“Hello Charles. It’s lovely to meet you.”
The two stars of Brian and Charles may seem vaguely familiar to anyone with a passing interest in British comedy. David Earl has played a variation on the Brian character in a few things over the years, most recently in Ricky Gervais’s Netflix show Afterlife. Originally Earl created Brian (full name Brian Gittins) for his stand up routine years ago. This eventually led to a stage show with Charles Hayward, where Hayward played the his robot sidekick; the original Charles Petrescu. Charles’ voice was (and still is) provided by producer Rupert Majendie off-screen, using some voice simulator software. The stage show had more of an adult vibe than Brian and Charles – seen in this clip where Charles and Paddy Considine re-enact a scene from Considine’s bleak 2004 thriller, Dead Man Shoes.
Eventually the stage show developed into a 2017 short film, which generated quite a bit of buzz. Following that, Film 4 and The BFI commissioned a feature length version of the short. The characters in the film really only share their names and appearances with their stage show counterparts. Brian is still a weird loner, but the crude jokes from Brian in Earl’s stage work or the Brian from Afterlife are replaced with a more gentle and melancholic rumination of loneliness and otherness.
The film follows Earl’s Brian, a lonely hermit living in a ramshackle cottage in rural Wales with a penchant for useless, and often disastrous, inventions. Chancing upon a mannequin’s head in a pile of fly-tipped rubbish, a lonely Brian decides to build himself a robot friend. The next day, the eponymous Charles Petrescu is born. From there, the film follows the pair’s odd-couple hijinks, from it’s ups (the pair dancing in the kitchen while boiling cabbages) to the lows (Charles’ “teenage” phase). On Brian’s occasional trips into the local, sleepy Welsh village, he starts to become close with the sheltered Hazel (Louise Brealey) while trying not to reveal Charles’ existence to the wider town.
The shares some DNA with Jake Schreier’s underrated lo-fi science fiction robot film, Robot and Frank, although while that was an American take on the subject of robot companionship – Brian and Charles is distinctly British. A barely-heard and never seen documentary crew follow him throughout, allowing Brian the opportunity to speak directly to the audience. This awkward-mockumentary style was perfected by shows like The Office and along with the film’s focus on the rural landscape made me think of the fantastic BBC sitcom, This Country. And weird though it sounds, I even thought of Johnathan Glazer’s Under The Skin in the film’s grey, overcast tones and lonely, isolated setting (helped in no small part to Brian and Charles being filmed mid COVID-19 lockdown).
The film has that wonderful, uniquely British ‘quirkiness’ about it – although that may not be for everyone, especially non-Brits. But it’s such a brilliantly British thing that the funniest scenes in the film are those born out of Brian’s terrible circumstances. Humour out of sadness and tragedy is British tradition. The film is ultimately heartwarming and uplifting though.
There will be something familiar in Brian’s loneliness to anyone who has ever felt like an outsider or struggled with feeling isolated. He life is sometimes ridiculous but he never stops feeling real. And Brian’s own struggle to let go of his best friend/surrogate-son Charles, to allow him to live his own life, will surely strike a chord with audiences too.
The films deliberately lo-fi, sci-fi trappings help disguise what I imagine was pretty miniscule budget. Director Jim Archer does a fantastic job giving the film a suitably documentary feel but it’s not all handheld cameras and talking heads. There are great shots of the Welsh landscape that really encapsulate the film’s themes bleaker themes of loneliness and isolation. That’s not to say the film is depressing though, Brian rails against the sadness all around him and the script (by Earl and Hayward) is very funny and surprisingly charming, considering the character’s stand-up origins. The emotional beats are never sacrificed for a joke and the jokes themselves nearly all land.
Brian and Charles is a wonderful little film. It’s sad and hilarious, often at the same time, and is full of lots of wonderful ideas and is so uniquely British. The general story of the film may not be unique, and the antagonists are fairly cookie-cutter but none of this really matters. The film is a showcase for its two stars; Brian and his friend, Charles and their relationship, with all the ups and downs that entails. It’s quirky and heartwarming and will ultimately leave you with a big smile on your face. Try and find it at a local cinema, it’s a must watch.
Reviewed by Tom