Features | Written by Sol Harris 21/10/2022

Chris Hayward | BRIAN AND CHARLES

Brian and Charles is a funny, heartwarming tale of a bumbling inventor who builds himself a friend. We loved it and, with the home-media release of the film, we were able to sit down with Chris Hayward (co-writer of the film and Charles, himself) for a chat about bringing these beloved characters to the big screen.

STARBURST: While David Earl’s character of Brian Gittins is something of a cult comedy icon at this point, having hosted numerous stage shows in the comedy scene, appeared in various Ricky Gervais projects and released various hit podcasts, the origins of Chris Hayward’s character, Charles Petrescu, the film’s cabbage-loving robot, are a lot harder to pin down.

Chris Hayward: I was trying to do bits of stand up so I met David through the comedy scene. He started doing a low-fi radio show on the internet where he was being Brian Gittins and it was really funny. We both knew Rupert Majendie (who’s our producer on Brian and Charles) and he would call into David’s show but he would use this voice software to type out what he wanted to say and that became the voice of Charles.

Their conversations together were really funny, so we all got talking and I had an idea of how we could do it live, where I’d be dressed in a costume, on stage with David, and then Rupert would be sat at the back of the comedy club, typing away and doing Charles’ voice. So that’s how it began, really. For two or three years we did these live gigs which were quite mad as you can imagine, but they were a lot of fun and we were trying to work out what to do with them. At one point we were trying to do a live game show – we were trying to work out what the next Shooting Stars could be – but we never worked that out. It was just always mayhem on stage and people were baffled.

The main reason that Brian and Charles made such a splash with its release was that so many people saw and loved the 2017 short film that it was based on. How did that come about?

We’d do Brian and Charles live on stage for a few years and it wasn’t really going anywhere. We had a small group of fans – David certainly did as Brian Gittins. He had a hardcore group of fans. So we got Jim Archer involved, who's the director. We knew Jim, again, through the comedy scene and through friends. So we all got together, we went away for a weekend in Wales, shot the short film and then that led to us getting commissioned for the film. That sounds like it happened over a few weeks, but from the start of the comedy gigs to making the film, the process took at least 10 years.

We only really ever made it for fun initially. We hadn’t really put anything of Brian and Charles on YouTube and we thought, “Well, they are quite funny together, but it’s only people who come to the gigs who’ve seen them”, so we wanted to put something online. We’d already done a little sketch with them but we wanted to make something with a bit more substance – but we didn’t really think anything of it more than that: just putting something on there and then moving onto the next thing, whatever that was.

FilmFour pretty quickly got in touch with us and said, “Do you think this could work as a feature?” And that led to us talking with them and developing it from there.

 

 

The route of turning a short film into a feature is a well-trodden one. How did everyone working on Brian and Charles approach the film in order to ensure they didn’t lose what worked the first time around?

I think if people can do it, I think making a short film is the best thing you can do as a proof of concept because, whether a producer or commissioners, rather than having to read – you know everyone’s making PDFs and treatments of their ideas that they send in. Rather than having to slog through all that, a producer – whoever – can just watch a short film and instantly get if they like it or not. It’s easier to show your ideas when you can film them and show them. Like Brian and Charles, if we’d just sent that in as a script, there’s no way it would have got made. You have to get the tone across and see the dynamic. You really had to see them on screen.

What helped was we knew the characters going in there. We knew them really well having performed them live for so long. We had an advantage there, going into the film knowing what our lead characters are, because obviously that's the main issue: “What are these characters?” So we had a headstart in that way and, from there, we knew obviously we wanted to keep it as a comedy. But then it was just trying to work out a story, work something out that would keep people’s attention, that wouldn’t be too weird that people turned off - that was a conversation we had a lot of times. I’d often be thinking let’s make this really weird and they’d think people probably won’t like it if it’s too weird.

We had a conversation at first about whether to keep the mockumentary feel or whether to lose that and go with a narrative and we kind of felt like we were losing a bit of the comedy if we lost the mockumentary feel, just because when David as Brian looked at the camera, it was always funny, and saying little asides to the camera was funny. We tried to keep the tone of the short. We tried to keep the lonely aspect of Brian. We tried to remain true to that as much as we could.

In terms of thinking, “What would this look like in a film?” and “Are people going to believe in the character?”... Because even in the short, I think some of the comments were, “You can see it’s a guy’s legs”. They wanted more of a functioning, actual robot but we quite liked that cheeky appeal that it probably was a guy in a suit. It was getting the audience to believe it was a real robot, so that was really tricky but I think there’s something with practical effects that you can relate to more than CGI.

Films that I really love – even if they’re a bit shonky, if they’re practical, I kind of buy it more. It’s real and believable, whereas CGI sometimes feels a bit cold. That gives it a charm sometimes. I mean Charles is a puppet, basically. He’s like a box and I’ve got a mannequin head that I’m operating inside. I just thought, “You can have a Muppets film and they’re obviously puppets but you believe those characters and you invest in it”. C3PO is a guy in a suit, isn’t it? But you buy into the fact that it’s an android, so I was just crossing my fingers and hoping it’d all work out.

Charles is a wonderfully designed robot. Inherently funny, charming and unique in equal measure – all just to look at him. Where did the design come from and what was the process of taking that into a feature film?

I designed the one that we used for the comedy clubs and I just had it in my mind because he sounded like a professor, so I had a “professor-y” look in my mind. I’ve always been a big fan of sci-fi, so I think a lot of that fed into my brain. When I was a kid, there was a terrible, 1980s sci-fi film called Eliminators and there’s a guy in it called Mandroid who’s got like an eye – he’s kind of like The Terminator, but he’s half man, half machine and it was so bad, but I wonder if that fed into my subconscious as a kid and Charles has come out of that in a way. He’s a low-fi construction.

We handed that over to our production department on the film and they pretty much copied it – it’s pretty much the same thing. It’s a box, a mannequin head – we just had to get some new heads, a new box and some new clothes. Other than that, the film version is pretty much made the same way that we did the comedy version. We used them all in the film and they all got quite battered. I’ve had some of them returned to me and the original just looks like he’s been crushed in a crushing machine. And we have, I think, about four heads in total – all in different states of… they all need repairing.

Part of the appeal of Charles is the deadpan delivery of his automated voice software. What are the logistics of working with that as an actor or a comedian?

We had all the lines from the script pre-recorded on a laptop and when we were indoors, Rupert could trigger those lines. At the same time, if we had time, we’d try to do an improvised version of that or try some new lines of dialogue where Rupert could type. When we were outdoors, we often couldn’t use the laptop, so I had to either remember that I say the dialogue that we had written or, again, we’d improvise scenes and I’d be improvising with David and we’d dub over those lines in post. And what was really good was that in post, we could alter whatever Charles said at any point, so even up until the very final picture lock, we could still change Charles’ dialogue. That gave us a lot of flexibility and really helped us change the tone of entire scenes sometimes. It’s a good way to work.

Is this the last we’ve seen of Brian and Charles?

Considering the state of his heads currently… Yes.

But hopefully, we’re talking about trying to bring them back maybe. In what capacity that’ll be, I don’t know. We talked… is there a TV show in there? The sequel? It’s a world that we’d like to revisit and we’re always talking about different ideas that we could come up with. And, certainly for Brian, coming up with inventions was the funnest part of writing that script and different things he can do and you could just have endless fun with that. So stay tuned – is that what they say? Stay tuned.

Brian and Charles is out on DVD & Blu-ray October 24th and is available now to rent or own on digital