Brian and Charles (2022)
Director: Jim Archer
Screenwriters: David Earl, Chris Hayward
Starring: David Earl, Chris Hayward, Louise Brealey, Jamie Michie, Nina Sosanya, Lynn Hunter, Lowri Izzard, Mari Izzard, Cara Chase
How do you sell something like Brian and Charles to potential audiences? It’s an interesting challenge, but maybe if you took the inventive wackiness of ‘Wallace and Gromit’ and mixed it in with the naturalistic awkwardness of Bill Forsyth comedies like Gregory’s Girl you’d probably be on the right track. A few years ago, actor and comedian David Earl, in character as Brian Gittins (who you may know from Ricky Gervais’ Netflix sitcom ‘Afterlife’) began performing with Charles, a “robot” played by Chris Hayward wearing a box with a mannequin head perched atop. Together they made a short film directed by Jim Archer, and before long the big time was calling.
At a spry 90 minutes, Brian and Charles is a simply delightful absurdist comedy – again from Archer, Earl and Hayward – which follows Brian, a lonely inventor of things that most people would find useless who, upon finding himself at a particularly low point, makes a robot friend. The AI mind of the robot made from a washing machine, a shop dummy and assorted scraps, who calls himself Charles Petrescu, quickly develops a love for cabbages and goes through an accelerated growth spurt, putting his relationship with Brian in conflict and himself in jeopardy from the local hard man Eddie and his horrible teenage daughters. Will Brian be able to keep his friend safe and out of harm’s way? Will he ever form a meaningful connection with another human being? Will Charles get to go on the adventure to Hawaii that he craves?
Brian is endearing to us in a sad clown sort of way from the very beginning. With no evidence of him having family or friends, his solution to experiencing daily melancholy is to tell himself “Come on Brian, time to give yourself a kick up the bottom!” before getting stuck into his latest project.
Brian is that peculiar brand of British inventor that you only really see in old kids’ animation like ‘Rhubarb and Custard’, the kind of eccentric who can adjourn to his shed, bash at a few things through the night and miraculously emerge with whatever the story requires in that moment. Brian’s inventions include the pinecone bag (a surprisingly sought-after accessory among the locals), trawler net shoes (they catch things on shopping trips), a flying cuckoo clock (prone to bursting into flames), and an ingenious tool for fighting back against physically imposing bullies (no spoilers).
Charles’ mind and personality develops rapidly from that of a loyal dog who jumps around with excitement whenever his owner comes home to a stroppy teenager who won’t do anything he’s told, and then to a curious young adult needing to find himself through life experiences.
The absurdly sophisticated artificial intelligence powering Charles’ personality and thoughts is at odds with his physical shell, the basic design of which hasn’t really changed since the days of Earl and Hayward doing the characters as a stand-up routine, except perhaps for upgrading to a sturdier box and (you’d hope) investing in a new cardigan to stretch over it.
The North Welsh countryside scenery does look idyllic, prompting Charles to ask a question that wouldn’t be out of place in a philosophy lecture – “How far does the outside go?” – but it also makes it clear why you’d need to take up something at least as time-consuming as inventing to keep yourself busy living somewhere with absolutely nothing to do. Brian lives outside the kind of village that has a single shop, five houses and about twice as many people, and everyone knows everyone and their business, making him particularly paranoid that unsavoury types will find out about Charles and take him away.
Brian and Charles is also a pretty melancholic film about a seriously lonely man in desperate need of a real friend, and as a result of a Charles tantrum, Brian finally plucks up the courage to ask out long-time crush Hazel (Louise Brealey). Brian and Hazel’s adorably awkward meet-cute in the street progresses to tentative dating (going for a walk, because what else are you going to do around these parts?) and eventually putting their heads together to help his robot bestie in the film’s final stretch.
It’s the film’s last act that you could perhaps judge more harshly then the rest of it, Brian and Charles seemingly going for a big ending on a micro-budget and a little catharsis aside, it all being a little underwhelming. That said, all is forgiven with a pitch-perfect epilogue that wraps everything up nicely.
Brian and Charles is either the funniest film of 2022 or a completely and utterly baffling faux-mockumentary, and it depends largely on how weird your sense of humour is. If you like deadpan delivery and surreal asides, you’ll have a great time, and will get a really moving and bittersweet story of a dreamer making himself a robot dog/friend/son as a bonus. The campaign for a follow-up short or even a full sequel documenting Charles’ further adventures begins now.