Voices: What I saw at Russell Brand’s ‘sober festival’ shocked me

Russell Brand ordered ’disciples’ at his Community Festival not to film him, for fear they’d upload the content to the internet (John Stillwell/PA) (PA Archive)
Russell Brand ordered ’disciples’ at his Community Festival not to film him, for fear they’d upload the content to the internet (John Stillwell/PA) (PA Archive)

When Russell Brand lifted his two daughters, one aged six, the other aged four, onto his lap on stage at his “living and wellness” Community Festival this summer – only to then begin swearing extravagantly in front of them, for the benefit of his adoring audience – an alarm bell rang.

Foul, expletive-filled language might be what Brand’s loyal cohort of followers (he has over six million YouTube subscribers) expect from him, and even delight in. But firing off four-letter words while two very young girls were sitting passively just inches away from their father was more than just performative crassness. It felt to me like the definition of a red line being crossed.

It wasn’t the only time I thought the comedian turned mindfulness guru strongly misread the room at his homespun healing festival, held in July at Hay-on-Wye, at which his wife, Laura, was given equal billing.

At one point, Brand jokingly – but also somewhat aggressively – ordered members of the audience not to film him for fear they’d upload the content to the internet. At another time, he shouted at a group to "stop f***ing around", loud enough for dozens of his disciples to hear, as he waited to drive to a different part of the festival grounds. I felt a bite in his tone, a disparaging note, even a sense of abuse of power.

Such unusually overbearing and excessively expressive demeanour felt alarming and rule-breaking, tone deaf and totally out of step with the audience and what they wanted from him. It was also a key feature of Saturday night’s devastating Dispatches documentary in which Brand was accused of rape and sexual assault, which he denies. The hour-long exposé contained a telling archive clip of the comedian saying how he’d like to see the mascara of sexual partners run while they were pleasuring him. He also warned US talk show host Conan O’Brian – on air, in front of a live audience – that he didn’t "want to be around when the laughter stops".

The Community Festival – a three-day event dedicated to embracing extremes, pushing limits and feeling alive – attracted thousands of people keen to improve their mental health with conversation, meditation, breathing exercises, ice-bathing and, perhaps inevitably, wild swimming. Tickets cost £250, alcohol was nowhere to be found (Brand has been sober for 20 years, and makes a big play of getting his kicks the natural way…), and food was strictly vegan only.

I attended a men’s talking circle where we each had five minutes to talk about the challenges we faced. It was clear to me that Brand’s cod-messianic shtick – of the kind he channels into his YouTube addresses – appeals to some of society’s most vulnerable; particularly, men who have been through their own traumas and been abused.

Some attendees at the Community Festival had travelled from other continents to get closer to religious leaders and mindfulness gurus (one of whom had worked with Mahatma Gandhi).

But perhaps more interesting was who was missing.

There was no noticeable cohort of converts to the kind of alt-right conspiracy-thinking that Brand peddles to his online followers. Perhaps such people prefer to stay at home, behind their computers, rather than venture out into the fresh air?

On occasion, Brand did break the chilled festival vibe to delve into very focused attacks on the “establishment”, which felt didactic rather than conversational. But such moments offered a glimpse into the state he whips himself into for his online diatribes.

He also often seemed to ask questions of his special guests that offered him more occasion to speak – such as when he invited singer Charlotte Church to talk about the pitfalls of fame, which he then used as a springboard for his own dizzying thoughts about mainstream media.

Admittedly, I have some brilliant memories of those three days at Community Festival. It allowed me to explore aspects of my adult self, and to party with Vimto, not vodka.

But upon hearing the desperate testimonies from the women in the Dispatches documentary, I now believe I may have been looking for answers in a place that may have been forged with dreadful lies.