The Life of Rock with Brian Pern
Fast becoming my new favourite channel for music and documentaries, BBC4 has combined the two in an old school style music documentary of the sort BBC 2 used to specialise in 20 years ago. They also pulled a real coup in getting legendary singer Brian Pern to present it. If you don’t remember Pern’s background, he came to prominence in the 70’s with first wave Prog Band Thotch, went onto to discover Kate Bush, have a solo career with varying degree’s of success and invent world music, charity records and record with a gorilla.
He is also a fictitious creation by former Fast Show star Simon Day, who brings all of his charm and his considerable acting and comedic skills to Pern, a tongue in cheek parody of Peter Gabriel. Directed by another Fast Show alumni, director of several acclaimed documentaries on Queen and writer of one of the most underrated British sit coms of all time, Fun at the Funeral Parlours Rhys Thomas. This three parter covers the birth of rock and roll, the heyday in the 1970’s and the death of rock and roll in the current day.
Like all the best parodies and comedic observations it’s produced and performed from a position of respect, so there’s no highbrow sneering, no low blows and no cheap gags. Instead what we get is an intelligent, articulate and enjoyably hilarious ride through rock and roll, via the eyes of public school prog band Thotch (a thinly veiled Genesis clone). There are plenty of fantastic musical interviews and celebrity cameos throughout, Day and Thomas have obviously worked their way through their combined address books.
Day’s old Fast Show sparring partner Paul Whitehouse is on top form as Thotch guitarist Pat Quid (not to mention a cameo as Mike Smash during archive scenes) reaffirming his skill at character comedy. Also appearing are musicians like Rick Wakeman, Jools Holland, Roger Taylor (on superb form) whilst talking heads from Noel Edmonds, Mike Read, Annie Nightingale (amusingly captioned on screen as Fearne Cotton in one scene) Dan Cruikshank, Miranda Sawyer, David Baddiel and John Humphrys all throw themselves into it, and with their buy in, it adds the authenticity and raises the production above a mere spoof. Matt Lucas, Danny John Jules, the wickedly brilliant Frances Barber, comedian Michael Smiley and Thomas’ wife Lucy Montgomery adding their parts to the performance make it a real ensemble piece.
There is no canned laughter, no over the top scenarios, just embellishment and exaggeration as the prime form of humour, because Rock and Roll is so absurd, you don’t need to do much to make it funny. Of all the guest stars however, pride of place has to go to Nigel Havers as Tony Pebble, Thotch keyboard player, whose public school boy letch is superb, he throws himself wholeheartedly into the part, and like all the guests plays in entirely straight, which adds to the effect and the humour.
With some delightful interviews with Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer’s Mulligan and O’Hare, some judicious and mischievous editing of old Swap Shop episodes and other archive footage, and placing Pern at the centre of everything, with his sharp hustling manager, Michael Kitchen on fine form, this is one of those rare beasts, an intelligently, respectfully made parody, that treats its audience like adults and pitches the humour accordingly.
This is an absolute gem of a comedy series, reminding us why Simon Day is such a well-regarded performer, and will enhance Rhys Thomas’ reputation as a comedy writer/director to watch. As an added bonus the authentically recorded and brilliantly produced original music for the series is now available from iTunes as Spirit Level, the best of Brian Pern and Thotch. As I said at the start BBC 4 is becoming the channel to watch in terms of intelligent, well made adult comedy, and they could teach their siblings at Three and One how comedy should be made