BBC TV (2014 – 2016)
These 3 series, following, in semi-documentary style, the musical wanderings of Stowe-educated prog rock mystic and pain-in-the-neck Brian Pern, is one of the most hilarious things on TV, a worthy descendant of This is Spinal Tap, only better because it is not so loosely based on Peter Gabriel.
The [Genesis/Thotch] pastoral schoolboy silliness of the early seventies gives way to the Great schism of 1977, allowing Brian Pern to pursue both solo career and role of secular saint and activist, where his insane lack of sense of linear time drives record producers, his former band, his manager, family, his documentary filmmaker, Martin Freeman, and a myriad others, up the wall.
Simon Day (whom you will probably remember from the sketch/pastiche “Fast Show” – think Carl Hooper from “That’s Amazing”, the annoying fellow in the pub who “helps” with the pinball and quiz machines, vaudevillian Tommy Cockles, Dave Angel – Eco Warrior, John Actor, the chap who thinks every girl in the office is coming on to him; many more) is just great as Pern, with his naive, childlike, over-earnest, entitled and megalomaniacal take on the world – he’s even got Gabriel’s slow sludgy voice down pat, at its most sublime when explaining, on some piece to camera, his latest dopey scheme such as recording apes or staging a live concert on top of Mount Kilimanjaro. In a rich and rollicking cast, we shout out to the remaining members of erstwhile prog band “Thotch” who are a treat: Paul Whitehouse as the peevish Pat Quid, Nigel Havers as a randy keyboard player, 2 others whose names no-one recalls – as are Michael Kitchen as the put-upon and derisive manager, Lucy Montgomery as the bizarre Pepita (and others), Jane Asher as ex-wife Cindy Pern, Adam and Shelley Longworth as estranged children Tallow and Ripple (shades of the Osbournes? but for heaven’s sake don’t let them near a recording studio) and Simon Callow as crazed ex-Thotch member Bennet St John, now reduced to appearing as Henry VIII at a roast beef and ale restaurant, still dreaming of a comeback. There’s even a nice turn by Roger Moore, sending up Richard Burton’s work on War of the Worlds.
It is convenient (thanks to Wikipedia), to summarize the 3 series thus:
1 ‘Birth of Rock” – we are introduced to Thotch frontman Brian Pern as he takes a look at how the genre of rock music was born.
2 “Middle Age of Rock” – Brian takes a look at protest songs and charity singles including his own, “Succulent Chinese Meal”, the most famous charity single of all time, “Doctor in Distress”, and the most obscure charity songs like “Snooker Loopy” by Chas & Dave, which isn’t a charity single at all. Brian also looks back at 1985’s Live Aid concert and reveals how Russia tried, but failed, to put an end to the so-called “Global Jukebox” by almost killing Phil Collins as he travelled to the US leg of the concert via Concorde.
3 “Death of Rock” – Brian looks at how aging rock bands reform after not performing for many years.
1 “Jukebox Musical” – We join progressive rock band Thotch as they stage their own jukebox musical produced by Cameron Mackintosh and directed by comedienne Kathy Burke. Unfortunately things don’t go to plan as Burke decides to drop all the songs as they were all too long and lead singer Brian Pern is wrongfully arrested under a police operation called Operation Bad Apples.
2 “The Day of the Triffids” – Brian decides to perform his unreleased rock opera The Day of the Triffids, based on the book of the same name, at the peak of Mount Kilimanjaro with a warm-up show at Wembley Arena scheduled for Friday 6 June 2014 with former James Bond actor Sir Roger Moore as the narrator. Unfortunately, things take a snag when manager John Farrow informs Brian that Moore is stuck in New Zealand filming and cannot make it to the Wembley show but has agreed to fufil his role in his hotel room via Skype. After Brian appears on an episode of The Wright Stuff, he is accidentally racist about clothing store Blacks during a conversation with Farrow. He later effectively apologizes during a guest appearance on The One Show. At the show, during the drum solo on the song “Triffid Crackdown”, Brian is busy running to the middle of the Wembley Arena floor when he is met by a Russian security guard who doesn’t let him back in the auditorium until he shows him his bottom so 1980s stars Mark King and Paul Young go on stage instead.
3 “Bi-Polar Polar Bear Aid” – Brian decides to release an album of Christmas songs to raise funds for bi-polar polar bears. Brian enlists the help of musicians such as Status Quo’s Rick Parfitt and Melanie “Sporty Spice” Chisholm. After the album is complete, Brian suffers a heart attack and is taken to hospital where in an interview with documentary maker Rhys Thomas OBE, he announces his retirement from the music industry.
1 “Festivals and Fans” – We join Brian as he prepares to celebrate his 45th year in music by performing at the 2015 Isle of Wight Festival and at the 2015 V Festival in Manchester. But when Brian, new wife Astrid and Thotch fan club president Perry Boothe are making their way to the V Festival, the train suddenly stops as a herd of cows had strayed onto the track. Eventually, Brian does perform at the V Festival.
2 “Breaking America” – We look back at Thotch’s unsuccessful attempt to break America: following lead singer Brian Pern’s departure from the group in 1977, the band were forced to hire US singer and “cokehead” Lindsey Simon, whose bottom and nose famously fell out during two of the band’s concerts. While this is going on, Brian is celebrating his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Brian decides not to attend the ceremony because of the backlash that his children, Tallow and Ripple, receive after their purely instrumental song is played on the radio by Zane Lowe: Brian sends Spandau Ballet bassist Martin Kemp to the ceremony in Los Angeles instead. We also see Brian influence 1990s indie music by releasing an album called “Get Real Quick” which included the songs “Maraca Man” and “Poundland Polly”.
3 “The Thotch Reunion” – We join Thotch as they announce they are going to reform for a Wembley Arena concert scheduled for Saturday, 10 December 2015. Brian only agrees to do the concert when manager John Farrow informs him that guitarist Pat Quid has been diagnosed with dementia. Brian then releases his autobiography and gets actor Martin Freeman to narrate the audio version of it just because he “sounds like Martin Freeman”. We later learn that there was a sixth original Thotch member called Bennet St John. The band eventually do the concert but during the performance of “Rock this Nation”, St John appears on stage followed by a security guard and is yanked off. At the end of the series Brian’s bête noire, Peter Gabriel, appears in menacing fashion while appearing to be both the driver and passenger of a kidnap car.
Hats off to Peter Gabriel for letting this happen, including the less than complimentary references to both his life and his records. Try his take on Don’t Give Up with Kate Bush, for example, which plays as Brian wailing “Keep Trying”, or the very rude segueway (pun intended) about the break-through MTV phase (“Spirit Level” for Sledghammer, plasticine-and-all):
Relentlessly and joyously silly, Brian Pern: A Life in Rock flashes light and lashes out at every hole and corner of the pop music business: the cack-handed charity events; the casual fraud; the enormous egos; the lameness of jukebox musicals; the pretensions of genre rock; the shotgun marriage of pop and fashion; the silliness of ‘world music’; the idiocy of pop-stars in protest. Unlike one of Brian’s (own) songs selected by him for Desert Island Discs, “Succulent Chinese Meal,” this show is delectable.
Now let’s enjoy some Brian Pern from 1980 with Modern Love – er, sorry, “Love is Modern”: