Brian and Roger: How a podcast about two sad, divorced men turned into a ‘Highly Offensive’ play

When we decided to turn our funny voice messages into a podcast, we had no idea if anybody would listen or care, writes Dan Skinner. Thankfully, they did

Monday 01 November 2021 08:23 GMT
<p>Dan Skinner and Simon Lipkin in Menier Chocolate Factory’s ‘Brian & Roger: A Highly Offensive Play’ </p>

Dan Skinner and Simon Lipkin in Menier Chocolate Factory’s ‘Brian & Roger: A Highly Offensive Play’

It began with our podcast. Brian and Roger is about two friends who met at a support group for recently divorced men. Roger was attending because he was genuinely grieving the loss of his marriage; Brian was there on the advice of his solicitor to try and reduce the amount of alimony he had to pay his ex-wife. That tells you what you need to know about the characters. Roger is extremely vulnerable and needs a lot of support; Brian exploits Roger’s vulnerability, getting him to do his dirty work for little or no reward, and in most instances some personal cost, whether through injury or humiliation.

I guess you could call it bleak, but when Harry Peacock and I came up with the characters in 2014, while hanging around on a TV set, we couldn’t help finding their desperate situation extremely funny. We would improvise for ages in between takes and the characters never bored us. When filming was over, Harry and I began to send each other voice notes as the characters. Feeling an urge to take these characters further, we created the podcast. That format meant bypassing all the conventional routes - no “notes” from helpful producers - to bring a comedy idea straight to the public.

The stories came easily, and we had fun building the world of unseen characters that we refer to in every episode, whether it’s the 82-year-old Anne, whose sofa Roger lives on, or the Asian IT students with whom Brian now lives. There’s Linda and Claire, their ex-wives; Jamie, Roger’s son who he tragically adores but rarely gets to see; Lazlo, Brian’s business partner who has absolutely no respect for him and an impossible dream to build a four-lane motorway from Mongolia to Eastern Europe. It’s a fully realised world.

The stories come easily. We improvise the show into our phones, recording each message independently of each other and then sending them over for the other to reply. We often do this out and about, so if you can hear a Sainsbury’s checkout in the background, it’s because there’s a Sainsbury’s checkout in the background. It helps give the podcast its authentic feel. At least, we like to think it does. It’s also extremely well produced by Joel Morris and Mark Haynes at their production company Great Big Owl.

When we put the first series out, we were proud of what we’d made but had no idea if anybody would listen or care. Thankfully they did.

We can only guess as to why people seem to like it. It’s an interesting time for white middle-aged men. There’s a feeling that their time is up, and one of the things we wanted to explore was what it would be like if their time really was up and they were thrown on the scrap heap with all privileges removed. What happens to men of a certain age who only 10 years ago would have cruised through life with no real major problems? We wanted to put Brian and Roger on the precipice and see what happened, what choices they made. Usually terrible ones as it turns out.

Roger represents somebody who wants to go back to how things were, into the safety of his marriage even though he knows his wife isn’t happy. Brian just wants to put the blinkers on and plough on as if nothing has happened, and celebrate his newfound freedom. To any normal person, neither seems like the right choice. We have had friends who have told us that it serves as a warning not to f*** up their marriage! There’s definitely a feeling of “there but for the grace of god go I” about it. And we’ve found that desperation and tragedy, coupled with delusion, can be extremely funny.

When David Babani called us from the Menier Chocolate Factory and asked us if we wanted to do a play, we jumped at the chance. It would mean we could explore what these characters actually looked like in the flesh. We’d get to see their faces, their clothes, their interactions.  One of the key elements of the podcast is that most of the action is reported after the fact; you don’t experience it, you simply hear about it from one of the characters’ recollections. David felt this was a theatrical device we could use on stage, and one that dates back to the earliest theatrical work.

The three of us sat down in early 2020 and wrote an epic story that took us all over the world. The result was Brian & Roger: A Highly Offensive Play. We were happy with it… and then Covid. It was tools down for just over a year. Fast forward to April 2021 and we were off again. David assembled an extraordinary team of creatives, who all brought their own stunning creative energy, bringing our imagined world to stark and brilliant reality.

Podcasters Simon Lipkin and Dan Skinner rehearsing for ‘Brian & Roger: A Highly Offensive Play’

We got the first week of rehearsals under our belts and then we hit our next snag. Harry suffers from Lupus, a very nasty autoimmune disease. He manages it, but he has to be careful. It became apparent to him after that first week that this play was just going to be beyond him physically. So with a heavy heart, he had to pull out. We found a saviour in the form of Simon Lipkin, an extraordinary talent who will be familiar to anyone who goes to the theatre regularly. He learnt all of Brian’s 700-plus lines and 43 monologues in about three days. He’s like some sort of curious evolutionary leap. It’s been interesting to explore the script with a new actor, and see how he approaches Brian. He’s hilarious and has made the part his own, bringing something new but complimentary to the lives of these two characters.

What began as a joke between friends has achieved a reality we would never have imagined to be possible. And rest assured, the anarchic, unhinged, and unapologetically rude nature of those original voice messages remains very much intact.

‘Brian & Roger: A Highly Offensive Play’ runs until 22 December. Listen to the podcast here.

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