Jim Archer

Source: Universal

Jim Archer

“I thought the weird robot film would be the first that would go,” recalls UK director Jim Archer, when faced with the onslaught of the pandemic just as his directorial debut Brian And Charles, which is about a man who builds himself a robot friend, was about to go into production.

But after an eight-month delay production started in late 2020 in Snowdonia in Wales, backed by Film4 and the British Film Institute (BFI). Brian And Charles premiered at Sundance Film Festival in January and is now the closing-night film of the four-day Sundance: London. 

Filmed in the style of a mockumentary, Brian And Charles tells the story of a lone wolf of a man called Brian, who lives in a remote part of Wales, with an obsession for making hapless inventions. One, a robot named Charles, comes to life, complete with a love of eating cabbages and a desire to explore the world. A curious friendship then blooms. 

Character development

The genesis of the idea was a character created by David Earl, a frequent Ricky Gervais collaborator, who went on to co-write the film and to play Brian. Earl had been loosely experimenting with the idea since 2006, developing it into a radio show in 2013 with Rupert Majendie, who did the voice of Charles for radio. Majendie would go on to be a producer on the film. 

Chris Hayward heard the radio show and built a crude version of Charles for the stage. Hayward would later co-write the feature’s script and play Charles. 

In 2016, Earl, Majendie and Hayward approached Archer, who they all knew from the UK comedy scene, with the idea for a self-funded short film, also called Brian And Charles.   

The short caught the eye of Film4 and it became one of Ollie Madden’s first feature commissions as head of creative. BFI funding followed at the end of 2019. Bankside boarded as the sales agent, with Focus Features distributing in the US, and Universal Pictures internationally.

Wales shoot

Brian And Charles shot in just four weeks, owing to the expense of filming in such a remote location. “John [Palfery Smith], the line producer, wanted to do the shoot slightly closer to London, or to Cardiff, but it just wouldn’t have had the right feel,” Archer explains. ”It had to be deep in the Snowdonia valleys, or the [Scottish] Highlands. We couldn’t get crew that lived locally.

“The weather was pretty bad when we were doing night shoots, but because it’s documentary style you can get away with stuff being a little rougher.”

Brian and Charles

Source: Barney Tullett

‘Brian and Charles’

While mockumentary may not be an avante-garde form, for Archer, it was a chance to put a fresh spin on the style. “We did the short as a documentary, then when we started the feature, I thought we should go back to making narrative comedy,” he says. “But when we started writing it, we felt we were missing something. The way Brian talks to camera and is essentially lying to us in those first 10 minutes – he’s telling us one thing but we know he’s saying something else – we can only get that in the documentary format.

“I thought there was something to be done in mockumentary, to make mockumentaries similar to modern docs, making them arty, ambient and atmospheric – not Spinal Tap, not The Office, but the new version of that.”

Archer hails from East Anglia, with a background in TV comedy, with credits including BBC series The Young Offenders. The experience of his first feature, however, has changed his focus. “Now, we want to just do films,” says Archer of himself, Earl and Hayward. “We all much prefer this world. I’ve just done a TV show [Channel 4’s Big Boys], I loved that show and will do more of that, but I think there’s a freedom you get with film.”

Archer is now hungry for more UK comedies to shoot as features, as opposed to series.

“I want there to be a revival of British comedy films,” he says. ”All My Friends Hate Me is coming out, which my friends Tom Palmer and Tom Stourton have written. There always seems to be pockets of it, and then there’s nothing. I think the comedy industry is very TV focused. Everyone doing a stand-up show wants to do a series. It would be nice for us to go back to the Hot Fuzzes and the Shauns Of The Dead of the world.”