Prog Comedy Comes To BBC4 – Featuring Rick Wakeman and Peter Gabriel!
“He pioneered progressive rock. He invented world music. He was the first person to use plasticine in videos. Now he presents the definitive rock documentary.”
Welcome to The Life Of Rock With Brian Pern, a new three-part rockumentary sitcom brought to you by Genesis-loving actor-director-comedian Rhys Thomas and The Fast Show’s Simon Day, who stars as its titular hero. One look at the poster will give you an indication of where their heads were at during its creation, and it’s a star-studded affair with Nigel Havers, Paul Whitehouse, Vic and Bob and Al Murray amid the heaving progressive throng. But we’ll leave it to Rhys to explain how Pern came about.
So tell us, what is The Life Of Rock With Brian Pern?
It’s a BBC 4 documentary on the life of rock music from birth and middle age to death! It’s told from the point of view of Brian Pern who’s a Peter Gabriel-type figure played by Simon Day from The Fast Show. But because he’s an egotist he talks about his own songs and it’s mainly about promoting himself, rather than other artists he’s supposed to be celebrating. That’s the idea, and because I’m obsessed with Genesis and Queen and all those bands it’s very much an homage to those people. It’s not anti, it’s not taking the mickey, but he’s a silly version of all those groups.
Brian first came to life online at the BBC in 2009. How did you come up with the concept? And why did it take so long to make it to TV?
I was writing another sitcom, Bellamy’s People, and one time I was bored and I was looking up the Peter Gabriel website called Full Moon Club where every month he used to do a video update. Fans would be tuning in cos all they wanted to know was are Genesis going to re-form, and when is a new album coming out. But he’ll be putting up stuff like ‘well, I’ve just been on holiday to wherever…’. I thought it would be quite funny if someone took this idea and developed it. Apart from Spinal Tap or Still Crazy, based on rock stars who go off the rails, no-one has ever done something about a character like this, who is a very successful older rock star but quite sensible. I know Brian May very well and he’s one of those super intelligent rock stars now in their 60s. What do they do with their time now? They’re still creating, and playing live and often better than younger groups performing out there. These guys are now pensioners, even though they don’t feel like it, and they’re the first generation of rock stars who are now OAPs. I was inspired by Peter Gabriel as he’s one of the ones who’s never ever sold out. He never did a bad disco album or anything misguided like that, even his popular stuff was still not that mainstream. So we created Brian, did it online and people found it funny. Then we got other people in like Michael Kitchen who was in Foyle’s War, he’s Brian’s manager and he’s based on Jim Beach, who’s Queen’s manager. I spent a lot of time with Queen making documentaries [Freddie Mercury: The Great Pretender and Days Of Our Lives], about 10 years in all, so I know how that bit of the music industry works. Then years later we pitched the idea to BBC4. The controller at the time found it funny but thought we may be taking the mickey out of the programmes they show. Now there’s a new head of comedy, Shane Allen, and he loved Brian Pern so he suggested we finally do something.
How do you think it will go down with the prog and rock crowd?
Any fans of Genesis and Queen and all those kinds of bands, they will like this cos they will get all the in-jokes. Gabriel actually appears in it, in a cameo at the end of episode three. It was supposed to be kept secret, then it got out. Apparently it had all been going off a bit at Real World cos he’s seen what we’d done with Brian Pern, and thought someone was an insider there for us, it was so accurate. But he liked it, so he’s in it. Phil Collins ‘appears’ in episode two. He’s not in it himself but he allowed us to use a bit of footage that we could muck around with. It’s based around when Phil Collins flies to play with Led Zeppelin at Live Aid and that footage has never been shown, ever, cos they didn’t like it. Now, we’re sort of showing it…
You’ve said you’re a Genesis fan. When did that all start?
A long time ago I was chatting about music to [fellow comedian] Bob Mortimer and said to me ‘if you like early Queen, have you ever heard The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway?” And I said no. So he bought it for me for my birthday in 2002. After that I was obsessed with everything they did. I’m not one of those people who says I don’t like Genesis after Gabriel left, I like it all. It used to be that you’d be a bit embarrassed to say you liked Genesis but it seems to be the opposite now. And loads of comedians like Al Murray and David Baddiel all came on board with this because they love that band.
There are heaps of star guests such as Rick Wakeman, Annie Nightingale, Dan Cruickshank, Russell Grant…
People read the script and just liked it; and because Simon Day is in it and they like The Fast Show and I just won an Emmy for The Great Pretender they know they’re not working on some crappy little thing. We also made it very clear we’re not taking the mickey out of them, they’re in on the joke. For people like Noel Edmonds, we wanted them to come on and be themselves. With Russell Grant we had this idea that for everyone who came on he’d make a comment like, ‘Bob Dylan, Scorpio. Need I say more?’, ‘Roxy Music, Scorpios, all of them. Need I say more?’. It didn’t really work, so we’ve only got him once, but it’s still funny. All the outtakes will be online on the web after, though. Roger Daltrey approved his script – all about how he beat up every other band, like the Beach Boys and Focus – then couldn’t do it in the end so we’ll have him next time too. Once it goes out and if it does well, you’ll hope the big names will want to be part of it next time.
So Gabriel is in it, what about the others?
My one regret is about three years ago we I was doing this Queen documentary and I went to a Prince’s Trust concert where they were all performing and Phil Collins was standing right next to me… Now, previously I had written another sitcom and he’d been offered a role. He liked the script, and he thought it would be funny playing the chief of police in this programme. But he didn’t want to commit because he was in Switzerland. So it never happened. Anyway, at that gig I wanted to say to him ‘I wrote that thing’, but I never did – but we’d like to ask him to appear when we do the next series.
Even fans of prog will admit it has a ridiculous/hilarious side. Why do you think that is?
Most of it is totally over the top but someone like ELP there wasn’t any humour. They were very serious and even people like Led Zeppelin were very serious – and there’s a bit of prog in them too – and Pink Floyd as well. But bands like Genesis have things like the outfits, which bring you theatre and humour. It gives you something to play with and fans don’t get that so much with other music.
What’s the difference between The Life Of Rock… and other musical send-ups?
With Spinal Tap, they’re all musicians anyway, so are The Rutles. They could all play music and write comedy songs. The Life Of Rock… isn’t about the music, or the bands, it’s more about that style of documentary. So, the captions, the talking heads, older people going on about how they did this, how they did that. It’s a parody of that kind of programme rather than a spoof rock band. People may say ‘it’s already been done with Spinal Tap’ but what it would have to be is Spinal Tap now, in their 60s, doing what Brian Pern’s doing. In a way maybe we’re getting in there as the first parody of a pensioner rock star. All the music is written by a good friend of mine, Steven Burge, who doesn’t even like prog, but does some very good parodies of those songs.
What’s your favourite bit in the series?
Episode three is my favourite, with Peter Gabriel at the end. There’ll be a whole thing of ‘oh, you’ve been sending up Peter Gabriel’, then when you see him and Brian Pern together… I won’t tell you more than that. It was so surreal and the most fun to be there when they met.
If this goes well, what will be next?
This is only three episodes, a pilot series. We’d do another three, one maybe about rock star musicals as Brian Pern may be having his own one put on. So you’d see that being made then you’d cut back to the history of rock musicals. We’d get someone like Andrew Lloyd Webber in to talk about [Pern’s Genesis-like 70s prog band] Thotch, and how Thotch gave him the idea for Cats for example. I’d do that, and maybe one that’s a Christmas special, with the history of Christmas songs, and Brian could have done one. There’s mileage with looking at the best frontmen, guitarists, drummers, women in rock… We also have a plan to make it more like a sitcom, like The Thick Of It, but about the music industry. A lot of what Brian Pern would do – like Peter Gabriel would do – is not just about making music but about flying out to attend a world music thing, doing a soundtrack to a film, there’s a lot there that’s not just about music.
There’s a lot to parody in the music biz.
There certainly is, and because of The X Factor and The Voice everyone knows how that level of the music industry works and also everyone knows that no-one buys records anymore so it’s all about all these bands running out of money and having to re-form and go on the road. That’s another situation for comedy in itself.