Simon Day as Brian Pern, playing the flute on Top of the Pops 1975. Photo: BBC/Rory Lindsay
Show Hide image

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?

BBC
Show Hide image

Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit