Brian Pern - A life in rock - The Genesis TV comedy. Reviewed by Penny Rose.

Once in every lifetime comes a TV sitcom that you feel was made expressly for you. For me, as for so many of my generation that sitcom was The Young Ones. Then in December 2014 it happened again when “Brian Pern - A Life In Rock” was shown on BBC 2. This highly enjoyable mockumentary was aimed at viewers with a keen sense of the ridiculous and a working knowledge of Genesis although familiarity with BBC music documentaries in general helped greatly.

In a splendidly silly blend of fact and fan-fiction, Simon Day plays the pompous, slightly loony ageing rock star, Brian Pern, a character based on Peter Gabriel in Full Moon Update flow. His former bandmates from the legendary prog group Thotch include Paul Whitehouse as guitarist Pat Quid, who combines Mike Rutherford’s privileged outlook with Steve Hackett’s youthful fashion sense, and Nigel Havers as suave, cheerful, sex mad keyboardist Tony Pebble. This is a masterstroke since even by the standards of Genesis, a band noted for their restraint as regards groupies, the gruff Tony Banks is the most unlikely lothario imaginable.

For a low budget minority interest comedy, the cast list is stellar, with Martin Freeman as himself playing a young Simon Day as Brian Pern. Jack Whitehall as himself playing a young Nigel Havers as Tony Pebble. Roger Moore as himself as the narrator of Brian’s ill-fated concept album; Kathy Burke playing herself as the unsympathetic director of the Thotch jukebox musical; and Michael Kitchen as Thotch’s sweary manager. Then there is the array of big name guest stars and talking heads in marked contrast to the four rather obscure pundits featured in the genuine documentary: Genesis - Together & Apart, everyone here is a well known musician or presenter: Roger Taylor, Rick Parfitt, Rick Wakeman, Billy Bragg, Tony Blackburn and Tim Rice to name but a few. They are identified by captions which range from correct through just slightly wrong (Roy Wood from Wizzzard with three z’s) to gloriously absurd (gems include kids’ TV presenter Andi Peters - complete with his puppet sidekick Ed the Duck - being described as world musician Youssou N’Dour ). Even the least famous participant, Guardian music critic Alexis Petridis, is recognisable enough to be worth mis-labeling as the Daily Mail gossip columnist Baz Bamigboye.

The captions demonstrate the programme’s greatest strength: while appearing to be wholly accurate it slyly alters various details for maximum comic effect. There’s a similarly misleading mixture of truth and fantasy in the events depicted. In real life, Peter Gabriel was once locked out of the theatre by an over zealous security guard in the middle of his own concert, but unlike Brian Pern he didn’t finally arrive back on stage to find his celebrity fans Paul Young and Mark King entertaining his audience with a medley of their own hits, thus completely derailing his high brow musical version of The Day Of The Triffids.

With storylines featuring musicians’ involvement in jukebox musicals, charity records, Christmas singles and tax avoidance schemes, “Brian Pern” is certainly topical. It even dares to mention the toxic subject of Operation Yewtree where Brian is suddenly arrested for an unspecified crime. The reaction to this news, with a terrified Tony Pebble wailing about witch hunts and Thotch’s manager clearly fearing the worst for his clients’ careers makes for a scene which the BBC was brave to broadcast, especially given that one participant in the series, the DJ Paul Gambaccini was actually arrested in connection with Operation Yewtree although he was released without charge. In the unreal world on screen the disaster is averted when Brian is charged with harbouring a notorious foreign criminal whom he employed as the worlds’ only bone flute player. This is the situation that Peter Gabriel himself might get into: in fact it sounds much more believable than Peter and his band being arrested at gunpoint as bank-robbing German terrorists and forced to prove their innocence by giving the police an impromptu acapella performance But that scenario is too preposterous for “Brian Pern” and could only have happened in real life.
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Bob The Builder or Peter The Builder?!

There are plenty of gags for anybody acquainted with British popular culture over the past few decades including the “Michael Parkinson Chatty Man” TV show, the Paul Hardcastle dance remix of “In Dulci Jubilo” and several jokes about Wombles star Mike Batt. Christmas records may be an easy target but the spoofs here hit one bullseye after another peaking with the ludicrously catchy “Christmas In My Car” by Pat and the Patios. Even where a joke is is too predictable as in the scene where Brian rips Rolf Harris’ entry out of his visitor’s book, it instantly gets back on comic track with the books’ next entry revealed as a childish drawing of a willy signed by Kasabian.

But it is the specific allusions to Genesis and Gabriel that make it particularly watchable for their fans. These range from visual references like Brian’s face paint and the orange tabards worn by his band to the insult hurled at him by a disgruntled fan: “I bought all your bass player’s shit solo albums!” (which might annoy the real Tony Levin). Towards the end there is a rather touching scene when Brian, recovering in hospital after a heart attack induced by the stress of a huge tax bill, is visited by his old band mates from Thotch who reveal that they have paid off his debt. Any Genesis fan will spot this nod to the 1982 reunion concert, even if no one else does. Recent events involving the band have also influenced the script: Brian is interviewed by Alex Jones on The One Show only to be interrupted by Gyles Brandreth’s report on the hidden benefits of starch, while the comment that the Thotch musical “isn’t about the fans it’s about enticing in new audiences” is lifted straight from a review of R-Kive. And then there is guitarist Pat Quid’s complaint that the glossy programme for the musical doesn’t give all the band members equal coverage…

Perhaps the person who deserves most credit is Peter Gabriel himself. Not only did he unintentionally provide the inspiration but he had the grace to endorse a programme he could have aborted. Had he taken legal action, the BBC would surely have shelved the programme rather than risk license payer’s money defending a comedy made for a minority as un-trendy as middle aged white male Genesis fans. Instead, Peter appeared as Brian’s nemesis in a memorable cameo. His participation doubtless exasperated his more serious minded fans who must by now be wondering if there is any project he won’t get involved with in order to delay the next album but it was a great opportunity to prove that he isn’t really Brian Pern, a humourless and self-important man who would be outraged to learn that he had inspired the comedy “Peter Gabriel - A Life In Rock” (now there’s a storyline for the next series!). Despite all its mockery, “Brian Pern” is a fittingly unique, eccentric and very funny tribute to a star who for over forty years has been unique, eccentric and often very funny indeed.