The last time I saw the irascible Brian Gittins in the flesh (if that’s the right word) was on stage in 2014 at a south London comedy club. Looking like Ricky Tomlinson’s sleazy younger brother, he aggressively badgered an audience member into stroking the droopy rubber penis hanging from his fly. Rarely have I been more thankful for a seat near the back.
This abrasive and studiously shambolic character, supposedly a café owner desperate to break into stand-up, is the creation of the actor David Earl. What is unusual is that Earl has been cast as Brian in other people’s projects. Ricky Gervais declared himself a fan (a mixed blessing if ever there was one) and wrote “Brian” into his film Cemetery Junction and his Netflix series After Life, which has had 100 million viewers.
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For his first movie lead, in Brian and Charles, developed by Earl, his co-writer Chris Hayward and the producer Rupert Majendie, the profane entertainer has undergone a PG-rated makeover; the strongest word he uses here is “fiddlesticks”. Once seedy, Brian is now simply isolated, living in a cottage in north Wales and alluding to struggles with depression. Instead of harbouring showbiz dreams, he is an inventor who cobbles together a 7ft robot out of mannequin parts and a washing machine. He dresses it in a shirt, cardigan and bow tie, and gives it tufty grey hair and spectacles. There’s an on/off switch at the back.
This is Charles Petrescu – a name decided on after the robot flinches at the prospect of being called Tony or Clive – and, as he tells Brian, “I am your friend.” Daniel Pemberton’s synthesiser score, which suggests a rustic, lo-fi Kraftwerk, stays the right side of sentimental while sounding appropriate notes of enchantment.
We don’t know where the robot’s legs have come from, and the visual gags work best when those limbs are kept out of sight; like the Muppets, Charles is funniest from the waist up. His humour is largely verbal anyway, and comes courtesy of voice-generating software which makes his stresses fall unpredictably. Charles asks kindergarten questions, such as “How far does the outside go?” and “Can birds do what they like?”, and he can be bribed like a child also. (Brian lures him in from the garden with the promise of his favourite food: cabbage. How he eats it we never discover.) Most inspired is the contrast between his innocent aspect and a voice – think RP newsreader meets speaking clock – that reeks of wisdom and experience.
Audiences with a low threshold for kookiness may steel themselves for a replay of Lars and the Real Girl, in which lonely Ryan Gosling finds companionship in a life-sized doll, or a monologue from Brian about how Charles is a replacement for his dead wife/child/goldfish. Happily, nothing of the sort emerges. Even the tentative romance between Brian and his fellow misfit, Hazel (Louise Brealey), with its shades of Mike Leigh’s Bleak Moments, is nicely under-egged. Brealey, who has a range of tics and twitches at her disposal, also gets one of the script’s loveliest lines. When Brian denies being nervous at the village fair, she murmurs softly: “Your candyfloss is shaking.”
Not everything comes off. The film sometimes forgets to stick to its mockumentary format: there are shots here and there that break the genre’s rules, and characters who seem not to register the presence of a camera crew. Besides, aren’t we all weary of mockumentaries now? And while it isn’t an issue that narrative tension can be reduced to a single question (will the nasty, uncouth family in the village get their paws on Charles?), it seems perverse that the baddies are the only lead characters with Welsh accents, especially when the film’s visual splendour owes everything to its Snowdonia locations.
The picture can still be considered an important stage in the evolution of Brian Gittins, though he is not the first comedy character to change drastically over time. Proud philistine George Costanza was a book-lover in the second season of Seinfeld. And in an early episode of The Simpsons, from 1990, Homer cringed with embarrassment at his family’s behaviour. Imagine!
After Brian and Charles, Earl will surely need to put the rubber penis back in the dressing-up box. Unless, that is, he intends to perform parallel versions of the same character – one for the screen, another for the down-and-dirty dives – and market himself as the man with two Brians.
“Brian and Charles” is in cinemas now
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This article appears in the 06 Jul 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Last Days of Boris Johnson