Review: Brian Pern The Complete Series 1-3
This month saw the release of Brian Pern‘s three series on dvd, blu-ray and digital platforms. Created by and starring Simon Day and Rhys Thomas alongside Lucy Montgomery, Tony Way and Steve Burge (and a bevy of famous faces), we paid the show another visit…
Rhys Thomas has incredible powers of persuasion. His big break came after he cheekily asked for work experience as a runner for Shooting Stars, when the production team had no tickets left to let him watch the show. This then led to the string of hit shows he has been involved with ever since. Later, during production of classic sitcom Fun at the Funeral Palour, he persuaded guest star Anita Dobson to ask her husband Brian May to record the theme music for the show. He then persuaded Brian to release Queen’s music videos on dvd, and ended up being the co-producer of said releases, with his collaborator Simon Lupton.
Since then, Rhys has successfully balanced a career in comedy with his work for his favourite band: producing dvd releases, writing sleeve notes for box-sets, and making three critically acclaimed documentaries about them, including the International Emmy winning Freddie Mercury: The Great Pretender. And with Brian Pern, he has amazingly fused these two disparate careers into one incredibly satisfying whole.
The origins of the three series collated on this dvd and blu-ray release go back much earlier than the first run in 2014. Pern, as a character was created by Thomas and his frequent collaborator Simon Day (The Fast Show, Swiss Toni, Bellamy’s People) back in 2009 for a series of online shorts featuring Michael Kitchen, Lucy Montgomery, Tony Way and Steve Burge. And, amazingly, this team was given a belated TV series by BBC4 long after the event. And even more amazingly, they were then given two more for good measure.
Now, even more even more amazingly, this release on home media has happened. Not just a lo-fi, shoddily put together dvd with no extras, like even the most high-profile comedy releases have been getting lately. This is a fully fledged, extras packed release on dvd and blu-ray. Fans of the series, who had resigned themselves to off-air recordings, shonky iPlayer rips and/or illegal torrents to repeat their fix of Pern in their own time, can actually savour it in the best possible quality. Whatever right’s issues that had seemingly prevented release according to Rhys in the past, have been cleared. Even Stairway to Heaven is in there. Truly, this is a surprise, and for a comedy connoisseur, as close as you can get to Second Christmas.
Looking back at the show itself, it is perhaps not as unexpected as it seems. Martin Freeman, Kathy Burke, John Thomson, Surrane Jones, Christopher Eccleston, Simon Callow and the incredible force of nature that is Alan Ford are amongst the high profile guest stars willing to look ridiculous in the name of a good mockumentary. Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer revive their beloved Mulligan & O’Hare characters in the first series. And the cream of classic rock stars in Britain today join in the fun, too: including Roger Taylor, Rick Wakeman, Rick Parfitt, Chrissie Hynde and, er, Melanie C. Hell, if just 10% of their collective fanbases bought this release, it’d be one of the biggest selling comedy discs in history.
But for all the blockbuster bluster, the heart of Brian Pern beats to a strictly alternative rhythm. Make no mistake about it: this is no lazy parody, but a true labour of love, with a detailed back story and intricate world built around him that puts Pern up there with Partridge. By the time the third series reaches its conclusion, it feels like we’ve known Brian for decades, rather than only nine half hour episodes.
The trick is in the detail. On a technical level, Thomas has carefully mirrored his work with Queen, borrowing stylistic touches from his documentaries, right down to the authentic Queen fonts being borrowed for a string of Thotch and Pern album covers, tour posters and fan t-shirts. Fans of Messrs Mercury, May, Deacon and Taylor will also pick up on a number of sneaky in-jokes. A Pern song knocked itself off #1 in France. Quen keep turning up on festival posters alongside increasingly weird pairings: Queen+ Olly Murs being a particularly biting highlight. Beyond the direct influence, Thomas, Day and the cast have created talking heads who parody the kind Rhys has actually worked with for real, in the type of environments he’s really worked in. And because none of it is done with malice, they’ve managed to get some of the real people to sit down and look ridiculous too.
As Pern, Simon Day is delightful. A well measured performance, Pern is continually flustered by the opposing contrast of his id and his ego. He believes himself to be both this incredible musical innovator, and still a timid little boy who never grew up or did anything of worth. Like many other comic creations, the man is an arse – and the series delights in watching him flounder with a lack of authority in preposterous situations. But, as with Partridge before him, the show is ultimately on his side, and you can’t help be overjoyed when things finally go his way: the climax to the second and third series both eliciting genuine emotional responses.
Around him, a methodical, gentile Paul Whitehouse and a leering, saucy Nigel Havers are having a whale of a time as former Thotch band-mates Pat Quid and Tony Pebble. Lucy Montgomery steals almost every scene she is in as world-music singer Pepita, and it is a miracle the cast managed to keep their face straight around her for a single take.
But the real revelation is Michael Kitchen’s comic timing. As John Farrow, he fuses an affectionate homage to Queen’s manager and lawyer Jim Beach, with a pop-up book of tourettes that makes Gordon Ramsey seem like a mummy’s boy. Farrow is the unsung hero of the saga: yes, he puts Brian in dogy situations, but he’s usually the one who gets him out of them, too. The pair can’t stand one another, yet they can’t bear to be apart, and there are moments when John’s loyalty to Brian in spite of it all make him positively endearing, even in the midsts of a string of f-bombs. In the hands of this incredibly underrated actor, the character is a real triumph, and it’s a testament to the show that they’ve held onto him since the early viral videos.
If there’s one minor complaint about it all, it is that the actual music of Brian Pern and Thotch lets the side down a little. Steve Burge has written some strong tunes that fit the show perfectly, and while his singing could be better, Day handles the pastiches with gusto. There’s also a real variety in what is on offer: from the progressive madness of Worm Equinox and March of the Triffids (featuring Sir Roger Moore, no less); to moving ballad The Honeycomb is Over; and the festive ditties I Wish I Was At Home With My Missus and Christmas In Me Car. Spirit Level is a ridiculous slice of 80s pop-jazz-funk, with a rap section from Tony Way’s Captain Cupnuts that is such a delightful Judge Dredd spoof it’s hard to keep a straight face. Yet none of them are the kind of tunes you’d actively listen to outside of the show, which makes them less Smell The Glove and more Tony Ferrino’s Phenomenon. Again, it’s a minor thing, but could have elevated the show up amongst the gods if they’d just been a little more catchy.
In spite of this, a recent live venture – complete with a full Thotch reunion at the climax – proved incredibly popular, and the dvd/blu-ray exclusive Brian Pern at the BBC episode is incredibly enjoyable, so perhaps we’re wrong, and there’s life in the tunes yet.
Sadly, it seems the chances of more Brian Pern on television feel rather slim, even with the ratings increasing for each successive run. The dvd and blu-ray, complete with their hoovering up of extra material, feel oddly final. After all, this is a character the team have been working on for seven years: could here really be anything left for him to say or do? It’s hard not to hope so, but if this does turn out to be the end, he’s leaving behind a saga to be proud of.
Brian Pern’s story is presented across two discs. The first contains series one, The Life of Rock with Brian Pern, and series two, Brian Pern: A Life in Rock, whilst the second features series three, Brian Pern: 45 Years of Prog and Roll and the extras package.
Given the task of mimicking archive material for much of its duration, it’s fair to say that the picture quality on the disc is serviceable, but hardly a stellar test of blu-ray’s capabilities. Still, the murky SD video look of the performance clips look as good as they can given their intended aesthetic, and when the ‘modern’ clips are on screen, the quality is usually excellent. A couple of interview sequences in the first series suffer from extreme black crushing at times, and there’s heavy pixelation at others, but this is more likely to be an issue with source material than a fault on the part of distributor Dazzler Media.
Audio remains strictly in Stereo PCM, which feels oddly retro, but could be an understandable technical and budgetary constraint. Whilst the lack of a surround track is a disappointment, the result remains punchy and effective, even when panned out to surround channels, and dialogue is crisp and clear throughout.
There are also subtitles for the hard of hearing, including on the extra content – though they are absent from Brian Pern at the BBC. Given this extra is entirely made up of performance material and frequent on-screen ‘factual’ captions, it’s likely this was a conscious decision rather than genuine oversight.
There’s an incredible amount of material on offer here, particularly by contemporary standards. All in all, the disc has over two hours of bonus content, and with very little of it replicated elsewhere on the disc, it is all essential viewing.
Most notable, perhaps, is the much touted bonus episode, Brian Pern at the BBC, which features (mostly) full performances from across Brian’s career. These are, in essence, extended versions of the clips used in the show, many of which were available on BBC Comedy’s YouTube channel. Now cut together into a half-hour package and given Top of the Pops 2 style factual captions, which become increasingly ridiculous as the show goes on, this isn’t a comprehensive collection of all the spoofs, but it hoovers up the vast majority. Highlights include the full video for I Wish I Was At Home With My Missus, Pern’s sumptuous duet Keep Trying with Carly Swan (Lucy Montgomery) and the glorious pastiche of 90s tv show The Word and rock band Oasis, Pound Land Polly, which might just be the best song the Brian Pern team have ever come up with.
Also on offer are three lengthy deleted scene packages: 17 minutes from Series 1, 30 minutes from Series 2 and 18 minutes from Series 3. The reason for more footage on S2 is revealed during the piece: the final episode was originally to be an extended Christmas special, and the extra ten minutes are presented in rough-cut form to accompany the rest of the sequences. Here you can find more on Pat Quid’s liquorice obsession, extra bits of Mulligan & O’Hare going off on one, and meet both Phil Spector (played by Paul Whitehouse) and Brian’s idiot twin brother Maurice. Great stuff.
The tv series offers one additional treat in the form of an out-takes reel, in which people forget lines, struggle to keep their cool with silly ones, film in a car park butt naked, break things and suffer from segway accidents. We also see Tony Way’s filthy Captain Cupnuts wrap in full, and discover that when overjoyed, Christopher Eccleston genuinely says ‘fantastic’ repeatedly just like his Doctor. Given these nuggets of behind the scenes footage, it’s clear the team had a ball making this show, and it does feel a shame there’s no Making Of documentary or even more B-roll footage to savour, though let’s be fair here: what we’ve got is a huge swathe of extra material and it would be churlish to demand more.
There is more, however, from which you can piece together some of the details. The disc also contains 36 minutes worth of the original online shorts for BBC Comedy. If you haven’t seen these already (and there are many more online for you to seek out and enjoy), they offer a fascinating glimpse into the development of Pern, alongside John Farrow, Pepita, Ned and Pat Quid. There are also less jokes carried over to the main series than you can count on one hand, making this a real opportunity to see some bonus Brian if they’re new to you.
The downside to these clips is that they are only available in lo-res, clearly downloaded from the internet and added to the disc as is. This isn’t for budget saving, but because the originals have been wiped, which we have to admit, frightens us, and not just because we’ve lost the chance to see these in the best possible quality. These shorts are, by online standards, pretty high profile. They are television quality productions made by television quality teams with professional, high-profile actors. And now they gone for good, only existing in quality worse than Standard Definition video. Content owners really need to look after archive content, or great art will be potentially be lost forever, and this sets a worrying precedent for BBC comedy material being wiped that could, presumably extend to other material we feature on our pages. If you’re a content owner out there, and you’re ever thinking about deleting or binning your original masters: stop, think, and send them our way. One day, we might be able to figure out how to use them…
Across three short series in under two years, Brian Pern and his inner circle have become classic characters, beloved by critics and audiences alike. Simon Day and Rhys Thomas reached out to their comedy mates, their rock idols, and acting buddies, and together they created something truly special.
Factor in two hours worth of additional content, and the result is a release that should be on the shelf of every connoisseur of British comedy. In years to come, there’s no doubt this will be cited as a true classic. Savour it, like a succulent Chinese meal…