Rhys Thomas, writer, actor and creator of the fictional prog rock star Brian Pern, is struggling to remember the title of his favourite Yes song. Thomas and his co-writer, the face of Pern, ex-Fast Show actor Simon Day, are in the bar of the Saint George Hotel, a short stagger from the BBC’s central London HQ. Day can’t help; he’s more of a Paul Weller fan. But he’s amused by his partner’s frustration.
“Siberian!” shouts Thomas suddenly, as if a light bulb has just gone on in his head. “Siberian… carrot!”
Khatru? “Yeah, Siberian Khatru. But Rick Wakeman calls it Siberian Carrot because the rest of Yes were vegetarians.”
Thomas looks delighted. “Oh, I love that song.”
Rhys Thomas and Simon Day have achieved the impossible: they’ve turned the base metal of progressive rock into comedy gold. The Life Of Rock With Brian Pern has run for three BBC series, and is out now on DVD and Blu-ray.
Pern, the estranged lead singer of the make-believe 70s rock group Thotch (sample songtitles: Eggless Planet, Onion Divorce) is a wincingly accurate hybrid of every prog rock star in the Roger Dean-designed musical universe.
Pern isn’t the usual route-one rock star parody, hoovering up cocaine and tossing TV sets out of hotel windows.
No, he’s the deep-thinking version; still with all his brain cells, but at the mercy of his musical pretentions, his painful shyness – and his overbearing manager and domineering wife. Pern is the creation of writers who know and love their subject. And for many, that subject is Peter Gabriel. Or is it? Rhys Thomas insists there’s more to Brian Pern than that.
“I don’t want people to think that Brian is just Peter Gabriel. We need to set the record straight. It’s not.”
However, Gabriel was the catalyst. Rhys Thomas’ comedy career began with a job on Reeves and Mortimer’s spoof quiz show Shooting Stars, touring with The Fast Show in the 90s and appearing in numerous BBC comedies. In 2008 the Beeb asked him for ideas for their new comedy website.
“I’d been watching Peter Gabriel doing these video blogs and it was a direct parody of that,” Thomas admits, laughing.
The BBC were intrigued, but fully committed after Rhys asked Simon Day to play the character in a series of online sketches. Day was a comedy club veteran, had appeared on Vic Reeves’ Big Night Out and been a mainstay of The Fast Show.
Day also adored Peter Gabriel, and the roots of Pern can be traced back to a Fast Show live tour, where he and Thomas became obsessed by Gabriel’s album Up: “Simon bought it and played it and we kept listening to this one song over and over again…”
Day interrupts and sings a segment from No Way Out in a perfect Peter Gabriel-meets-Brian Pern voice: ‘Don’t l-e-e-a-v-e like this.’
It was Gabriel’s voice with its unique tics and inflections that inspired Pern’s halting, mid-Atlantic accent. “One of the reasons we were inspired by Peter was because he’s in the public eye,” says Thomas, excitedly. “Everyone knows who he is. He’s the one person who went from being an obscure prog star to a massive pop star. He’s inventive and funny and we love him.”
Gabriel, with his eco-consciousness and inquisitive mind (this is the man who made music with the Bonobo apes, remember), was the inspiration for such lofty Brian Pern proclamations as “I have always wanted to play live underwater to different types of fish,” and “There’s an ancient Chinese instrument called a bong flute. Legend has it that its sound would make tigers cry…”
But what Simon Day also brought to the character, besides a Gabriel-esque shaved head, was crushing social awkwardness: “Brian is scared of people,” Day explains.
In fact, Pern is any 70s rock star who’s been cocooned for a bit too long from the outside world. “There’s a bit of Eno in there,” suggests Thomas, “and David Gilmour”.
Ah yes, Gilmour. Pern may look like Peter Gabriel and have divorced his wife by Ceefax (acknowledging the popular myth of Phil Collins asking his wife for a divorce by fax), but his great British reserve is very David Gilmour.
Meanwhile, Pern’s relationship with his ex-Thotch bandmate Pat Quid (played by The Fast Show’s Paul Whitehouse) mirrors the enmity between Gilmour and Roger Waters.
Day and Thomas binged on music documentaries and biographies to help flesh out the character. Of great interest was the scene in Gilmour’s Remember That Night tour film/documentary, where he and Waters are booked into the same rehearsal studios. Their brief encounter in the studio car park is excruciating, and Pern and Quid recreate it perfectly.
“Are Pink Floyd prog rock?” asks Thomas, suddenly.
Yes, but they pretend not to be.
“I thought so.”
But moving on… So popular is The Life Of Rock… that Thomas and Day have rounded up several senior rock stars for guest appearances, among them Rick Wakeman, Roger Taylor and Gabriel himself. “Peter is brilliant. He loves it,” beams Thomas.
Not everyone said yes. “We asked Rod Stewart, he said no, but said he loved the show,” says Thomas. “We’ve asked Phil Collins a few times but he’s never got back to us. But his manager, Tony Smith, let us use a clip from an old interview with Phil because he thinks the show’s hilarious.”
In fact, one veteran rock group were such fans they even asked to be in it. There was just one problem. “They weren’t recognisable enough. Nobody would have known who they were,” whispers Day, who reveals the band’s name but asks us not to divulge it. Here are some clues, though: they’re British and they had several hits in the 60s before their singer left for a solo career.
“We need younger, hip bands,” sighs Thomas. “But modern artists don’t want to go there in case they look stupid. Adele said no… And Paloma Faith never got back to us.”
Thomas and Day are both big music fans and pop trivia buffs. “I started off with The Who and the Stones and Hendrix, and then punk, The Jam and house music,” explains the 53-year-old Day. Though you half expect him to add, “They really were marvellous times,” like his Fast Show spoof showbiz veteran Tommy Cockles.
Day’s a big Peter Gabriel fan, though. In his Ecstasy-taking days he sometimes hijacked post-rave chillout sessions by sticking on a bit of Gabriel and terrifying his loved-up friends. “But I was never into prog rock,” he admits. “It’s the thrashing keyboard thing I don’t like.”
Oddly, the 37-year-old Thomas can’t get enough of “that thrashing keyboard thing”, ever since Bob Mortimer and writer/stand-up David Baddiel introduced him to Genesis.
“The Lamb lies down… on B-r-o-a-d-w-a-y,” intones Day, chuckling.
“The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway is brilliant,” insists Thomas. “I loved it so much, I become obsessed by it. I get obsessed by one person or band and listen to everything they ever did. When The Beatles’ Anthology came out, I became obsessed by The Beatles. After Freddie Mercury died, it was Queen.”
Queen was Thomas’ specialist subject when he won Celebrity Mastermind in 2010. He also produced and directed the 2012 Freddie Mercury documentary The Great Pretender. There is, he admits, a touch of the stargazing, badger-saving Brian May in Brian Pern. Meanwhile, industry insiders will spot parallels between Pern’s autocratic manager John Farrow (wonderfully played by Michael Kitchen) and Queen’s handler Jim Beach, not least in the episode where Farrow details the ceaseless flow of Brian Pern/Thotch greatest hits/essential collections/best of the essential greatest hits collections.
In fact, Queen’s collaboration with ex-Free vocalist Paul Rodgers was the inspiration for Pern’s pushy American wife Astrid, played by Suranne Jones. Thomas was working on the 2007 DVD, Queen + Paul Rodgers: Return
Of The Champions when he met Rodgers’ other half.
“Paul was being interviewed on camera,” he explains, before jumping up to stand in front of us, tapping his chin with the back of his hand, “and she was going [in American accent] ‘Paul, chin, chin…’ and being really difficult. Brian and Roger [Taylor] were looking as if to say, ‘What the fuck’s going on here?’”
Brian Pern is a product of our times. In a way, his very existence was enabled by the rise of Sky Arts and BBC 4 – stations that dedicate an entire night’s schedule to concert films and ‘rockumentaries’ that would once have been considered too obscure.
“What was once unfashionable has come full circle,” believes Thomas. “And the people we’re parodying are the biggest bands in the world.”
So what’s the future for Brian? More live shows, for one. Pern made his debut appearance, a ‘charity concert for mollusc awareness’, at London’s Lyric Theatre in January.
“It was terrifying,” admits Day.
“I had to sing 10 songs, and after a bit I just wanted to sing in my normal voice… and we made no money.”
But there are now plans for a This Is Your Life-style touring show with co-star, Rhys’ wife Lucy Montgomery.
They’re also plotting one more special. Considering how topical the show has been, there’s only one place they can go next. “Brian will die, yes,” says Thomas, “and it’s about what happens after – the tribute concert, finding a new singer… But Brian will appear in his last interview in it. But there’s a twist in the tale.”
With the septuagenarian Rolling Stones still touring, and Queen doing the same with an ex-American Idol contestant, there’s always another real-life ‘twist in the tale’ to inspire their make-believe rock star.
Thank heavens, then, for Peter Gabriel. “He’s the only rock star who’s never done anything to be embarrassed about,” declares Thomas. “Even Bowie made some shitty albums. Peter’s never put a foot wrong.”
“He never did a Dancing In The Street, did he,” pipes up Day.
Gabriel also doesn’t mind the pair taking the piss out of him – although he did put his foot down recently. Thomas and Day asked Gabriel if he’d appear in a Comic Relief sketch, re-enacting his famous video for Don’t Give Up, in which he performed in a clinch with his duet partner Kate Bush. There was just one catch: instead of Bush, Gabriel would have to snuggle up to Brian Pern.
“We nearly had him,” insists the ever-exuberant Thomas.
“We nearly did.”
Day leans back, grins and shakes his head. “No we didn’t,” he laughs. “He said no – and quite rightly. Thank God.”
Brian Pern: The Complete Series 1-3 is available on DVD and Blu-ray now.
Brian Pern’s five best rock star cameos.
Wakeman’s mantra, “I played piano on that,” after mention of every pop hit of the 60s and 70s turns his real-life story as a session muso into the butt of a long-running joke. Watch out too for his rant against Thotch’s keyboard wizard, Tony Peblé – or should that be Tony Banks?
Queen’s mischievous drummer has fun with the band’s cerebral image, claiming to have built his drum kit out of a fireplace, and insisting Queen were always brainer than Thotch. He’s also happy to be captioned as his Duran Duran namesake. Brian May would never stand for any of this.
Spandau Ballet’s bassist has acting ‘previous’. But his best role yet is as Pern’s silver-haired nemesis, cuckolding Brian with his new wife Astrid, and offering him a Goodfellas pizza ‘cooked’ in a Corby trouser press.
Genesis’ singing drummer has yet to say yes, but allowed Pern’s creators to cheekily rework footage from his appearance with Led Zeppelin at Live Aid. Who knew Collins played the drum fill from In The Air Tonight in the middle of Stairway To Heaven?
Gabriel appears in the finale of all three series. He has a Segway stand-off with Brian, pays him a menacing visit in hospital and holds him at gunpoint in a brilliant pastiche of the closing scene from The Long Good Friday. “Many of the laughs are at my expense,” Gabriel said. “But it also had me laughing a lot.”