Interview: Bob Pipe, James Wren & Phil Whelans
You’d have to have been living under a rock these last few months not to notice us banging on about a brilliant new web series called The Day They Came To Suck Out Our Brains.
Jam-packed with TVO regulars, the show is the brainchild of Bob Pipe, and as the show comes to the end of its first run, TVO spoke to Bob and co-writers James Wren and Phil Whelans for the scoop on …Brains.
They came from outer space. Ok, not really. They live in London, but outer space sounds more exciting. Their mission: to suck out our brains. Again, this may be a lie. They’re more interested in stimulating our limbic systems within said organs to make us laugh.
When Forgery Club head honcho Bob Pipe got the call to create his own web-series, he turned to two regular collaborators – Hen & Chickens guru James Wren and improv legend Phil Whelans – to help develop it. The trio are jacks of all comedic trades and masters of several, and the resulting series became The Day They Came To Suck Out Our Brains, which premiered exclusively on YouTube earlier this year.
The cast list for …Brains reads like a who’s who of alternative comedy, with Richard Glover, Colin Hoult, Waen Shepherd, Alex Kirk, Stephen Evans, Gareth Tunley, Richard Sandling, Neil Cole, Antony Elvin and Will Summers all furthering the TVO connections. Phil Whelans is also on hand as recurring scientist Professor Langhorne, who pops up to offer invaluable advice on avoiding brain sucking with his esteemed colleague Dr Von Busey (Glover). Alex Kirk plays the hapless Prime Minister with no clue how to handle the crisis, which sees everyone from Army heroes to spaced out teenagers to simple Northern Folk facing the wrath of the alien invaders. It’s all gloriously silly, and insanely addictive.
“To be fair,” Phil Whelans explains, when asked where it all began, “it was all Bob Pipe’s idea. But if it’s successful, then I’ve always wanted to do it. If not, then I thought it was a terrible idea. This concept is called ‘Schrodinger’s Answer’ – the theoretical concept that, in a lead-lined box with a decaying radioactive particle, my answer to this question exists in two distinct states at the same time.”
“Bob is a go-to guy for filmed comedy,” he adds on a more serious note. “For people who are used to turning up at a venue with a bag of props and just walking on stage, filming stuff can be a bit daunting, but Bob knows how to make it happen.”
…Brains has been gestating in Bob Pipe’s mind for many years, with an early version of it forming Bob’s end of year project in his Media Studies HND back in 1999. “We only had a shitty S-Video camera, video deck editing and no proper actors at our disposal,” Bob remembers. “I knew I was limited at what I could make, so I decided to make a B-Movie! I tried to remake it when I was the In-House Director for [now defunct website] ComedyBox, but I never got round to it. Me and a friend tried to pitch it to Channel 4’s Comedy Blap initiative a few years ago but it never got picked up. But I’ve never given up on the idea, so I pitched it again to Channel Flip when I heard about The Multiverse, who loved it. The rest is history. Or perhaps, the future?”
The Multiverse is amongst the latest new arrivals signifying YouTube’s development from the home of cat videos and people falling over, into a portal to high end, glossy entertainment. Devoted to all things geek-like, the channel was created by Shine offshoot Channel Flip, and is fronted by Life’s Too Short star Warwick Davis. The actor, until recently best known for his starring role in Willow, has been developing a more comedic persona of late, and was so impressed with Bob’s outlines that he appears in the show himself.
“That was a complete shock,” explains Pipe. “The rest of the cast are all friends from the business, but he asked to be in it, which surprised me.”
Co-writer James Wren, puts this down to the concept. “We knew we had a good idea, and I think everyone could see that.” It helps that between them, Bob, James and Phil have solid connections across the alternative comedy scene. “Phil is a truly brilliant writer,” James continues, “and despite having the cold, chilling stare of a serial killer, is a lovely chap. Bobby and I have worked together a lot, and there is a real trust between us. He is the nicest man in the world. Fact. Plus”, he adds, “we all live near a really nice pub.”
Phil Whelans is equally full of praise for his cohorts. “They both make stuff happen,” he states. “I distinctly remember James saying to me that our crowd need to ‘grow your own’. We have to make stuff ourselves rather than wait to be commissioned, and he’s right. Alice Lowe and Steve Oram were both knocking out short films like there was no tomorrow before Sightseers happened. James has made full-length features off his own bat, and run successful venues and acted in plays and sketch-groups. I had an idea for quite an ambitious short film a few years back, and it would never have got made without Bob, James and people Bob introduced me to. The downside is we really do spend quite a lot of time in pubs.”
As well as public houses, the team have also spent a lot of time watching those 1950s b-movies which were the main inspiration for the project. The results are not so much all out parody as they are a faithful, and affectionate pastiche of films Bob Pipe is keen to defend. “Some of those classic Cold War era sci-fi films are really dreadful,” he suggests, “but they have a certain charm. I don’t know what it is about them. They’re quite eerie and leave you with an odd feeling. I’ve watched far too many of them now.”
“Bobby was very keen not to make it an all out parody,” adds James Wren. “We all have a love for those old films and wanted to stay faithful to them in lots of ways. The humour often comes from the sheer ‘Britishness’ of the characters, rather than at their expense.” Phil Whelans, a massive sci-fi fan, cites The Day The Earth Stood Still and Quatermass And The Pit as particular favourites. “I saw my character, Professor Langhorne, as a kind of stoic, save-the-day Quatermass type”, he states, before adding: “but then I acted it all wrong.”
The main difference, perhaps, to the films of old is that their slow pace has been replaced with the rapid editing of today – which, of course, helps the method of delivery to the audience. “There is more of a challenge to make everything count on the internet,” reveals Bob. “I noticed when I worked on ComedyBox that a lot of sketches from my favourite shows like Big Train and Monty Python were not as funny when split up on YouTube. Every sketch has to be of a high standard to get people to continue watching and coming back to it.”
“I think the narrative of the invasion itself works to link the episodes,” adds James. “Bringing back Glover and Whelans from time to time helps. The tone of it does change as the episodes move on, becoming a little more ‘epic’ as we head to the series finale.”
Viewed together as a whole, the series runs to just over half an hour – in effect, a backdoor pilot which can then be shopped to production companies and broadcasters as a taster of what’s possible. The team can see the potential in expanding this world into something bigger, as Phil Whelans notes: “It could have a stronger narrative thread in the resistance movement. Von Busey and Langhorne’s relationship; attempts to defeat the aliens; people who’ve had their brains sucked out starting their own ‘society’ with their own bars, comedy clubs, sporting events etc… It’d be fun.”
Given the initial success of the project, could we be looking at one of the first series commissions based on a YouTube hit, following in the footsteps of previous successes like The Midnight Beast? Or is the future of sketch comedy online, rather than the old boob-tube? “Our main goal,” explains Bob, “is for Brains to be a massive internet hit. I’d like all the children of the world to see our show and for it to bring about world peace. Failing that a 6x half hour sketch show on BBC2 would be nice.”
“It does feel like the times are a’changing,” notes James Wren. “The YouTube generation are growing up, and it can now be a place for TV to get projects from with the knowledge that something already has a following. The internet channel model, mixed with interactive TV… I really think this is the future.” Phil Whelans remains somewhat sceptical. “The future of sketch comedy is when Fosters fund a Mid Morning Matters style revival of Horne & Corden for viewing only on those screens in the headrests of people-carriers. Then truly, the TV and internet will become one.”
Failing that, one other possible future for Brains is on stage. With Bob’s regular Forgery Club nights combining silliness, songs, treats and what he calls ‘a good feeling in your tummy’, James’ reputation for putting on great shows at Hen & Chickens, the Udderbelly and beyond, and Phil’s improv troupe Grand Theft Impro pulling in the crowds, perhaps a full blown live event fending off the advancing alien menace is the way forward?
“That’s a brilliant idea,” Bob enthuses. “It could be like Jeff Wayne’s War Of The Worlds. We could even get a holographic Richard Glover! In fact, everyone will be holograms. It‘ll be a lot cheaper and I can cast people who are long dead, like 2Pac and Elvis as Langhorne and Van Busey.”
“Yeah, man,” adds Phil. “It could have a kind of Orson Welles’ style radio marketing campaign.”
“That sounds fun,” notes James. “We could do it on ice! Then again… maybe not.”