TV review: Mock rock doc knocked

Paul Whitehouse, Philip Pope, Nigel Havers and David Cummings join Simon Day as Brian Pern to form rock band Thotch. Photograph: BBC
Paul Whitehouse, Philip Pope, Nigel Havers and David Cummings join Simon Day as Brian Pern to form rock band Thotch. Photograph: BBC

The Life of Rock with Brian Pern (BBC 4, Mondays)

Elitism is unattractive and it took on a particularly repellent form in 1970s’ rock music.

The problem was the genre’s growing domination by people who could actually play their instruments.

But the solution was simple: bring on punk rock whose delights included God Save The Queen by The Sex Pistols. Not a record to play to your more sophisticated friends, this witty offering implied (the UK being a constitutional monarchy) that Jim Callaghan’s government was fascist.

Well, we all have our musical prejudices and the glowing previews for A Life In Rock With Brian Pern made it clear where some writers’ sympathies lay.

The new spoof documentary series gives us musical history as seen through the eyes of Pern, the former front man for progressive-rock band Thotch. Pern (Simon Day) has also become a big cheese on the World Music scene.

That last bit is just in case anyone hasn’t cottoned on that we are taking a rise out of Peter Gabriel, a “haughty” man “who probably deserves all he gets” according to Mike Bradley in the Observer.

I saw Genesis in the Peter Gabriel era, a few years before Sunny Jim’s jack-booted death squads made the streets of Britain dangerous for boys with long hair. Gabriel’s dreadful pre-song monologues made you wince and Pern captured the spirit well – “Once upon a time there was a fox who was being chased by a pack of hounds along a dry river bed.”

It was accurate pastiche but, like the entire programme, not very funny. It doesn’t help when you are trying to send up – the entire rock music world here, not just prog – something that is so far out there already.

It can be done. This Is Spinal Tap was peerless and, as I’ve said before, I thought the South Bank Show had pulled off the trick with their documentary about The Smiths, before I was informed that Morrissey was a real person.

But The Life Of Rock suffered from the idea that if you get enough well-known people in on the joke, it automatically becomes a hoot.

The former public schoolboy and Thotch member, regretting his happy, conformist childhood, isn’t amusing just because he’s played by Paul Whitehouse. The same goes for psychotic manager Michael Kitchen, posh ex-Thotch man Nigel Havers and folk music aficionados Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer.

It reminded me of the pre-Rory Bremner days when it was considered good enough that impressionists could sound and look like famous folk, irrespective of whether the script was any great shakes.

There were a few nice touches though. Jools Holland was the pick of the bunch of music biz people who played themselves.

Sometimes a well-signalled joke works, as when Holland is asked by Pern to play the oldest piece of music ever written, found on the wall of a prehistoric cave, and it turns out to be the EastEnders theme.

At least composer Simon May can claim “prior art” if a plagiarism case ever surfaces.

And now and then real life tops art. A few weeks ago, on Desert Island Discs, Bob Harris told the story of how he was surrounded and threatened by a group of punks brandishing broken bottles, because of his alleged antipathy to their music.

It was beginning to look like curtains for the quietly spoken one. However, members of the road crew with Procol Harum (a group as far removed from punk as you could hope for) moved in to save the day. Now that is funny.