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?

Almeida Theatre
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Rupert Goold: “A director always has to be more of a listener”

The artistic director of the Almeida Theatre on working with Patrick Stewart, the inaccessibility of the arts, and directing his wife in Medea.

Eight years ago Rupert Goold’s Macbeth made his name. The critics were unanimous in their praise, with one calling it the “Macbeth of a lifetime”. Goold’s first Olivier Award soon followed (Enron won him a second in 2009, King Charles III nearly won him a third last year). It was a family triumph; Lady Macbeth was played by Goold’s wife, Kate Fleetwood.

Now the pair has finally reunited and Fleetwood is his undisputed lead. She is playing Medea in the Almeida’s latest and final play of its Greek season. Directing your wife is one thing. Directing her in a play about a woman who murders her children because her husband abandons her is another. And it’s been harder than Goold expected.

“You live with someone every day, and they don’t age because the change is so incremental, and then you do something together and you realise how much you’ve changed. It’s like playing tennis with someone after eight years: you’re completely different players.”

As it is, Goold thinks the director-actor relationship is inevitably fraught. “There is an essential slave-master, sadomasochistic, relationship,” he says. “The incredibly complicated thing about being an actor is you’re constantly being told what to do. And one of the most damaging things about being a director – and why most of them are complete arseholes – is because they get off at telling people what to do.”

Goold doesn’t. He’s as amicable in person as the pictures – bountiful hair, loose jacket, wide grin – suggest. And when we meet in the Almedia’s crowded rehearsal rooms, tucked away on Upper Street, 100 yards from the theatre, he’s surprisingly serene given his play is about to open.

He once said that directing a play is like running towards a wall and hoping it becomes a door just before the curtain goes up. Has the door appeared? “It’s always a funny moment [at the end of rehearsal]. Sometimes you do a show and it’s a bit dead and the costumes and set transform it. Then sometimes it’s perfect and the design kills it.”

We meet shortly before last Thursday’s press night, and he can’t tell how good it is. But it “certainly feels quite private. The idea that loads of people are going to come and watch it now feels a bit weird. You bring a lot of your sense of relationships and parenting into it.”

Goold has always argued that the classics wither without intervention. So in this revival of Euripides’ 2,446-year-old play, Medea is a writer and her husband, Jason (of Argonauts fame), is an actor. “But it’s not really about that… it’s more about divorce, about what it means to separate.”

“It’s about the impact of a long-term relationship when it collapses. I don’t know whether there is a rich tradition of drama like that, and yet for most people, those kind of separations are far more profound and complicated and have greater ramifications than first love; and we have millions of plays about first love!”

Every generation discovers their own time in the Greek plays. Goold thinks he and playwright Rachel Cusk were shaped by the aftermath of the 1970s in interpreting Medea; “That’s the period when the idea of the family began to get tainted.” And when critics praised Oresteia, the Almeida’s first Greek play and a surprise West End transfer, they compared it to the Sopranos.

Yet there is something eternal about these plays. Goold says it’s the way they “stare at these problems that are totally perennial, like death,” and then offer answers that aren’t easy. Medea kills the kids and a mother rips her son to shreds in the Bakkhai (the Almeida’s predecessor to Medea). Where’s the moral compass in that?

Except there is a twist in Goold’s Medea, and it’s not one every critic has taken kindly to. It was enough to stop the Telegraph’s Dominic Cavendish, otherwise lavish in his praise, from calling it “a Medea for our times”. Nevertheless, the reviews have been kind, as they often are for Goold; although The Times’ Ann Treneman was vitriolic in her dislike (“Everyone is ghastly. The men are beyond irritating. The women even worse.”).

In theory, Goold welcomes the criticism. “I’d rather our audience hated something and talked about it than was passively pleased,” he tells me ahead of reviews.

Controversial and bracing theatre is what Goold wants to keep directing and producing; as the Almeida’s artistic director he is in charge of more than just his own shows. But how does he do it? I put a question to him: if I had to direct Medea instead of him, what advice would he have given me?

He pauses. “You’ve got to love words,” he begins. “There’s no point doing it unless you have a real delight in language. And you have to have vision. But probably the most important thing is, you’ve got to know how to manage a room.”

“It’s people management. So often I have assistants, or directors I produce, and I think ‘God, they’re just not listening to what that person is trying to say, what they’re trying to give.’ They’re either shutting them down or forcing them into a box.”

“Most people in a creative process have to focus on what they want to say, but a director always has to be more of a listener. People do it different ways. Some people spin one plate incredibly fast and vibrantly in the middle of the room, and hope all the others get sucked in. It’s about thriving off of one person – the director, the lead performer, whomever.”

“I’m more about the lowest common denominator: the person you’re most aware of is the least engaged. You have to keep lifting them up, then you get more creativity coming in.”

It’s not always simple. When actors and directors disagree, the director can only demand so much, especially if the actor is far more famous than them. When Goold directed Macbeth, Patrick Stewart was his lead. Stewart was a movie star and twice his age.

“Patrick’s take on Macbeth… I didn’t think it should be played that way. I’d played him as a student and I had an idea of what he was.”

“But then you think, ‘Ok, you’re never going to be what I want you to be, but actually let me get rid of that, and just focus on what’s good about what you want to be, and get rid of some of the crap.’”

Goold doesn’t think he’s ever really struggled to win an actor’s respect (“touch wood”). The key thing, he says, is that “they just feel you’re trying to make legible their intention”.

And then you must work around your lead. In Macbeth, Stewart was “a big deep river of energy… when normally you get two people frenetically going ‘Uhgh! Is this a dagger I see before me! Uhgh!’ and there’s lots of hysteria.”

“So we threw all sorts of other shit at the production to compensate, to provide all the adrenalin which Patrick was taking away to provide clarity and humanity.”

Many people want to be theatre directors, and yet so few are successful. The writers, actors and playwrights who sell shows can be counted on a few hands. Depressingly, Goold thinks it’s becoming harder to break in. It’s difficult to be discovered. “God, I don’t know, what I worry – wonder – most is: ‘Are there just loads of great directors who don’t make it?’”

 The assisting route is just not a good way to find great new directors. “The kind of people who make good assistants don’t make good directors, it’s almost diametrically opposite.” As for regional directors, newspaper budgets have collapsed, so they can no longer rely on a visit from a handful of national critics, as Goold did when he was based in Salisbury and Northampton. And audiences for touring shows have, by some measures, halved in the past twenty years.

Theatre has also evolved. When Goold was coming through, “There were not a lot of directors who felt they were outside the library, so for me to whack on some techno was radical! Now it’d be more commonplace.” New directors have to find new ways to capture our attention – or at least the critics’.

But the critics have changed too. A nod from a critic can still be vital in the right circles, but the days when critics “made” directors is long over. “I remember Nick de Jongh saying, ‘Oh Rupert Goold, I made him.’ Because he’d put Macbeth on the front page of the Standard. I owed my career to him, and in some ways I did! But it's an absurd idea, that would not happen now.”

“It’s all changed so much in literally the past three years. There was a time, for better or worse, when you had a big group of establishment critics: de Jongh, Michael Billington, Michael Coveney, Charlie Spencer – they were mostly men – Susannah Clapp. And if they all liked your show, you were a hit.” (“They could be horrible,” he adds.)

“Now I get more of a sense of a show by being on Twitter than reading the reviews.” It’s “probably a good thing”, Goold thinks, and it certainly beats New York, where a single review – the New York Times' – makes or breaks plays. But it’s another problem for aspiring directors, who can no longer be so easily plucked from the crowd.

It’s no longer a problem Goold needs to overcome. His star could wane, but he seems likely to be among the leading voices in British theatre for a while yet.

Harry Lambert is a staff writer and editor of May2015, the New Statesman's election website.