Simon Day as Brian Pern, playing the flute on Top of the Pops 1975. Photo: BBC/Rory Lindsay
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Cleverly, playfully pitch-perfect: the joys of Brian Pern: A Life in Rock

The roc/doc/mockumentary returns for a second series and – oh no! – there’s a jukebox musical in the works...

One of my favourite comedy images of recent times comes from the start of Brian Pern: A Life in Rock. It’s Brian, an intent look on his face and wearing an unstructured black coat worthy of a trendy Norwegian wizard, riding a Segway through a wood in Surrey. It works because it’s exactly the kind of gadgety thing we imagine moneyed rockers to do. Brian Pern should be a familiar figure to you. He had his first series on BBC4 earlier this year and it seemed a natural fit; after all, BBC4 positively salivates over the ageing muso and Brian Pern is the ultimate. Forty years in the music biz, erstwhile lead singer of prog rock band Thotch, inventor of world music, and the first person to use plasticine in videos. Pern is, of course, a pisstake, played by Simon Day. There are no prizes for guessing that he was based on Peter Gabriel, there or thereabouts.

In the first three-part series, Pern told the Life of Rock – birth, middle age and death – in the form of a roc/doc/mockumentary. We wandered through moody 70s graphics, revelled in terrible music, re-appropriated some great old footage. It was packed with classy mis-labelled talking heads, some of them real people appearing as themselves or maybe not, some of them characters. Any confusion was purposeful. Sometimes it was hard to work out who was what was who; sometimes their names changed half way. And even if you (OK, I) knew there was a reference you weren’t quite getting the full flavour of, it didn’t matter.

That series has very quickly (in TV terms) been transferred to BBC2, and starts on 9 December for three weeks. Having done history, this time it deals with Brian’s life in rock. The format is similar – “archive”, graphics (some real, some created), talking heads, interviews. It focuses around Thotch, who consist of Pern, Tony Pebblé (pronounced Peb-lay), played by Nigel Havers, Pat Quid (Paul Whitehouse), who reckons he’s been held back by a loving supportive childhood, and silent John and Mike (Dave Cummings and Phil Pope), the “toes of the band”, where Pebblé is the prick.

Martin Freeman as Martin Freeman and Simon Day as Brian Pern (they are discussing whether Martin should play Brian in a musical – meta).
Photo: BBC/Rory Lindsay

We’re at the beginning of a new venture for Thotch, neatly flagged up at the end of Series 1 by their proclaimed loathing of the jukebox musical. So yeah, course, they’re the subject of their own jukebox musical – Stowe Boys, written by Thotch and Tony Slattery (a peach of a reference that might send people younger than me to Google) and directed by Kathy Burke playing herself.  Kathy Burke, everyone! Brilliant. There’s flashes like that all the way through. Look – Martin Freeman! Ha – Annie Nightingale, mis-labelled as Fearne Cotton. And is that really Baz Bamigboye? I’m not saying. There’s a Pointless round in this at the very least. The occasional appearance feels like a favour called in unnecessarily. I’m a massive fan of Vic and Bob, have spent actual time arguing over the relative comic merits of nutmeg over, say, cinnamon, but Mulligan and O’Hare feels like an overplayed hand. Aside from that, it’s not arch or dry; it’s cleverly, playfully pitch-perfect.

Simon Day is, too. Looking like a cross between Yul Brynner and Dr Evil, he’s superbly blank-faced, his accent a strange hybrid of Surrey and California; like the Segway, it’s what we presume happens to real life rock legends when they spend too much time touring. Michael Kitchen is spot on too, as John Farrow, Brian’s long-term manager. Grumpy, irascible and looking like he’s reluctantly hauled himself off a Caribbean beach in crumpled linen and a blazer, he’s constantly checking various phones, telling Cameron and other liggers to fuck right off while simultaneously making terrible decisions about Brian’s career. Lucy Montgomery is a solid comic actor; she played various roles in the first series but settles in here as Pepita, Mexico’s answer to Kate Bush, her sibilants catching beautifully on her teeth.

There’s a skill to knowing how far to stretch something, and this is small but perfectly crafted. It’s packed with nuggets, not one a duffer, and no opportunity to mess with the pomposity of the music business is passed up. There’s no sideways glances to camera, no ironic nods, it’s played straight, and that’s a hard trick to get absolutely right.

But if that’s all tempting, there is a small warning too; a price to pay. In the first series, that price was Noel Edmonds. In this one, it’s Alan Yentob who introduces the show. My heart sank when he appeared in the otherwise superb W1A – “you can’t laugh at me”, he’s telling us – “I’m in the joke”. They slightly puncture it here by labelling him as Melvyn Bragg, but I bet he loves that, damn it. Maybe there’s a triple bluff thing going on, but it’s a bluff too far for me. Deep breathe through his section, it’s not long.

The producer/director Rhys Thomas appears as himself – the voiceover tells us he’s multi-award winning, which is true, though his “OBE” is not. But hell, if you can’t award yourself an OBE when you’re making a roc/doc/mockumentary, when can you?

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The conflict in Yemen is a Civil War by numbers

Amid the battles, a generation starves.

Ten thousand dead – a conservative estimate at best. Three million internally displaced. Twenty million in need of aid. Two hundred thousand besieged for over a year. Thirty-four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia. More than 140 mourners killed in a double-tap strike on a funeral. These are just some of the numerical subscripts of the war in Yemen.

The British government would probably prefer to draw attention to the money being spent on aid in Yemen – £37m extra, according to figures released by the Department for International Development in September – rather than the £3.3bn worth of arms that the UK licensed for sale to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the kingdom’s bombing campaign against one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

Yet, on the ground, the numbers are meaningless. What they do not show is how the conflict is tearing Yemeni society apart. Nor do they account for the deaths from disease and starvation caused by the hindering of food imports and medical supplies – siege tactics used by both sides – and for the appropriation of aid for financial gain.

Since the war began in March 2015 I have travelled more than 2,500 miles across Yemen, criss-crossing the front lines in and out of territories controlled by Houthi rebels, or by their opponents, the Saudi-backed resistance forces, or through vast stretches of land held by al-Qaeda. On those journeys, what struck me most was the deepening resentment expressed by so many people towards their fellow Yemenis.

The object of that loathing can change in the space of a few hundred metres. The soundtrack to this hatred emanates from smartphones resting on rusting oil drums, protruding from the breast pockets of military fatigues, or lying on chairs under makeshift awnings where flags denote the beginning of the dead ground of no-man’s-land. The rabble-rousing propaganda songs preach to the watchful gunmen about a feeble and irreligious enemy backed by foreign powers. Down the road, an almost identical scene awaits, only the flag is different and the song, though echoing the same sentiment, chants of an opponent altogether different from the one decried barely out of earshot in the dust behind you.

“We hate them. They hate us. We kill each other. Who wins?” mused a fellow passenger on one of my trips as he pressed green leaves of the mildly narcotic khat plant into his mouth.

Mohammed was a friend of a friend who helped to smuggle me – dressed in the all-black, face-covering garb of a Yemeni woman – across front lines into the besieged enclave of Taiz. “We lose everything,” he said. “They win. They always win.” He gesticulated as he spoke of these invisible yet omnipresent powers: Yemen’s political elite and the foreign states entangled in his country’s conflict.

This promotion of hatred, creating what are likely to be irreversible divisions, is necessary for the war’s belligerents in order to incite tens of thousands to fight. It is essential to perpetuate the cycle of revenge unleashed by the territorial advances in 2014 and 2015 by Houthi rebels and the forces of their patron, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This demand for retribution is matched by those who are now seeking vengeance for the lives lost in a UK-supported, Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign.

More than 25 years after the two states of North and South Yemen united, the gulf between them has never been wider. The political south, now controlled by forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition, is logistically as well as politically severed from the north-western territories under the command of the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists. Caught in the middle is the city of Taiz, which is steadily being reduced to rubble after a year-long siege imposed by the Houthi-Saleh forces.

Revenge nourishes the violence, but it cannot feed those who are dying from malnutrition. Blowing in the sandy wind on roadsides up and down the country are tattered tents that hundreds of thousands of displaced families now call home. Others have fled from the cities and towns affected by the conflict to remote but safer village areas. There, food and medical care are scarce.

The acute child malnutrition reported in urban hospitals remains largely hidden in these isolated villages, far from tarmac roads, beyond the reach of international aid agencies. On my road trips across Yemen, a journey that would normally take 45 minutes on asphalt could take five hours on tracks across scrubland and rock, climbing mountainsides and descending into valleys where bridges stand useless, snapped in half by air strikes.

Among the other statistics are the missing millions needed by the state – the country’s largest employer. Workers haven’t been paid in months, amid fears of an economic collapse. This is apparently a deliberate tactic of fiscal strangulation by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government-in-exile. The recent relocation of the central bank from the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden is so far proving symbolic, given that the institution remains devoid of funds. The workforce on both sides of the conflict has taken to the streets to protest against salaries being overdue.

Following the deaths of more than 140 people in Saudi-led air strikes on a funeral hall on 8 October, Saleh and the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, called for yet more revenge. Within hours, ballistic missiles were fired from within Houthi territory, reaching up to 350 miles into Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, in the Red Sea, Houthi missile attacks on US warships resulted in retaliation, sucking the US further into the mire. Hours later, Iran announced its intention to deploy naval vessels in the area.

Vengeance continues to drive the violence in Yemen, which is being drawn ever closer to proxy conflicts being fought elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet the impact on Yemeni society and the consequences for the population’s health for generations to come are unlikely to appear to the outside world, not even as annotated numbers in the brief glimpses we get of this war. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood