Onion Talking: Rhys Thomas on Brian Pern: A Tribute
This week sees BBC Four air a special tribute to fallen prog-rock singer Brian Pern, who died last month aged 66 following an unexpected segway mistake.
This exclusive documentary for BBC Four also features Brian’s final prophetic interview, which has never been transmitted before as well as the true story behind his untimely death and the making of his last album ‘Heaven Calling’ released just 271 days after his 66th birthday .
Brian’s friends, lovers and fans speak candidly about Brian’s life and work in this poignant documentary and discuss what the future holds as the remaining members of Thotch plan a tribute concert at the Royal Albert Hall in Brian’s name to raise money for Segway Awareness.
Of course, as much as we’ve played along (even interviewing Brian himself in 2014), Pern is actually the creation of comedians Rhys Thomas and Simon Day, who have created one extra outing for Pern – a character they’ve been working on for ten years.
Jam-packed with big name guest stars, the final special once again features TVO regulars Lucy Montgomery, Tony Way, Matt Lucas and Steve Burge alongside Michael Kitchen, Nigel Havers, Paul Whitehouse, David Arnold, Jane Asher, Christopher Eccleston, Surrane Jones, John Thomson and Alan Ford amongst others, and sees Pern’s bandmates, life-partners, and associates bid him an occasionally fond, and sometimes bitter farewell.
To celebrate the end of an era, we caught up with series co-creator, co-writer, director and star Rhys Thomas to talk about the final days of a rock legend.
Hi Rhys, welcome back to The Velvet Onion. When we last spoke about Brian Pern, you’d just locked down Series Two. Since then Brian has become a cult phenomenon. How does it feel to be behind something that can trend on Twitter?
Nice. It was a surprise, especially when we were under the impression that no one really knows what it is apart from comedy obsessives rather than the general public. I think it took the BBC by surprise too, as they didn’t really know how big the fan base was. We’ve never won any awards, had millions of viewers or been cutting edge, but it trended ALL DAY! Can you believe it? I loved the fact that people played along as if Brian was real and the press have kept it up too.
Indeed! TVO played along with Brian’s ‘death’, as it were, and we were amazed at the places our obituary popped up – even legendary rock bands were sharing the news. It feels like lots of people were keen to go along for the ride and genuinely mourn this character. How was that from the inside?
It was fun. Not sure how Simon felt about it… I think people thought he’d died!
His performance as Brian is astounding. He’s really made what could be a two dimensional character on paper come alive in way that he’s perhaps never really been allowed to do to this extent in his previous work…
To be honest, I think the scripts have come on so much in Brian Pern, which has helped the character become less two dimensional. When it started online and with Series One, Brian Pern was effectively a monologue. Brian was talking to camera and had little or no interaction, which is why it’s that way. Adding family members, a band, and some real storylines is what has made Brian come alive and as an actor given Simon more to play with. And having other great actors in there has raised his game and the results are fantastic.
How do you feel he’s developed as a performer in the two decades you’ve been working with him?
I think the scene in the car at the end of the last series is the best acting he’s ever done. He was so brilliant. Dave Angel is bloody funny. Shame they didn’t make a series of those.
There was an air of finality about the third series, which was only cemented by the dvd and blu-ray release. At the time, did you think that would be the end of Pern?
There was the idea to do the death episode around the same time as Series Three, but at the time, it was the last one, yes. It still is the last one. For me, this Tribute is a little extra thing, it’s not the final episode. The ‘last’ episode is the final episode of Series Three.
So what made you bring him back for one last outing?
I always wanted to do the ‘Afterlife of Rock’, when Pern had died and the effect it had on the rest of the band, and the manager’s plan to cash in. Then of course, real rock and pop stars started dying last year, and it became topical in some ways. The BBC had a bit of money left over to make a low key special – just talking heads, but I ended up going way over the top and getting the Royal Albert Hall involved!
Some of the all-time great sitcoms and comedy characters have short lifespans, even when they’re phenomenally successful. And this time around you’ve gone and killed him off for good. Was this decision more practical or is it to leave the audience wanting more?
A bit of both. It’s a lot of hard work for me. It takes up a lot of time to write, produce, direct, write the lyrics to songs, design the album covers… I have genuinely run out of ideas for Brian. It’s all been done. What more can we do? I also want to do new things and we’ve been doing this for five years now, ten if you include the online shorts back at the beginning. I also miss performing, and making Pern means I don’t have any time to do that!
Does it feel like 20 years since your big break?
Yes. Still bubbling under after all of these years! I’ve enjoyed writing and directing more than anything else, but I do miss working with Charlie [Higson] and Paul [Whitehouse] on Down The Line and things like that. Wish we could do some more.
We’ve talked before about the family feel behind Brian Pern, with your longstanding collaborators on board like Tony Way, Steve Burge and of course, your wife Lucy Montgomery. How do you feel your working relationships have evolved over the years?
Firstly, they make me laugh more than anyone else. And sometimes with Pern, it’s all about the big guest stars and we have to big them up, but Tony, Lucy and Burge are my best friends and they don’t always get the credit they deserve. Tony wrote his bit for this special, and it’s one of the highlights.
Lucy will genuinely make you laugh and cry in this episode. I think she’s the funniest person on telly. Steve Burge is one of the few people who can write funny songs that aren’t cringeworthy… I hate ‘comedy songs’, but what he does is so unique. We all get together in bit parts… one day we will have the main parts! Yeah! Fuck the old guard. Move over dudes! It’s our turn.
We hear ya! Though you mention the big stars there. The procession of guests involved surely helped reached audiences who might otherwise not have tuned in. Everyone’s been fab, but are there any people you’ve been particularly chuffed to bag?
All of them to be honest. It’s so low paid and small [in profile], that most of them would be better off staying in bed! But I think they responded to the scripts really, and to be honest, once Michael Kitchen was in it that attracted some of the bigger actors. Roger Taylor and Rick Wakeman in the first series helped get bigger [rockstar] names. Paul and Simon’s Fast Show connection helped too.
The guest stars fit into two categories, the people who play themselves and the straight actors playing parts. Working with Phil Collins was a thrill. He’s another of my heroes and, like Peter Gabriel, it’s great he’s in on the joke when clearly Genesis were a bit of an inspiration behind Thotch. He’s also one of the few rock stars who can genuinely act. He’s a big comedy fan too. I remember seeing him in The Two Ronnies sketches when I was about 5 years old and just assumed he was a comedian too. I’d love to do more things with him in the future.
Dear Rick Parfitt, too, who sadly died last year. Billy Bragg of course, who is known for being quite serious, and Chrissie Hynde was funny too. Then there’s the straight actors playing parts like Chris Eccleston, Michael Kitchen, Suranne Jones, Jane Asher… to be honest, it’s hard to pick a favourite because they have all been great sports. It’s fun on set and very relaxed, and because I write, direct and produce, there is no stress through having to refer to someone else and no egos to get in the way. It’s just a laugh.
Each series has had a distinctly different feel to it, too, perhaps because your other career as a documentary filmmaker has allowed you to offer various facets of the artform up for spoofing. Given the tribute nature of the final episode, has this allowed you more scope to play with conventions you’ve not been able to in previous series?
As this is a spoof of one of those rushed tributes, there was more to satirise, so this has a very different feel to previous episodes. As far as my ‘other career’ [Rhys directed three award-winning documentaries about the rock band Queen], that was just a one off. I don’t consider myself a real documentary maker.
One of my personal favourite aspects of Pern’s world is how many references to your own passions you’ve managed to cram in. As a dyed-in-the-wool Queen fan myself, and a lifelong Whovian, it sometimes feels like there’s a whole extra layer to the show that people like me can pick up on. How much do you enjoy putting those little extra gags in?
Queen and Doctor Who were my childhood and teenage obsessions, so there are lots of those. We have two Doctors in the last episode, and a funny clip from The Visitation. All of this comes from the editing and writing… I make sure there are lots of layers for people like us! It would be hard to do that in any other comedy format.
Given this is likely to be the very end for Brian Pern, is there anything you wish you’d managed to do with the character that never came to fruition?
Not really. There was an idea that Brian and Thotch are cajoled by John Farrow into playing a wedding in some Middle Eastern country for millions of pounds, only to discover that the father of the bride is a terrible dictator with an awful human rights record. It was based on something Sting and Elton [John] apparently did in 2011 or so according to The Guardian. Brian refuses to play, the dictator threatens to torture Brian and his band unless he plays, so the band have to escape.
It’s like a road movie. But way too expensive. Even though Brian is dead, we could still revisit unknown parts of his past and use archive to tell an ‘unknown’ story – so there is always a way…
We’ll watch this space. In the meantime, what do you hope Brian’s legacy will be?
I hope people look back and say: There was a funny programme.
Speaking of funny stuff, what’s next for you post-Pern?
A comedy drama called Trailer Park which has been around for ages, but is finally happening. I am going to write that, for the makers of [BBC One drama] The A Word. The plan is to get some of the Pern cast in that, but in new roles.
I’ve also got a sitcom pilot called Scaffs for the BBC, and another end of the year review 2017: A Year in the Life of A Year. I’m also co-writing a script for American TV that’s a secret at the moment, and trying to sell Brian Pern to the USA. Maybe we can do what they did with The Office and make a few pence.
As always, we’ll be right behind it! You moved to LA a few years ago, even though most of the work you and Lucy are doing is still based in the UK. Why did you decide to upheave?
We moved last year for a change of scene, really… just for a year or so. Now we’ve both got jobs here – all will be revealed at some point! But we’re still working on ideas at home. There’s no reason why you can’t work in more than one place.
Does it make collaboration with your peers harder?
Not really. I wrote all of the new Brian Pern here [in LA], sent the first draft to Simon, he read it, added a few lines and sent ideas of his own, and then I put it together, we came back and filmed it. It’s surprisingly easy. And it also it means you appreciate London when you come home.
We look forward to seeing you back here soon. Until then, Rhys Thomas, thank you.
Brian Pern: A Tribute airs on BBC Four at 10pm this Wednesday, 29th March 2017. You can see a preview clip below. The first three series are available to buy on DVD and Blu-Ray, and Series Three is also available via the BBC Store.
Please dont let this be the end of brian. This is the best character simon day has ever played and good comedy is in short supply these days. Please bring him back. Let Gabriel’s presence just be brian’s nightmare