“Are you here for Brian Pern?” whispers a rather portly gentleman with salt-and-pepper hair and specs as I stand in the queue stretching out of the theatre and up Shaftesbury Avenue in London’s West End. “It’s like a secret society, this, isn’t it?” he says as I furtively nod my assent.
The feeling of it all being hush-hush isn’t just because there are no signs for the show outside the venue (it’s a Monday night off for the resident Michael Jackson musical Thriller Live) but also from the fact that Pern is one of comedy’s (and, in a way, music’s) best-kept secrets.
The spoof documentary series The Life Of Rock With Brian Pern originally passed relatively unnoticed when it first aired on BBC2 back in 2014, but its subsequent viral spread via YouTube and iPlayer has now earned it a keen following, along with a third series, which explains the packed house in the Lyric Theatre tonight.
The BBC shows trace the career of Pern (the creation of former Fast Show comic Simon Day and director Rhys Thomas), erstwhile lead singer of prog rock pioneers Thotch, in a series of wildly creative, not always successful incarnations loosely mirroring the prog-turned-pop-turned-world music career of our beloved Peter Gabriel.
Gabriel himself is a fan of the show, as he’s explained in past issues of this very publication, and the pre-show chatter is full of speculation that the erstwhile Slipperman himself might make a guest appearance. Thankfully, we’re distracted from peeking into the wings to star spot by the fact that right from the start, the show is utterly hilarious.
Formatted as part live performance, part This Is Your Life-style Q&A retrospective chat, Day brings out Pern’s pompous, slightly bitter egomania with consummate skill, helped in no small part by his Yoko Ono-ish wife and creative foil Pepita, who is played with mischievous glee – and quite some voice – by Lucy Montgomery.
The obscure references are gobbled up by an audience who you suspect have even more affection than Pern does for the music he mocks (“Regrets? Well, I once got very drunk with Robin Trower and tried to release all the animals from the Rainforest Café…”).
The only guest star (apart from his band, who are played as usual by the likes of Nigel Havers and Paul Whitehouse, among other telly regulars) is Level 42’s Mark King. The incongruity of that choice somehow only adds to the absurd fun.
And Gabriel himself? Just when we think that Pern has shaken off his nemesis, the big screen above the stage reveals our hero leaving the building, at which point he meets a mysterious stranger. Just in case it ends up on DVD, I won’t tell you the rest…