Brian Pern’s Sledgehammer Satire

Peter GabrielFew music fans over the age of 35 can have any doubt as to the object of the affectionate parody at the centre of the three short, superb TV series of Brian Pern. Co-writers Rhys Thomas and Simon Day have gone for him ‘Big Time’.  And to tackle this particular figure with such fine results is no mean feat. For as we know, the best satire often consists in taking familiar personas or formulas and pushing them that bit further into the absurd or the surreal (think The Day Today or Brass Eye). But, just as Tom Lehrer declared upon Kissinger being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize that satire was now redundant, so the career of Peter Gabriel, the theatrical ex-Genesis frontman and esoteric solo artist, is pretty hard to improve on. None of the seemingly quixotic, at times outlandish behaviour of rock innovator Brian Pern (Simon Day), wearing daft, cumbersome costumes and parts of stuffed animals on stage, striving to sample the most unlikely (and sometimes inaudible) of sounds, or attempting musical collaborations with primates, can ever be anything more than a marginally more zany take on Gabriel’s own singular creative path. (I recall seeing a Channel 4 News piece a decade or so ago about his attempts to coax music from bonobo apes, which itself resembled a Brass Eye sketch or one of those April Fool’s spoof news items.)  On reflection, it may have been a cunning choice on the part of his creators; drawing on this inadvertently amusing raw material allows those us of who have followed Gabriel and Genesis to chuckle knowingly at the references/re-enactments, while a wider comedy audience of the unfamiliar can laugh heartily at these seemingly cooked-up idiosyncrasies and excesses. And laugh they will.

One suspects that Gabriel himself – by his own admission not known for a comic disposition – knew the value of giving the Pern project his blessing, with a cameo appearance in each series finale. (The last of these, a perfectly-rendered take-off of an iconic Brit gangster film’s denouement, brought on the biggest hysterics this comedy fan has suffered since Peter Serafinowicz doing Ringo Starr doing a Goldfinger theme.) Thanks to his ever-declining output Gabriel is now a more marginal figure than his Pern counterpart, and the series may even have given him a shot in the arm. The not-at-all veiled parodies of ‘Intruder’, ‘Biko’ and ‘Games Without Frontiers’, clearly the work of true fans, certainly sent me back to his solo albums in all their inventive, multi-textured brilliance. So, Brian Pern is the one-time vocalist of a much venerated public school prog rock band (Thotch), who left them just as British success was consolidated and US stardom beckoned, retreating to make a series of cultish, critically-lauded solo albums before rising again to trump his former bandmates with a brass-heavy transatlantic smash hit (‘Spirit Level’) and multi-million selling album (Shelf Life), which triumphantly mixes his world music preoccupations with danceable pop-funk – oh, and there’s a video with plasticine in it. So far, So by Peter Gabriel.

But the Brian Pern persona also draws on other elements from Genesis and elsewhere. His higher public recognisability is more redolent of Phil Collins (Pern is invited on Channel 5’s The Wright Stuff, with hilarious consequences), as indeed is his marital history (he is revealed to have dumped his wife by Ceefax, echoing Collin’s tabloid-enraging divorce fax). Meanwhile his tear-jerking single ‘I Wish I’d Told My Dad I Loved Him Before He Died’ is basically Genesis guitarist Mike Rutherford’s elegiac global hit ‘The Living Years’. But lest such a specialised joke wear thin, the story of Thotch and Brian Pern is opened up to allow a nod and a wink to other famed acts and episodes from rock history. We learn late on that Thotch had their very own Syd Barrett/Peter Green figure, the creative spark who checked out early. In this case it is a certain Bennett St John (Simon Callow), said to have lost his mind not through dope or acid, but an addiction to cod liver oil tablets. Thotch’s post-Pern trajectory includes a lucrative hook-up with a Stevie Nicks-ish emerging singer, which produces a Rumours-type mega-seller amid similar inter-band romantic tensions. However, aping the legendary excesses of Fleetwood Mac and the wider Seventies music scene, her coke addiction derails things – when not just her nose but other drug inlets disintegrate, the bottom (literally) falls out of the partnership. Later, Pern’s mid-Eighties ‘Spirit Level’ hit also spoofs that more controversial appropriator of “world music” Paul Simon’s Graceland and ‘You Can Call Me Al’ – not least in its slap bass break, elongated here to amusingly interminable length. The tone of this “retrospective” fare is a kind of wry nostalgia, affirming rock music’s admirable highs while keeping in mind its overindulgences, substance-based and otherwise.

Indeed, after the initial web episodes which deftly introduce the Brian Pern character via a series of his website video blog updates, his debut on TV proper is as frontman for a History of Rock itself. This allows for some game guest spots from real music veterans and pundits, and subverted reminiscences around aspects of popular music’s development; the purism of the folk scene, the advent of punk (here said to have been pre-empted by the anarchic iconoclasm of The Wurzels), the geopolitical pretensions of Live Aid, and the various hobbies and pet causes of the new rock aristocracy. The selections and resulting skits are often sublime; Sting’s late-Eighties appearance on Wogan in company with a plate-lipped Amazonian chief to air the plight of the rainforest was entertaining enough at the time for those of us who saw it, but here the latter is dubbed to make him a gruff, plain-speaking taxi driver-type and by far the more grounded of the two. Such episodes, irreverently depicted as they are, nevertheless bring home a certain point: however self-aggrandising and dubiously effective were the social and political stands of the stars of yesteryear, they lay bare the lack of any substance to our current pop culture figureheads, who are more likely to appear on the Wogan of today to announce a new fragrance or designer range or get confessional about their PR-masterminded romances. Our contemporary icons are comparatively bland, homogenised and dependably self-censoring; they have an unprecedented platform through social media, and nothing to say with it. Indeed, that Brian Pern’s general narrative of music tails off after early-Nineties Madchester (perhaps British rock music’s last great movement/moment) and only cursorily mentions more recent names is perhaps as much a reflection of this paucity as of the age and affections of the show’s creators. Good satire first requires some positive content.

But aside from its merits as a lightly-fictionalised commentary on popular music’s halcyon days, the Brian Pern series is also just very, very funny. Simon Day was always my favourite of the Fast Show cast; his nonchalantly non-actorly woodenness and the sense that he was always enjoying himself were infectious. Even as Brian Pern, despite the studiedly intense, somewhat pompous demeanour and indeterminate, gravely resonant speaking voice, he still appears on the point of corpsing when around his exotic and eccentric world music finds (generally played by Lucy Montgomery). His Fast Show colleague Paul Whitehouse is nicely understated as the quietly grudge-bearing guitarist Pat Quid, Pern’s musical foil in Thotch, and framing the whole conceit is Rhys Thomas as the intrusive, calculating rockumentary director with an eye firmly on his awards shelf.  But it is the ‘straight’ actors who seem to be having the most fun, and who distinguish the show from other Fast Show-related offerings. Michael Kitchen is brilliant as John Farrow, Pern’s expletive-totting, ball-breaking, but ultimately good-hearted manager, doing the bombast naturalistically and never descending into caricature. Nigel Havers seems to relish being let off the leash as Thotch keyboard player Tony Pebblé, unashamed bon viveur and skirt-chaser (the polar opposite in fact of Genesis’ famously reserved, studious Tony Banks). And Christopher Ecclestone winning redeploys his trademark intensity and Northern authenticity for laughs as the gruff, overbearing Manc producer behind Pern’s (apparently successful) stab at a Madchester indie-dance album.

Brian Pern’s triumph rests on three attributes; firstly, its engaging comic rendering of a familiar cultural figure hitherto largely untapped – the innovative, socially-conscious rock auteur. Second, its charming backward look through four decades of popular music, which invites a tempered nostalgia and an appreciation of how things have since palled. And thirdly, the top-notch comedy material drawn from all this, made manifest in some fabulous performances. If Brian Pern passed you by on BBC TV, then the DVD release, containing much additional footage and highlights from the initial web series, is a worthy purchase. And should you be a Peter Gabriel fan, waiting interminably for the notorious perfectionist/procrastinator’s phantom new album, then in the meantime this might have to do.