Brian and Charles — a debut feature from David Earl

Ricky Gervais regular David Earl has co-written and starred in the summer’s most anticipated comedy

Brian and Charles, David Earl’s first feature as a screenwriter and star, opened at this year’s Sundance Film Festival to rave notices.

Variety heralded the appealing comedy’s ability to trade in “bittersweet details of his humble daily life, adding a healthy dose of humorously deadpan Britishness into the mix to winning effect”. Screen International was equally keen on the film’s “warm-hearted approach and refusal to ridicule its sad-sack main character”; Slash Film welcomed “... an endlessly charming, funny, and delightfully lo-fi British comedy”.

The film has garnered even more praise since its limited release in the US last month, making Brian and Charles the most welcomed British comic debut since Shaun of the Dead.

Things were not always thus for Earl, who was once bizarrely heckled by a rowdy comedy club crowd as a “backpack wanker”.

Spoiler alert: that’s erroneous on all counts.

“Oh my God,” says Earl, with more than a small shake of his head. “I mean, I did the Reading Festival in 2013. And it was a big tent. 2,000 people there. It was absolutely round. One big breathing mob. And my son, who was only seven at the time and is probably now damaged for life, was in the audience. I came out and within two or three minutes someone told me to eff off from the back of the tent. And that gave everyone else the permission to start swearing and then to throw bottles at me. Weirdly, I thought this was normal and kept going. So that was hard.”

Earl, nonetheless, won over a few fans, notably Ricky Gervais, who has cast him in Extras, After Life, and Cemetery Junction. Working on After Life in 2019, Gervais complained about his too-amusing scene partner “... the David Earl scenes were impossible again. Record number of takes.”

“Without Ricky, I probably wouldn’t be doing this,” says Earl. “In the early days, I made this short film about a monster hunter who would go off and sit by lakes and look for serpents that never actually appeared. And Ricky saw that character and he really liked it and he and Stephen Merchant invited me up while they were working on The Office. So we’ve got to know one another and he’s always been supportive throughout all those stand-up gigs where I’ve struggled and where the audience have hated me and chucked things and booed me off — I’ve always had Ricky at my shoulder saying: ‘you’re doing all right’. It really helps me to shrug off bad gigs and think: ‘forget that then’. He’d never admit it or accept it but he really has given me the strength to keep going.”

Directed by Jim Archer and co-written by stars David Earl and Chris Hayward, Brian and Charles is based on the same trio’s 2017 short film. Before that, the characters existed on an internet show. Charles was born when Rupert Majendie, the producer of the new movie and of Earl’s “terrible internet show that no one heard” rang in using voice simulator software and pretended to be a robot.

“It was stupid but it really made me laugh,” says Earl. “So we decided to try it out at a festival.”

Comedy partner Hayward created a body — more on that anon — to go with Charles’ increasingly foolish inquiries.

“The first time I did my character, I was in my flat in Brighton and I put a camera on,” says Earl. “I don’t know why. I think I was making video diaries at the time. And I came up with a character that drove around festivals and took the sewage away. That was Brian. And I made a really rough short film about Brian and his wife. My mate in a wig played the wife. And then Ricky Gervais called me for the first time. And I was advised by lots of people — including the agent I got after the rough short film — to do stand-up. I always wanted to do stand-up but I was so incredibly nervous. And then I ended up doing it for years and years.”

The stand-up circuit — although not always a picnic — allowed Earl and Hayward to develop the characters of Brian, a lonely Welsh inventor, and Charles, the robot. Indeed, one of the film’s most rewarding sight gags is Charles’ appearance: The 2m-tall robot has a torso made out of a washing machine and an ill-fitting head from a mannequin.

“I love how terrible he looks,” says Earl. “I mean, there were definitely moments when Chris came on set and I’d wonder: are Film4 seeing this? Are they really funding what’s obviously just a bloke walking about in a box? But they were very hands-off. We said from the beginning that we were developing a film about a bloke in a cardboard box and they went for it. It felt like we were getting away with murder. But I do remember laughing in an uncontrollable manner when we first saw the big box body. Then we went off to a gig altogether in Brighton and we’d been on stage for 40 minutes and apparently, some lady in the back said: ‘you know, I think there’s a man in that box’.”

Despite Earl’s long experience playing Brian on stage, the former gardener and van driver considered getting in “a real actor” to take over for the movie.

“I started wondering: why am I doing it? Why don’t we get someone in who knows what they’re doing? A couple of months before production, I think I sent a text out to Rupert in our WhatsApp group to get someone else. I think as I’ve never had any trade, I’m always thinking: what am I doing here? Did I get it right or wrong? It was very stressful on set. I kept expecting someone to tell me: ‘you need to go home’.”

As the movie Brian and Charles opens, the former has invented the latter, an unlikely success in an otherwise poor run of pointless, malfunctioning, and occasionally dangerous innovations, including a flying cuckoo clock, a bag fashioned from pinecones, and a belt to carry eggs.

“I’ve always loved documentaries about people and their obsessions,” says Earl. “Like American Movie which is about a delivery guy who really wants to make a film. And Monster Road which is about a clay animator. And also a British documentary called Somewhere on the Estate from the early 1990s, where they weren’t really aware of the camera. Those films remind me of my own life. Most of what you do isn’t memorable but you keep pushing on. And I’ve always wanted to make something like a live-action Pixar film. But I never thought of films before because they’ve always been something out of the world. They’re Spielberg and Wallace and Gromit. They’re quite magical. And now we’ve done one.”

AI is seldom so appealing in movies. In the film, Brian and Charles’ relationship is generally parental, especially once Charles swiftly transitions from a curious childlike creation into his rebellious teenage phase, with demands to move to Honolulu.

There is an upside. Charles, who learns English from the dictionary, brings the solitary Brian out of his shell enough to attract a love interest (Sherlock’s Louise Brealey).

But Brian’s longtime nemesis Eddie (Jamie Michie), a local bully with equally unlikeable family members, may be about to jeopardise the new makeshift family unit.

The film fits with a new and welcome vogue for feel-good comedy. For all its very British quirks, it shares cheery DNA with Ted Lasso, the Apple comedy featuring Jason Sudeikis as a likeable American football coach transplanted to England to manage a struggling football team.

“I think it sort of fits with that pattern”, says Earl. “For a long time comedy was very focused on being cutting edge. And I guess it’s taking another route. Maybe because we really need it to.”

  • Brian and Charles opens July 7th
Tara Brady

Tara Brady

Tara Brady, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a writer and film critic