’s idea of what it should be, you will always be second guessing what the right decisions should be, which will probably lead to stress and failure. So, don’t compromise your vision, and surround yourself with people who believe in you and will help you achieve it.
Do you feel pressure to make the LEGO® games more combat-orientated, or make the humour more adult to conform with other popular titles?
Finally, it takes loads of people to build a game – it’s like making a blockbuster film. Does your faith influence how you lead a team?
I like to lead by example, doing every hour I can to make the best possible experience. But I often lose sight of the fact that people have lives and family. I find it very hard to compromise or understand that other people value other things differently to me. It’s a lifelong lesson. I’ve recently discovered that I have high functioning autism, ADHD and dyslexia, which goes some way to explaining why I’ve struggled in this area, but that shouldn’t be an excuse. I believe that there are always things God wants us to change and work on, and my goal is to listen and try to change, even if humanly I fail most of the time.
A Test of Grammer - by Ian Faulconbridge
He may be able to recognise some of his own neuroses in his most famous character’s fusty mannerisms, but off-screen Kelsey Grammer’s life has been one of near-constant turmoil, heartache and rebellion. And yet, in accepting his faults, opening himself up to faith and looking beyond the next work project, you sense the 62-year-old is emerging out the other side a better man, as Sorted discovers.
When Kelsey Grammer’s uptight psychiatrist character from hit bar-based sitcom Cheers was chosen as the star of a spin-off from the successful original series, even he was a little surprised. But the runaway ratings of the subsequent Frasier – in which Grammer played the eponymous former bit-part now made front and centre – vindicated the choice to give the egotistical intellectual his own show.
And with several Emmy Awards safely stowed away in the bedside table as a result of his portrayal of Dr Frasier Crane, Grammer’s career post-Frasier has definitively been built off the back of this overeducated and meticulous character.
“I like to think that I am so gifted an actor than I can say Frasier is nothing like me at all, but alas, that is not entirely true,” he begins, with typical, semi-sarcasm\. “We do share a love for opera and fine food, although there are very few operas that I outright love. But our essences are the same because both personalities spring from like desires. My desire to do the world some good is shared by Frasier.
“We also share my insecurities,” he adds, “although Frasier is much more open about showing his. I suffer silently alone. We laugh at ourselves with equal jollity and I think we are equally fond of ourselves.”
In spite of Grammer having made his name in two of America’s most cherished situational comedies, off-screen the star’s life has incorporated little of the jovial nature of his famous television creation. In fact, Grammer’s personal life has been blighted by family tragedies. In 1968, his father, Frank was shot and killed outside his own home; then seven years later, younger sister, Karen was abducted from her work before being also being murdered. It was the elder Grammer brother who was required to confirm the identity of her body.
Not only that, but the actor’s two half-brothers also died in tragic circumstances. Stephen and Billy Grammer were scuba diving in 1980, and when Stephen surfaced he found that Billy was nowhere to be seen. Going back underwater to see if he could find his missing brother, Stephen died during an improper ascent, without ever finding out what happened to his brother.
“I don’t know if I ever thought the family was cursed, but I cursed God for a while,” Grammer admits. “I had a great sense of faith, and I did feel betrayed. After my sister died, I felt totally abandoned. I hated being alive, indulged in a great depression and a kind of aggressive approach to the streets at night. I was sort of looking for trouble.”
Grammer’s off-screen problems continued. After descending into alcohol addiction which, somewhat fittingly given the show’s title and setting, continued throughout his appearances on both Cheers and his eponymous sequel, things came to a head when the star drunkenly crashed his car near his California home. It was an event which the philosophical star says “had to happen”. But, as with so many of the more hopeful stories of ended addiction that emanate from the world of entertainment, this near-death experience proved a welcome turning point in Grammer’s fortunes, even if the decision to seek help wasn’t an easy one to make.
“I got to a place where I was out of control,” he nods. “Every day I was asking God to help me stop drinking, and well, he did. In a very rough way. I was driven to alcohol by feelings of self-loathing and worthlessness. When I was going through a bottle of vodka a day, it became too much, and I finally checked in to the Betty Ford clinic in 1996. I was drinking in the morning and praying to God that somehow I’d stop. I wasn’t drinking on the set, but I would certainly show up loose. I poured myself into work a few times, but I just couldn’t cut it.
“I have always loved chaos, but now I look for it in less self-destructing forms. I’ve kicked the habit of looking for drama in my personal life. Being able to accept the remarkable nature of my life is new to me.”
Though Grammer’s relationship with his beliefs has, at times, been pushed to breaking point, there is a sense that in reality his faith was never as close to truly faltering as it may have appeared. Having credited his relationship with God as an anchor throughout the many calamities to have befallen him during his life and career, the actor is sceptical that there are any out there who have not at one time or another turned to a higher power in similar moments of crisis.
“I don’t actually think there’s anyone out there who doesn’t believe in something,” he explains. “I mean, it’s surely not possible to be a full-on atheist, or whatever the term is. And by that, I mean, as humans who have intelligence, and a consciousness, we all know we came from somewhere... and one day, we’ll depart, possibly for the same place, and then who knows?”
Grammer’s staunch espousal of Christian beliefs and the positive effect of religion may seem surprising given the hardships that have unfairly affected his family in particular. But his status as an outspoken champion of Christian Conservatives also marks him out among the majority of his colleagues and contemporaries. A long-time Republican member – who has in the past equivocated traditionally right-wing views on taxes and local government with a softer stance on social issues – Grammer has consistently shunned the expected Hollywood opinion. In 2016, he endorsed former Presidential candidate Ben Carson and, later, if some reports are to be believed, eventual winner, Donald Trump.
“I don’t know if I endorsed him, but I think Conservative views can be rather taboo in this industry,” says Grammer of his political persuasions. “An industry of tolerance, no less. These are my views, and I’ve always been a rebel. It’s been in my nature to rebel and I’ve never been able to share anyone else’s view because they told me to. It’s a tricky stand to take and I’m more than aware of the conceptions that come with it.”
There’s even been talk that Grammer may one day look to a position in the White House himself. But for now, the star is content with sobriety, and the challenges of being a seven-time father… some of which are, he admits, new to him despite his eldest child, Spencer, being born in 1983. His youngest, meanwhile, arrived in 2016, by virtue of his fourth marriage, to former flight attendant Kayte Walsh.
“It’s like night and day,” says Grammer of caring for his multi-aged brood. “The big difference is I’m far more available now as a parent then I was to the older ones. Do I regret that? At the time, I didn’t have a choice, I had to devote most of my time to my career which was starting out in the initial stages.
“Now, it’s entirely different … my work isn’t my main focus anymore, I’ve carved that out and can now enjoy the liberty to pick and choose where and when I work.”
And for the fourth time in his life, Grammer is not alone in facing the various trials that befall all of us, famous or otherwise. Though his current spouse may not have the showbiz heritage that former flames possessed there’s much to suggest that the star is head over heels for the latest Mrs Grammer. And like many, he credits a solid relationship with helping him turn his attentions to the future, rather than his particularly difficult past.
“I don’t think we’re such a courageous couple. I just think that when you fall in love with someone, you take care of them. That’s what you swear to do. She is a constant source of help. For the first time in my life, I really have a partner able to care for me and about me at the same time. My wife is not only beautiful, but she is the most wonderful, delightful, caring creature I have ever met in my life. All the other women I’ve known are nothing in comparison.”
There’s surely no need for Grammer to prove himself in front of the camera, either. The star has amassed Emmys and Golden Globes for his work on Frasier and, later, as the voice of the villainous Sideshow Bob in The Simpsons. He’s even dipped his toe into the world of blockbuster franchise, starring as Hank McCoy, aka Beast, in Bryan Singer’s big budget X-Men series. In more recent years, he has lent his Juilliard-trained baritone to animations and live-actions alike.
This journey from personal grief to worldwide success – by way of an effete psychiatrist – must be regarded as one of the industry’s most bizarre, tragic and at times uplifting, stories. Indeed, Grammer himself seems to credit the turmoil and tribulations of his life off-screen, and the varied achievements that ran parallel on it, with a stronger need for understanding the complexities of life as discussed in religion.
“I just think it’s really naïve and, actually, impossible, to comprehend this life as just a fluke,” he concludes. “That’s disingenuous. It’s impossible. I get completely that people don’t want to subscribe to a certain way of thinking or certain theory, but not believing in God is very different to not believing, full-stop. And I don’t think there are people who just switch off and refuse to contemplate, because that’s what we’re talking about here, contemplation.
“We got here through reproduction, but we weren’t put on this earth at that point – it’s all very deep, but religion in the truest sense of love and security is a wonderful, wonderful thing.”
As for what the future holds, Grammer is sure to be no less of the rebel when it comes to much of what is expected from a member of the entertainment establishment. But the star hopes that his acceptance of things, and the manner in which he has overcome his struggles in order to grow in both self-contentedness and personal faith, will help others who may be experiencing the same kinds of issues. There’s even been a spot of soul-searching on the therapist’s couch for the man best known for playing TV’s most famously bombastic shrink.
“I hope my example has given people courage to live through the lives that they’ve chosen, because at least they’re not as messed up as I am,” he chuckles. “I’m exploring new territory from day to day now, therapy and all that. I’m standing up for myself, which I didn’t know how to do before.
“If you don’t reach beyond where you’re comfortable, you will not grow. So that’s my mission. To grow, to change, to become the best human I’ve been given the equipment to become.”
Ronnie Reborn - by Ian Faulconbridge
From his teenage ascent to the top of the snooker world, to his current status as a bona fide legend of the holy baize, Ronnie O’Sullivan’s career has also been marked by a temperamental streak – in and out of the sport. But now, The Rocket says, he’s in a better place than ever.
In every sport, there’s an individual whose natural ability marks them out as a star from a tender age – and in snooker, that precociously talented teen was Ronnie O’Sullivan. From the moment the spiky starlet made his first century break aged just ten, there was a clear path to the pinnacle of professional snooker set out for him. And by the age of 19, the young upstart had won the UK Championship and his first Masters.
But while ‘The Rocket’ – so-named for his speedy playing style – was wowing fans and commentators alike, away from the table his occasionally tetchy temperament was developing too. Ever one to speak his mind, the seven-time Masters winner has often divided opinion. At times, it almost seemed as if the pressures of being snooker’s prodigal son were going further than just maverick behaviour. It’s an argument that O’Sullivan himself, in part, agrees with.
“I’ve never really thought that I’ve had the temperament for being a snooker player, in the same way that people like Stephen Hendry or John Higgins have,” the 42-year-old explains. “I know I have the ability, but I’ve never been able to separate things when I’m playing.
“That can lead to me making decisions that others might see as temperamental or of the moment, but it’s just the way I am. I wear my heart on my sleeve – but that doesn’t mean I don’t love to compete. I just don’t feel like I need the burden of some of the things people talk about that are irrelevant to what’s actually going on in competition.”
O’Sullivan’s sometime strained relationship with the sport he has conquered has been well-documented over the years. There have, for example, been many times the Wordsley-born champ walked away from the table altogether. On one occasion, he even skipped a Masters contest to spend time working on a pig farm, as you do. In fact, that’s exactly as he would do – such actions are surprising only to those who aren’t aware of O’Sullivan’s famed bolshiness.
On the other hand, though, there have been glimpses of another side to O’Sullivan – one of a man searching for some unidentified sense of self. He has often mentioned how he “tried Christianity for three months” without, it would seem, lasting enlightenment in terms of sticking to one doctrine. What is true, though, is that believing in the bigger picture has been the one thing that’s kept him sane.
“I would agree with that. Looking outward and taking a big deep breath… realising it’s not all about what goes on in my head, or around a snooker table – that has definitely saved me. To believe there is something else more important is vital to us as humans.”
It seems throughout the many snooker successes, stints in rehabilitation centres, and subsequent rebirth as a man who now prefers long-distance running to long nights spent at the snooker table, O’Sullivan has flirted with a host of philosophies and ideologies.
As far as religion goes, there were the tabloid rumours of a conversion to Islam, for example, brought on by his close friendship with boxer ‘Prince’ Naseem Hamed; eventually scotched by O’Sullivan, but indicative of his understated abilities to enjoy the more complex things in life beyond superficial success. There are elements of Buddhism, too, that at one time or another he has felt drawn to – particularly during the more turbulent times of his career, when a Buddhist centre in Bethnal Green became a personal refuge of sorts.
“I’ve always looked to something spiritual because without that the world doesn’t make sense – it can’t all just exist without something higher. So I’ve toyed with a few ideas and taken a lot of comfort from that.”
That’s not to say, however, that he isn’t prone to showing glimpses of that sometimes fragile psyche and propensity for cheekiness. After all, this is the man who in 2016 told the world’s media that the voice of God had told him to give up the sport and begin a career in punditry. Be it tongue-in-cheek or divine intervention, O’Sullivan’s comments show one thing clearly: that behind the trigger-fast breaks and apparent confidence at the table was a man ever ready to make subtle hints to his supposed god-fearing – or at the least god-quizzical – alter ego.
These days, O’Sullivan says he’s dedicating himself more and more instead to his charitable foundation: “My greatest work, what gives me my passion and makes me want to live every day, is giving back,” he explains. And he appears to have traded the often-inscrutable elements of deep thinking for more scientific matters of the mind.
“I used to be on the search for things which would give me that inner contentment,” he agrees. “But now I’m working with Steve Peters, who’s a sports psychologist, and I’m realising how the human brain works. That’s helping me to understand how I was and why I was.
“Now I put things in place and can be a lot happier, looking forward to things that I do. I think that snooker was a difficult thing for me to handle and I am a lot better at handling it, but I have also got things in place that in turn puts snooker in its place. It’s there, but it’s not everything to me, and it doesn’t take up every minute of my life. Most games now, I treat like it’s a knock at the snooker club. I will give it its importance for that day, but after that I will be back to just doing my normal stuff.”
O’Sullivan balks at the idea that he’s become ‘philosophical’. It’s perhaps the clearest indication so far that The Rocket of recent years is no longer a mercurial talent with a tendency to be led astray, but rather far more settled than perhaps he has ever been.
“I’m not philosophical,” he states. “I don’t want to come across as someone who is weak and not got the bit between his teeth. I’m a fierce competitor and I always will be and that’s probably what has made me so successful, but I just have to realise that everything has its place and I don’t want to get to 50, 60 or 70 years of age and think that all I ever did was play snooker.
“There are so many great opportunities out there; we live in an age where you can be a sportsman but you can also be a designer, like Serena Williams. She can take time out of tennis and become a designer because that was something that she was passionate about. There are lots of people in other fields who are, for example, chefs and they turn to other stuff because they don’t just want to cook. What they have achieved in their chosen field has allowed them to go and do other stuff and those around them are happy to engage and support them in that.
“That’s the position I find myself in now,” he continues. “I want to explore other aspects of life and reach out a bit.”
It’s often been noted that O’Sullivan has been the epicentre of one of snooker’s most formidable entourages. Put in place by his father – who, despite being in prison, still plays a large part in his son’s ongoing tutelage – to keep the champ on the straight and narrow, this collaborative mind-set still exists in O’Sullivan despite his maturity.
“I’ve always had a tremendous support network – people around me and people more distant. Everyone in life needs that, to know there are people by their side, or to look to a greater source for inspiration and encouragement.
“What I’ve learned over the years is that although snooker is the ultimate solo sport, you’re never by yourself and we should all embrace help when it’s offered.”
Indeed, while once his minders and associates were keeping him focused, now it is the former world number one who is directing those around him with a renewed and refreshing sense of purpose. In the last year alone – as well as mustering appearances in favour of local charities close to his heart and entering the political sphere with an endorsement of Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn – O’Sullivan has even branched out into the world of the written word. His sophomore novel, Double Kiss (Macmillan) has followed hot on the heels of last year’s effort Framed (Orion), and the quasi-autobiographical works have allowed O’Sullivan yet another outlet for that considerable drive.
“Every sportsperson is different, and you have to find your own journey whether it be tennis, golf or Formula 1,” he says. “They do so well that they are able to have other interests and stuff going on without it having an impact on their sport because they can employ people to run an empire, if you like. I don’t have that luxury, because I’m not in financially the most rewarding sport. I do OK out of it, but it’s not like I can hire a team of people while I’m playing and get them to sort everything out for me.
“But having said that, there are lots of things I want to do, and right now I think people enjoy working with me because I’m so committed. I think I’ve got to the point in my career where I tolerate people in snooker, and they me, but I don’t necessarily like them. When I’m doing stuff outside of sport, though, it’s different. I’m like, ‘You’ve invested in me, so I am investing in you. I like you and hopefully you like me, so let’s make it the best relationship and the best job that we can do.’”
Perhaps now it is high time that O’Sullivan has found his sweet spot. In his 40s, with years of record-breaking professional snooker behind him, there’s a palpable sense that a sea change has happened with regards to both his outlook on life and his relationship with the game that has made him a household name.
The quasi-boyish energy that seems to exude these days from snooker’s most enigmatic champion may have once been directed towards a narcotic release, or a spiritual search for belonging that encompassed elements of Christianity, Buddhism and Islam without finding anything of note. What this religious exploration may well have uncovered, in fact, is a lasting sense of there being something more to life than snooker – a champion’s higher calling. And this modern incarnation of O’Sullivan, in spite of his self-admission that his courting of religion comes and goes, is striving for something far more personally fulfilling than a spot among the pantheon of sporting greats.
“I have got a couple of other friends who are also like me, with so much energy that a lot of people say it’s hard to keep up with them,” he smiles. “But as long as you have got a team of people, I can give certain individuals a rest for a bit and let them have a week off and get themselves back into top gear and ready to go again, but then I will be back on them. So, it’s just that I have this massive drive to make sure that I complete things.
“I just don’t want to be pigeon-holed as a snooker player anymore; I would have done, but it became too testing and too tiring and something where I thought there were other things that I wanted to do.”
Again, O’Sullivan is at pains to point out that this sentiment shouldn’t be confused with someone who isn’t a fierce competitor: “As long as I have got the flavour for something, and once that energy is channelled into something, I won’t let go. Completion is everything for me.”
Revolutionary Road - by Karen Anne Overton
Ex-rabble rouser and provocateur Russell Brand believes the teaching of only one man can save us from a vacuous existence.
Russell brand has gone through many incarnations during the 18 years of his unpredictable and often controversial career. Television presenter, comedian, writer, actor and activist are all words which have preceded his name, along with other titles which have been insinuated but not necessarily verbalised, such as drug addict, sex pest and bigmouth. Of all his manifestations, though, his latest is possibly the most surprising, as he becomes ever more articulate about his religious beliefs, his deeply personal feelings about Christianity, and the big guy himself. So insightful are his views, and more importantly, so accessible, one has to wonder if the 42-year-old Essex intellectual could one day become the mouthpiece Christianity needs to push it into the 21st century.
“My personal feeling is the teachings of Christ are more relevant now than they’ve ever been,” declared Brand in a recent interview, adding: “When stripped of the cultural inflection of the time when it was first written and is variously being translated, there is an undeniable truth.”
Having overcome his own personal demons, it is understandable that Brand finds himself reflecting on the world at large, and questioning society’s attitude towards consumption, happiness, desire and all those other curious longings which are so distinctly human. And perhaps these are questions we ought to ask ourselves: why do we care so much about how many ‘likes’ my posts receive on Instagram? Why do I need so much stuff? Why am I constantly looking outwards for approval?
Brand understands that far from uniting us, the rise of the internet, social media, instant gratification, pop culture, our obsession with fame and constant need for material wealth is actually creating a gulf, not just between us and our peers, but us and our true path to a higher calling. Have you ever received a package from Amazon, or had a particularly popular Facebook status and ever felt truly satisfied? Or does it just fuel your hunger and leave you craving more?
“There’s a famous quote: ‘Every man who knocks at the door of a brothel is looking for God’,” said Brand.
“Crack houses and these dens of suffering and elicit activity, they’re all people trying to feel good, trying to feel connected. People are trying to escape. People are trying to get out of their own heads. To me, this is a spiritual impetus.”
Considering Brand has likely frequented several dens of inequity throughout his colourful past, one can only assume he knows what he’s talking about. Born in Grays, Essex, he is the only child of Barbara Elizabeth and Ronald Henry Brand, who separated when Brand was just six months old, a bump in the road which would be the first of many for the infant. Aged seven he was sexually abused by his tutor; aged eight his beloved mum contracted cancer (the first of three episodes); aged 14 he suffered from bulimia nervosa; aged 16 he left home after a disagreement with his mum’s ‘macho’ partner, an incident which led to his first taste of narcotics. Around this time, Brand’s biological father took him to Thailand where he ordered three prostitutes: two for himself, one for his teenage son… and the list goes on.
Wearing his heartache on his sleeve, Brand has no problem regaling us with his difficult and intriguing past – which he has also recounted to many a therapist – with the kind of gusto and vigour of his stand-up comedy shows. But while it is common for those who have had a troubled upbringing to create a distance between them and their pain, this doesn’t seem to be the case with Brand who appears, in fact, to have finally removed himself from its stifling grasp. Nor does he use his hardships as an excuse for his behaviours as an adult, despite the fact that even someone with minimal empathy could understand how his brushes with loss, sexual abuse, rejection and early exposure to drugs could lead to his problems with crack, heroin, food, sex and self-harming. In short, the notorious dandy and lothario has finally found peace, and is now pursuing the path to helping others.
So devoted is the star that his latest book, Recovery: Freedom From Our Addictions (Bluebird), delves not just into his own struggles with self-control, but also strives to help readers overcome their own addictions, some of which they may not even be aware they have, such as possessiveness, co-dependency in relationships and relentless email-checking. Easy and entertaining to read, Recovery has 12 chapters, one for each of the traditional 12 Steps. Maintaining the underlying message within the respective phases, Brand has essentially reworked the language, delivery and tone, while adding in his own juicy anecdotes and life lessons for good measure.
For those wondering if this is merely another exercise for Brand’s well-fed ego, or at least an opportunity to flog some more wares, consider why such a book could be valuable, not just to addicts, but to society. The 12 Steps form the basis of Alcoholics Anonymous and of all other associated groups (Overeaters Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous). To embark on the path one must surrender and submit to a higher power, with participates required to go cold turkey from the very first meeting (attendees of Narcotics Anonymous for example, must be willing to abstain from all substance including alcohol). Meetings are, as the title would suggest, anonymous, and while the 12 Steps themselves can be easily accessed, much of the other literature is passed between the 12-Steppers, helping to maintain the programme’s clandestine nature.
Having been following the programme since 2002, the charismatic bohemian ought to know it off by heart, but it wasn’t until four years ago that it occurred to him that it might be useful to apply the Steps to other areas of his life. Addiction, after all, is an illness that is admirably indiscriminate, paying no heed to race, age, wealth or social standing, and infiltrates everything from one’s attitude to money, to sex, and even exercise.
This epiphany is what Brand believes has truly transformed him, leading him to the conclusion that many of us could benefit from similar wisdom, telling The Guardian: “I think that this ideology needs to be proliferated … I think the more access people have to it, the more people could use it – I’m fascinated by its potential.”
The original programme is hugely effective, but arguably, there are still many people who may be intimidated by the process, and as Brand points out, alienated by the somewhat archaic language. “For people who have drug and alcohol or sex or food issues, [they may] find some of the literature too clinical, or Christian,” he added. “But also, I think it could be applied as a sort of model, because now my lens for living is this. I think it’s universal.”
Brand admits that he himself was put off by the religious language when he first embarked on the 12 Steps; his reputation as a brash, potty-mouthed free spirit seeming incongruous with faith and all its holy connotations. Having said that, his curiosity with spirituality has been ever-present. In the 2015 documentary Brand: A Second Coming, his mother, Barbara, recalls how as a child, “Russell came in to my bedroom and he said that he was the second Jesus. He was very upset that I didn’t believe him. But that’s not a normal thing for a son to say, is it?”
For his critically acclaimed 2013 stand-up show Messiah Complex, the spiky comedian set out to explore humankind’s relationship with heroes and idols including the virtues and weaknesses of historical figures such as Che Guevara, Malcolm X and Jesus, claiming that celebrity has become the new religion.
Around this same period, Brand was interviewed on Huffington Post Live where, when asked about his faith, he responded: “I think that there is an infinite creative force that generates all consciousness and all matter, and we are all connected. And if you align yourself with this infinite creative force then you can be positive, and you can be beautiful.
“I don’t think it’s a person or God, I don’t believe in any particular doctrine or dogma, only that humanity is connected.”
With Brand, beneath all that bravado there has always been an inherently curious mind; a spiritual seeker just waiting to find the faith that fitted best. And surprisingly, it turned out to be the one that was always on his doorstep. “Because I come from a Christian culture, a lot of the language of prayer that I use is Christian,” he told Relevant magazine. “I say the Lord’s Prayer every day. I try to connect to what those words mean. I connect to what the Father means. I connect to what wholeness means to me. I think about the relationship between forgiveness and being forgiven and the impossibility of redemption until you are willing to forgive and let go.”
Delving into scriptures, the once “dyed-in-the-wool heroin addict” has given great thought to the teaching of Christ. And while, respectfully so, his conclusions include less profanities than his interpretation of the 12 Steps, they are deeply insightful and are arguably easier to digest. The bottom line, says Brand, is that all the time we are drawn to the material and have attachments to physical things, behaviours and people, we will never truly be happy, for peace only comes from selflessness and living entirely for the good of others.
Living proof that such reclamation can be transformative, Brand is undoubtedly a different animal from even a few years ago. Following his very public and grandiose marriage to American pop star Katy Perry – which ended in divorce in 2012 – Brand is now happily wed to lifestyle blogger and clothing designer Laura Gallacher, with whom he has a daughter, one-year-old Mabel. Their romance has been low key, unfurled largely out of the limelight, and while Brand will say little of his wife, he has opened up about the wonder of fatherhood, calling it “profound”.
“There’s a moment when I meditate and just as my eyes open, before I name the creatures, there’s a blissful moment where you don’t categorise or distinguish. Like most of us, I get caught up in thoughts and sensations but that moment of becoming a father brought me into the present.”
In his career too, he is quieter and more contemplative. Having stepped back from Hollywood, he has refocused much of his energy into activism. Currently studying for an MA in Religion in Global Politics at SOAS University of London, Brand has maintained his political YouTube show The Trews since 2014, and also hosts Under The Skin, a thought-provoking podcast in which he interviews leading academics and politicians about contemporary ideas. One particularly enlightening episode last July featured Alister McGrath, a professor of Science and Religion at Oxford University and leading Christian debater.
But however much he turns his back on fame and seeks redemption and truth, Brand is still loyal to his original calling as a stand-up comedian, and will spend much of 2018 on his sell-out tour, which begs the question, given a new-found take on the world, where does his believe his innate sense of humour was gifted from?
“I think the original sense is inherent, but you have to cultivate it and educate it. Like some people would be good at football or basketball or something, but then they require the training, don’t they? So what I think it comes from – and I think this must be true, because every time I think about it, it’s a pang for me that nearly makes me cry – is, it’s a response to pain and fear. Humour is a response to the knowledge of death. It’s a response to the certainty that there’s something else, that humour provides us a moment of respite, relief,” he says, with a flash of that charming smile.
“An explosion away from the conformity as we’re stripped of our dignity, robbed of our spirituality. Everything we ever were repackaged back to us at
“I think humour temporarily alleviates that burden; it shows us that our spirit lives on, that we can change things, that we can triumph against all adversity.”
The Patagonian Icefield and Greenland – Two Different Kettles of Fish
It’s the time of the year when deliveries arrive daily in our office and we’re wearing new Baffin boots to test their fit. Meticulous preparation for a crossing of the Patagonian Icefield has begun with the arrival of the first maps. Not laminated OS maps but cut-out flimsy papers, laid on top of each other and stuck down with Sellotape.
The whole feel of the expedition is like this. Less certain, less straightforward, lots of thinking laterally. There is not a lot of information in general, and none of this complete or trustworthy enough to base main decisions on. It’s the opposite of typing in ‘climb Mt Blanc’. All of this is also one of the main appeals. A summer crossing brings its own complications. On the east side you tend to get a lot of snow and on the west, a lot of rain. Snow we could deal with, but rain and being damp sounds like a less desirable proposition.
The expedition uses multiple modes of travel, which adds enormously to its complexity: boat crossings and portages, a cache-phase and finally the ice cap. A whole week will be needed to get up onto the ice cap, walking through moraine fields, woodland and tundra. The main effort will be moving our kit to new camps and new caches to eventually get all 300kg of equipment onto the plateau where we can start dragging it in pulks. We will need to take a lot of contingency food for bad weather. Once on the crevasse field, we will then travel across to the western side where the ground gets the trickiest. The actual pulk phase is only short but means navigating complex crevasse fields, lowering off cliff faces and crossing glacial lakes.
Greenland is technically easier but it is much longer in distance and far more remote than Patagonia.
It’s a true challenge that is connected to the historic expeditions. It’s a long way from help; the idea of being out on the ice cap for 30 days, only seeing snow, covering 500km with a 100kg pulk and knowing that, on average, only seven teams attempt it a year is really exciting. It’s one thing getting yourself prepared for an expedition that lasts eight days, but doing one where you start dragging a 100kg pulk up a hill and knowing that the days will get longer rather than shorter km-wise is a whole different game. You have to be getting stronger and fitter and more motivated to be able to get out in time before everything melts lower down and creates impassable rivers.
The biggest challenge with Greenland is to make the decision on whether to cross from the east or from the west. All expeditions start and end at the same two spots, mainly for the fact that these are serviced by airports in a country with little infrastructure. Your decision is a balance between start times, hardest terrain with the heaviest pulks and logistics costs. If you’re going from the east side, then you’re likely to need a helicopter to be able to get up onto the ice cap and might need one at the end too if floodwaters are too high to get through. If you start from the west, you may be able to use a boat at the end as the sea is defrosted. West-side terrain is harder so you want to go down it with an empty pulk rather than up it with a full one.
At the end of the day, Greenland is a major challenge which everybody has heard of, but very few people tackle it still.
Exped Adventure run the Patagonian Icefield in December 2018 and Greenland in 2020. For more information, get in touch with Jamie on 07854 197584 or email us on firstname.lastname@example.org.
Up, Up and Away - by Mark Warne
Imagine the scene; it’s early September 2004, a glorious evening over the Tamar Valley, and a deep pink-orange sky is touching highlights of Cornwall to the west, Dartmoor to the east, Plymouth Sound ahead and the rolling fields of north Cornwall behind us. Descending quickly from 5,000ft I was attempting to hit a friend’s field below.
I braced myself for a hard thump, but with a short prayer, a light brush through the tree tops, the basket slowed and we were gently delivered to a freshly cut field. Here, in the middle of nowhere, it was Harvest Festival at a nearby rural chapel; the sounds of worship were on the breeze, and pausing to give thanks for our lot, it was the moment that the vision for the Jesus Loves You hot air balloon first came.
I’d been around ballooning for years, but only recently progressed to a commercial rating for corporate advertising, special shapes and stunts. Trinity Balloons was born out of that corporate ballooning journey. Friends from church trained as commercial crew; we formed a group to sponsor a branding project locally for Alpha, then Make Poverty History and several campaigns or fundraisers for other Christian charities.
Big brands use balloons because they are highly effective. The Church hasn’t because they can be ridiculously expensive. Not so, if it is done at cost by volunteer professionals. In rural Tavistock we have cultivated more than 30 such crew and pilots; it’s probably the only congregational resource of its type in the UK. Or anywhere.
In late 2015, I and others in the team felt the calling to structure the group into a non-profit and to personally commit fully. The 11-year vision of the Jesus Loves You balloon was replaying again and again; but it wasn’t quite time. After an encouraging chat about leaps of faith with Tim Jupp (founder of Big Church Day Out), I juggled being stay-at-home dad with hitting the festivals to raise the profile of Trinity Balloons. Our young family spent much of summer 2016 on the road in a caravan.
During that period, outsiders started to envision the Jesus Loves You balloon too. The recurring theme was an intentionally bold, vibrant design. The time felt right, the lively design had a clear raison d’être: social media. Standing out in newsfeeds. Irresistible to camera phones, instantly shareable with friends. If 10,000 people each shared an image with 100 friends, the message could reach a million. Anyone, no matter how shy at sharing faith with friends, could ‘share’ Jesus in one click – in a highly visual, memorable and conversation-starting way.
Our team asked the public for money for the first time. Not an easy ask when there are far more emotive causes. It didn’t pour in. It came in steady rhythm. What we needed, not what we wanted.
The Jesus Loves You balloon is as pioneering as the project. Built in the UK by a supportive Lindstrand Technologies, it is the first of a new semi-bulbous series. Economically cut, efficient and light to fly, it is 60,000 cubic feet of evangelical message, and totally portable. Whether in the sky, visible for miles around, rising gently over a festival, or travelling rapidly through social media, it is a pure and simply branded asset.
We launched it back in those Tamar Valley fields on Ascension Day 2017 at the start of the Thy Kingdom Come period of prayer. It then went to Big Church Day Out and a Pentecost event. We boldly set a 1 million target for social media reach for the year. But the target was surpassed within the first six days. It was a humbling response. But only the beginning.
I believe God has big plans for our little ministry. It is built on solid foundations of restored broken people, preparation and time. But it is so pioneering that we find it hard to qualify for traditional funding. There is no tick-box for it. We are dependent on the generosity of philanthropic and ordinary individuals and ongoing tithing from the community.
Having seen how God can deliver on commitment and faith, we are excited for the wider vision of a full-time Christian ballooning project pioneering out of a permanent heritage base. It seems bonkers to some and might never happen. But, then, the same was said of many such things. It will happen. Somehow.
If you have a long-held mission like this on your heart, act faithfully on it. Wait prayerfully; test scripturally; ask humbly; consult wisely; and expect it to happen.
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