Friday 29 July 2022

My robot friend: "Brian and Charles"

Brian and Charles
 is a very British contraption. Actors David Earl and Chris Heyward have expanded a 2017 short into a feature-length study of one Brian Gittins (a pre-existing character in the Earl repertoire, and a fixture of the stand-up circuit), here an eccentric inventor who lives by himself in a small Welsh hilltown, where he eats a lot of cabbage. (Cabbages will play an unusually large role in the action; their aftereffects might also explain why Brian lives alone as he does.) The early scenes in Jim Archer's film form a brisk sketch of a scrappy sort of life, and describe a process of making-do and mending that may well resonate with audiences in our post-austerity, mid-cost of living crisis moment: Brian's almost entirely useless inventions include an egg belt ("a belt for eggs") and trawler nets for shoes. From a discarded mannequin head and a hollowed-out washing machine, Brian eventually fashions a seven-foot robot that bears some resemblance to the late TV scientist Heinz Wolff; initially a non-starter, this towering creation is brought to life one thundery night - an apparent nod to Mary Shelley - and insists on taking the name Charles Petrescu. Knocked together as Charles is, he's the kind of marvel a movie needs: clearly analogue - something a real-life Brian has actually built out of actual bric-a-brac - while retaining some sort of mystery as to how he's operated. There could be hydraulics involved; equally, it could be a man with big shoulders hidden under a sheet. (Hayward is credited as playing Charles, though he may just be responsible for the robot's perfectly plummy voice: that of a semi-retired actor flogging commemorative coins on afternoon television.) Either way, Charles comes alive - as a character, a companion, a sight gag, a secret.

It is, I think, another of our film industry's Covid creations: small and manageable, easily knocked up in a shed, or Brian's "invention pantry". Even at its busiest, it presents us with no more than three characters in a room, and one of those is typically a robot. Earl broke through in sitcom - he was Derek's carehome bully, the village perv in After Life - and Brian and Charles feels like an actor's attempt to escape Ricky Gervais's shadow and try something more endearing. Endearing this is - a 21st century update of the Children's Film Foundation fave Egghead's Robot - while also a little sitcom-adjacent. Mockumentary framing makes the camera a co-conspirator in the efforts to conceal Charles from the outside world, and you can imagine a half-hour spin-off taking up Brian's nervy flirtation with a stay-at-home neighbour (Louise Brealey) and his conflicts with the village troublemakers. Yet the tone is gentler than Earl's previous work. It feels like a set-up when a TV announcer is heard introducing Gary Barlow; Gervais would doubtless have inserted something abrasive, but Archer cuts away on Brian's "Ooh, I like him". I wonder whether the film isn't too gentle (and too localised) to really sock home its wider points about intolerance, but it snuck up on me nonetheless. It has lovely cutaways (to a book titled The Hammer Annual, paired pyjamas on a washing line, sheep on a hillside) and images that get funnier the longer they stay in the mind, such as Charles's tendency to jig on the spot, like a toddler who needs the toilet. (The robot helpmates he most closely resembles aren't the gleaming CG creations of Pixar and co., but Silent Running's lived-in, oddly childlike droids.) Spin-offs and other such career boosts may follow, but Brian and Charles operates pretty well as a standalone item: at the very least, it should plaster a big grin across your face for the duration, and it may even leave you in stitches or tears.

Brian and Charles is now playing in selected cinemas.

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