Imagine you’re a bit of a loser. You live on your own in a small Welsh village. You don’t have a job and you spend most of your time in your workshop, turning bric-a-brac into nothing particularly useful. And you’re lonely. Like Brian.
You’d probably conclude that life would be just that little bit better if you could make a friend. So that’s what Brian does. Out of bric-a-brac.
In Jim Archer’s debut feature, Brian and Charles, receiving its UK premiere and winning the Audience Favourite Award at the Sundance London festival, a month ahead of its UK theatrical release, Brian, played by David Earl, rummages around in a rubbish tip and takes home a mannequin’s head and a washing machine. And hey presto, he’s soon able to enjoy his TV dinners alongside a robot, who chooses his own name – Charles Petrescu.
Charles is voiced by Chris Hayward, who reprises the role, alongside Earl, from Archer’s 2017 short film of the same name. The success of the short was vital for getting the feature made, Archer notes. “You’ve got great characters and you’ve got proof of concept and how Charles looks and talks. If we’d just written a feature-film script without that, you can’t really pitch what Charles is without seeing it.” To prove the point, he said that the first outing of Brian and Charles was instrumental in raising the funding for the follow-up. “We just sent the short to Film 4 and they green-lit it straight away and gave us half the money and the BFI, we applied through the website like everyone does, and they gave us the other half.”
But while the short was an help in that sense, Archer and his two stars still had to work out how to develop it into a feature. “It was a case of ‘How to we extend the story without spreading it too thin and in the end, we didn’t really extend the story at all. We just started again with the same characters.”
The feature – as it turns out – is a prequel, of sorts, to the short, which is about strains on the relationship between Brian and Charles, some two years after it began. This is our chance to find out how Earl – best known for his base, yet pitiful characters in the Ricky Gervais sitcoms Derek and After Life – found meaning in his life by literally making a friend and learning to share his life with someone.
The creatives behind Brian and Charles came together through connections in the comedy world. Archer had been making short films with comedians and was friends with a lot of comics on the circuit. “Everyone knows everyone in the UK comedy scene. It’s insular and small.” He already knew Hayward and producer Rupert Majendie, but it was through the short film that he first met Earl.
With Earl having worked with Ricky Gervais on a number of occasions, the mockumentary style was clearly familiar to him, but I suggested to Archer that it wasn’t perhaps necessary on this occasion. “Oh, I think it is necessary,” he disagreed with an air of surprise. “Especially in those first ten minutes, the way Brian speaks to the camera – and you can see all the wholes in what he’s saying – I think that’s the most important thing. You don’t believe what he’s saying and the presence of the camera there means he has to lie to us. The way he’s fighting with how he’s perceived – I think that’s a really important part of it.”
One of the most powerful elements of film is the way it can service more than one purpose at the same time – both entertaining, while delivering a useful message – and despite it being an often surreal and anarchic fantasy, that is evident with Brian and Charles. “The primary reason we made it is because it’s fun and we think it’s funny and those characters make us laugh. But there’s definitely a deeper message about isolation and friendship and I think you need that. And I want to make people cry as much as laugh.”
Sundance London screens select films from the original programme of the Sundance Film Festival in Utah, earlier in the year, and I wondered how much of a boost having his first feature being selected for such a prestigious event had been to his career. Had acceptance at Sundance increased his influence in the industry? “It certainly helped me get my foot in the door elsewhere, with writing projects and commissions.” But when I suggested that his TV career was going well too, with the success of his current Channel 4 sitcom Big Boys, he recoiled slightly. “To me they’re the same career. I direct things. I’ll do TV or films.” That said, he accepted my argument that TV can be seen as a jobbing career while film is often more of a passion project. “TV is great, and I love it. And I’m so proud of Big Boys and the other stuff I’ve done. But film, for a director, is why we’re all doing it, I feel.”
NB: Article updated to take account of Brian and Charles winning the Sundance London Audience Favourite Award.