The Provocative Baron Cohen Clan

By | Oct 07, 2011
2010 July-August, Culture
Baron Cohen

Upon graduation from Habs, Erran studied instruments at Guild Hall and completed a music degree at Goldsmiths, at the University of London. Sacha spent a gap year working on a kibbutz in the north of Israel, Rosh HaNikra. Once at Cambridge, he focused much of his attention on the stage. At the Cambridge University Amateur Dramatic Club, Sacha acted in musicals including My Fair Lady, Biloxi Blues and Fiddler on the Roof, in which he played Tevye. His Habs buddy Dan Mazer introduced him to the university’s legendary Footlights Dramatic Club, which boasts alumni such as Hugh Laurie and Emma Thompson.

Sacha began his acting career in earnest after finishing Cambridge in 1993. His first TV appearance was in 1995 on Britain’s Channel 4’s Jack and Jeremy’s Police 4, a spoof on a reality crime program. He then hosted a talk show for teenagers followed by a cable show, Pump TV, featuring straight interviews with local personalities, until a new opportunity surfaced.

This was the decade of “new lads” in Britain. Rejecting the sensitive New Age male archetype, “new lads” embraced macho pastimes such as public displays of drunkenness, soft porn stag parties and soccer fanaticism. Sophie Manham, who had been commissioned to make a segment about this new species for Channel 4, wanted to alternate the talking heads with short segments of an actor portraying a “new lad” in all his beer-drinking lasciviousness to lighten up the program. One of her researchers, William Sutcliffe, mentioned his school friend, Sacha.

“He could steal the show even then,” says Manham. “You could see Borat and Bruno already. He had a twinkle in the eye.” Sacha was “fearless,” according to Manham, coming up with portrayals of disgusting behavior such as attempting to light his fart with a cigarette lighter. In some clips, he tenderly strokes a soccer ball and leers over plastic molded breasts. Much like his Borat persona, he manages to both embody his character and condemn it, with a figurative wink to the audience. His performance helped him land a gig on London Weekend Television, where he developed the precursor to Ali G, a takeoff on the BBC radio hip-hop DJ Tim Westwood, who had become famous in Britain for his “wigger”—“white nigger”—style with a Jamaican accent and outrageous clothing.

Sacha would spend years “wallowing in cable TV hell,” in the words of one 2002 biographical documentary. “I gave myself five years to start earning money from being an actor, a comedian… If it didn’t work out, I was going to move on to something else, become a barrister or something,” he said in a 2006 Rolling Stone article. With only two months left in his five-year plan, the big break came. “I was sitting on a beach in Thailand. It was four years and 10 months since I’d graduated,” Sacha recalled. “And that’s when I got a call from my agent saying there’s this audition for The 11 O’Clock Show….I had been rejected so many times that I didn’t know if it was worth it.”

The 11 O’Clock Show, a thrice-weekly late night satirical program on Channel 4, premiered in 1998 and became enormously popular for its brand of “hoax journalism.” The targets were celebrities who usually had no idea they were submitting themselves to mock interviews by comedians posing as journalists. It was here that Sacha honed his character Ali G, who became so recognizable that the Queen Mother did an imitation of him. He also developed early versions of Bruno and Borat.

4 thoughts on “The Provocative Baron Cohen Clan

  1. susan williams says:

    Clearly, I have come late to your article. I knew Judith and Vivian Baron Cohen for a brief time in Oxford in the early 2000s, the year Billy Bob Thornton’s “Slingblade” was shown at a Oxford cinema. I was wondering about them the other day and googled Vivian’s name and came across your article, which I have very much enjoyed reading. However, I am very sorry to learn that Judith died in 2008, but I am glad to know this because she will be more firmly set in my memory.
    Judith and Vivian were lovely hosts, and I most especially appreciated Vivian’s showing me the most understated plaque to the memory of Robert of Reading, who, after his conversion to Judaism, called himself Haggai of Oxford and was murdered for his faith. The time Vivian gave me has sparked my continuing interest in the Jewish history of Oxford, and I am a Roman Catholic. Indeed, since knowing of Haggai of Oxford and coming across several instances myself of antisemitism among the dreaming spires, whenever I think of Oxford I think of its continuing current of the antisemitism Judith found so worrying.
    I will always feel blessed that Judith spoke to me after that particular showing of “Slingblade” and began an acquaintance I wish could have been an enduring friendship. She and Vivian were wonderful to me.

  2. Graham says:

    I spoke with Vivian today. What a lovely man. He told me all about his new book – Joe and his magic snout.

    I will be purchasing this book from Amazon as all proceeds will go to cancer research.

  3. Kathleen says:

    Very good in depth story – even though I had trouble navigating it. I worked for Vivian, in his menswear store for many years. Very charming and generous man. I was young at the time and was mainly interested in dancing and of course boys. He, Vivian, did talk about his family -very proud of his wife of course and the children. Thank you for your work on this article. Kathleen

  4. Beth says:

    I just came across here when I’m Googling Mr. V Cohen . I also worked in his suit shop in Piccadilly years ago. I really have some fond memories while I’m working there and we even keep in touch afterwards but unfortunately…. I don’t know how he is now but yes! He’s a lovely man and so many stories that I’ve learned from him at that time…

    I just wish him well.

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