AD/BC: A Rock Opera

I’m not a fan of Christmas movies – but I do like trawling through unloved genres in search of gems which deserve a wider audience. AD/BC: A Rock Opera (2004) is one such gem, a neglected comedy special from the early 2000s which purports to be a lost Christmas rock opera from the late 1970s in the style of Jesus Christ Superstar (1973), starring actors from such British comedy classics as The Mighty Boosh (2004-2007), Little Britain (2003-2007), Big Train (1998-2002), Brass Eye (1997-2001) and The IT Crowd (2006-2013).

Creators Matt Berry and Richard Ayoade first worked together on Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace (2004), a “revival” of a non-existent 1980s TV series created by a mass-market horror novelist with delusions of talent, interspersed with interview footage of the original cast “remembering” the show’s troubled production history. Co-creator Ayoade played Marenghi’s publisher Dean Lerner, the money behind the series, earning him the woodenly-acted role of the main character’s boss. Berry played Todd Rivers, an alcoholic womaniser past his prime who was cast as the series love interest but kept out of the spotlight by the jealous Marenghi.

Ayoade and Berry take a similarly meta approach to their co-creation AD/BC. Matt Berry (composer and co-writer) plays Tim Wynde, a would-be singer/songwriter with two dud albums behind him who (feigning ignorance of the spate of religious-themed rock operas in the early 1970s) has decided to make a musical about the birth of Christ focusing on the innkeeper in whose stable the child was born, casting himself (of course) in the central role of Innkeeper. Richard Ayoade (director and co-writer) plays expressionist dance enthusiast (and brother of the lyricist) C.T. Homerton, seen here only in his fictional persona as Joseph. Rounding out the central cast are Julian Barratt as Roger Kingsman, lead singer from The Purple Explosion, in the role of business rival Tony Iscariot (a tip of the hat to Deep Purple’s Ian Gillan, who played Jesus on the original 1970 Jesus Christ Superstar concept album); Julia Davis as Maria Preston-Bush, a folk singer forced to sing outside of her natural vocal register in the role of the Innkeeper’s wife Ruth; and Matt Lucas as Caplan Joyce, a figure from the world of professional wrestling who lends his bass tones to a cameo role as God.

The deliberately banal plot is pretty straightforward. Business hasn’t been great for the Innkeeper, who’s jealous of his more successful rival Tony. Hearing his laments, God tells him not to worry because somebody really important is coming to town and will stay at his inn. Jumping to the conclusion that this can only mean that megastar stand-up comedian King Herod (Dan Antopolski) is coming to town, the Innkeeper reject’s Tony’s generous offer to buy him out and unceremoniously ejects all of his current residents – including his wife’s aged mother – to make away for Herod and his entourage. This is the last straw for the long-suffering Ruth, who packs her bags and heads off to hook up with Tony (an old flame dying to get back into her pants). Railing against God for his own stupidity, the Innkeeper refuses to give Joseph a room but grudgingly allows him to “stay in the shed”. While Tony practices his seduction techniques in front of a mirror, the Three Wise Men (Lucy Montgomery, Lydia Fox & Sophie Winkleman) meet up with the Three Shepherds (Noel Fielding, Karl Theobald & Tom Hillenbrand). Everybody heads off to the stable to witness the birth of the saviour and all of the Innkeeper’s problems are solved – Ruth forgives him everything; Tony wipes the Innkeeper’s debt and tells him what a cool dude he is; and everybody sings about “makin’ love in the morning, makin’ love in the evening, last thing at night, shepherd’s delight” – you know, the true meaning of Christmas.

The production bears all the hallmarks of a vintage low-budget production which has been poorly maintained. Opening with an archival tape leader identifying the date of transmission as 1978, Wynde’s introductory section about the show’s creation is afflicted by glitches and variations in speed typical of a worn and stretched videotape. The style of the production (directed by Ayoade in the slipshod style of his character) is clearly ripped off from the film version of Jesus Christ Superstar, stealing shamelessly from its visual stylings (multiple zooms, freeze-frames, a pretentiously self-important montage of B&B signs) and applying them in a haphazardly amateurish way which reveals the creative vacuum at its heart. Other aspects of the production are similarly indebted to this primary source: the opening number “Spreadin’ Holy Light (Part 1)” rips off the choreography from “Simon Zealotes/Poor Jerusalem”; the guitar riff and main melodic line of “Tony’s Challenge” are strikingly similar to the movie’s opening number “Heaven on Their Minds”; Matt Lucas’ performance as God is heavily influenced by Bob Bingham’s Caiaphas; Julian Barratt’s Tony Iscariot is reminiscent of Barry Dennen’s Pontius Pilate; and Julia Davis’ Ruth appears to be modelled on Carl Anderson’s Judas Iscariot. But let it not be said that Matt Berry’s Tim Wynde isn’t an equal opportunity plagiarist – he also rips off Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Proud Mary” for “Joseph’s Song”, and “La Partie de Ruth” owes a lot to “Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord” from Godspell (1973).

Those lucky few with access to the DVD release have the privilege of being let in on some of the behind-the-scene dramas of the fictional rock opera. Composer/star Tim Wynde is featured in a 20-minute profile Wynde: Behind the Man, a special supposedly filmed shortly after the original production but aired only on Spanish TV in the 1980s (with Spanish subtitles throughout and some of the interview questions clearly overdubbed in Spanish). Contrasting with his view of events are the DVD liner notes by lyricist/director Solomon Homerton, whose brother Charles Thaddeus Homerton appeared in the production as Joseph. Each of the creators portrays the other as a talentless hack. Wynde provides a vague story about being contractually paired with Somerton but claims to have written all the lyrics himself – although a physical tick suggests he’s being economical with the truth and he later states that the only good thing about the production was the music. Somerton provides a more detailed account of answering an advertisement from a composer seeking a lyricist, observes that Wynde didn’t write any of the lyrics on his solo records either, and draws attention to the obvious unoriginality in Wynde’s musical compositions – although his claims that the lyrics are the production’s only saving grace demonstrate an equally deluded sense of the quality of his own achievements. Adding the icing on top of their rivalry cake is the love triangle formed with lead actress Maria Preston-Bush, who hooked up with Wynde shortly before the project began but left him for Somerton during its production. (In this instance, life imitated art in a different fashion – Julia Davis, who played Preston-Bush playing Ruth, is actually involved with Julian Barratt, who played the actor playing Ruth’s love interest!)

Director Richard Ayoade is probably better known for his deadpan comic persona in roles such as Moss in The IT Crowd and as the host of The Crystal Maze (2017-2020). He directed one other TV series after AD/BC – the self-starring Man to Man with Dean Lerner (2006) – before moving on to music video clips for Arctic Monkeys, Super Furry Animals, Vampire Weekend, The Last Shadow Puppets, Kasabian, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Radiohead and The Breeders. He made one more trip into the world of TV comedy with the “Critical Film Studies” episode of Community (2011) in between making two feature-length films – the award-winning teen relationship comedy-drama Submarine (2010) and the comedy-thriller Dostoyevsky adaptation The Double (2013). Matt Berry is best known for playing a series of deep-voiced self-obsessed assholes in various comedy projects, but is also a talented musician with multiple albums to his name (1995-2021). Julian Barratt is best known as the composer/co-writer/co-star of The Mighty Boosh, in which he is often undeservedly overshadowed by his co-star Noel Fielding (appearing here in a few small roles, along with fellow Boosh alumni Rich Fulcher, Lucy Montgomery and Dave Lambert). Julia Davis has built herself a career pushing the genre of black comedy into some very dark directions in series such as Jam (2000) and Nighty Night (2004-2005).

AD/BC: A Rock Opera (2004) is deliberately dodgy and derivative. It may be difficult to take for those who demand a more polished production style, but it’s a clever and witty reconstruction of incompetency which is far more entertaining than your standard shiny-but-empty Christmas fare. I recommend it unreservedly to any fans of the main performers – and if, like me, you’re also a fan of the movie Jesus Christ Superstar, you’ll find plenty of easter eggs here to delight you.

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