Rhys Thomas is a comedian (‘The Fast Show’ and ‘Down The Line’ to name but a few) and has directed the new documentary on Freddie Mercury, ‘The Great Pretender’. He is a massive Queen fan and was also involved in last year’s excellent documentary on the band ’Days Of Our Lives’, along with working on the band’s past few live DVD releases.
Congratulations on the DVD which has done very well already.
Yes it has thanks. It’s going to be on BBC1 next Tuesday 16th October on the ‘Imagine’ slot. But its cut down to a hour so its not as much. The full programme will be shown on BBC4 at Christmas time. We had to make two versions. The longer version is quite different and there is more on the DVD so its still worth getting that as well.
Where do you start with a project like this? Do you approach the band with the ideas you have?
I made this thing last year called ‘Days Of Our Lives’ which I produced, a two part Queen documentary. When we were doing that I was doing all the extras and there was so much we filmed we couldn’t use, not enough room in two hours. I felt the whole story of Freddie was missing between when Queen weren’t working together and Freddie was working on his own. I was initially asked to do an hour long documentary for BBC4 on the making of the ‘Barcelona’ album but I thought it was a bit narrow and a wasted opportunity. So I plotted out this idea about a Freddie documentary and plotted out the story and ideas. Jim Beach, Freddie and Queen’s manager liked it and said get going.
I am a massive long standing Queen fan but even I saw and heard new things like the Michael Jackson and Rod Stewart recordings.
I had to fight for these. There have been documentaries on Freddie before and all this stuff was under the noses of anyone making these documentaries but they were lazy as they didn’t go into those depths. Being a massive fan I knew these things existed. You have to think of two audiences. the fans and what they haven’t seen before and the wider audience who know nothing about the Freddie Mercury story. So you have to keep the balance between the two. The mass public don’t know what’s new and what’s not. A lot of the fans complained over why there is only a tiny bit of these songs but that was all we could show.
I would imagine there is a planned release of these rare tracks?
They want to release them and the Michael Jackson songs are coming out next year anyway. How I sold this was it would be nice to have a nice little snippet to give it something new. I had never heard the Rod Stewart song and I don’t how much of this exists as I don’t think they recorded the entire song anyway.
Were the band keen on the project? Quite rightly they have guarded Freddie Mercury’s legacy.
Originally a lot of this was from the ‘Days Of Our Lives’. The other producer on this Simon Upton interviewed Brian and I interviewed Roger. We interviewed them so extensively we had a lot of stuff from them as we covered a lot of ground on Freddie. We didn’t interview them again as they weren’t free, we were lucky to have these interviews already.
You have to send it to them for their approval and what I like about them, and Jim Beach, is they are very open and know they can trust me as I have worked with them for a long time and won’t dish the dirt as it were.
There is the interview with Freddie you often see on past DVD’s and there is so much more of it in this DVD.
Yeah that interview was with David Wigg and I thought that would be a good way to tell the story without a narrator, I was sort of influenced by ‘Frost/Nixon’ on this. I didn’t want a voice over. Freddie Mercury is so open in that interview about everything and he is also getting more and more drunk as the interview goes on.
I liked all the radio or TV voice overs he was doing.
Yes like ‘f*** Mexico’. I like the fact this DVD finishes with laughter as before people have cried their eyes out. Never leave on sad note. A lot of documentaries on Freddie Mercury have been overly sentimental and show things out of context. They will show things like Freddie pointing up the sky saying God is looking after me. They will put this in the context of Freddie being ill to make it poignant but in fact he is talking about something completely different. Watching at a lot of Queen documentaries in the past and I realised afterwards a lot of it was taken out of context. Like the birthday party, whenever they showed that they said Freddie was like that and crazy in what he got up to. What I wanted to show was that was the end of that style of life , things were changing.
A lot of people have said about this DVD they have never heard Freddie talk as much, as on a Queen documentary it is about all four of them and you need to give equal time. With this is just about Freddie and before they took the funny lines, but now you can see how he thinks and reacts with his answer in real time.
You can see from the interviews at the time of ‘Mr Bad Guy’ he was saying if this solo album took off he may not be going back to Queen.
Absolutely. I don’t know how true it is but some people do say they had split up effectively at that time even though they hadn’t said so. But the album didn’t do well. They were going through a bad period at the time over ‘The Works’ and it was Live Aid that saved them and put them all back together in more ways than one.
I remember reading an interview back at the time with John Deacon in a magazine saying they were unsure of the future of Queen.
Yeah I remember that interview and John saying that he was getting very bored as he found he had nothing to do. That was one person we couldn’t talk to John Deacon.
I was going to ask you about John Deacon - did you try and contact him?
I tried a letter and everything but he doesn’t respond. I think he completely cuts off and doesn’t want to have any part of it anymore. His opinion was that after the ‘No-one But You’ single he saw no point in carrying on. But I am glad they have still gone on and I’ve seem them live with other singers, be it Adam Lambert or Paul Rodgers, whatever people think of them what you can’t get over is that when you see Roger and Brian you are seeing Queen. I think they justify themselves as that sound was what Queen were and the Smile records that was Queen.
I saw Queen with Paul Rodgers and it was strange hearing them play Free and Bad Company songs but you still had the Queen songs.
The best part was when Paul went off stage and it was just Brian and Roger and the audience. Whether they were singing ’39′ or ‘I am In Love With My Car’, the fans always loved that bit more than anything else.
How did you first become involved with the band and the various DVD’s you have worked on with them?
They celebrated their 40th anniversary and the plan was to do a documentary on the band. I wanted to show it in two parts. You know when you see these dramas over Sunday and Monday nights on a Bank Holiday weekend, well I wanted to have a cliffhanger. I wanted to start with that line ‘we will stay together until we f****** well die’ from Wembley, then go back in time to the beginning. Me and Simon Lupton did the whole thing ourselves. Then a director was brought in by the BBC as they didn’t quite trust comedians to make a documentary then he got ill, he had hepatitis like Brian May did, in the making of the documentary and wasn’t there for the making of the whole of the second episode. So it was made by me and Simon Lupton. They liked it so much they mentioned the Freddie Mercury and ‘Barcelona’ idea but Simon had another job and I ended up doing it all on my own. I like doing it all on my own as I get all the credit for once (laughs).
I t was the same editor as well called Chris. He wasn’t a big Queen fan but after doing these two documentaries he knows the Queen material as well as I do now. It was really fun as we wanted to make a documentary that wasn’t a typical beginning, middle and end but all over the place.
What was the first song/album that got you into the band?
I went to the Freddie Mercury tribute back in 1992 when I was fourteen with my brother as I wanted to go to a concert. I had only seen the Flying Pickets before and not a proper concert. I liked the Queen hits but didn’t have any albums. I remember liking ‘Somebody To Love’ sung by George Michael. I came home, watched it again on video and asked my brother about the song and he said it was quite famous. Then I borrowed the two greatest hits albums and then I had a cousin who was older than me give me four albums, ‘Queen’, ‘Queen II’, ‘Sheer Heart Attack’ and ‘A Night at the Opera’. I didn’t have a record player so had to record them on tape at a friend’s house and I just listened to them over and over again.
In my teenage years at school I was saving pocket money and buying Queen albums whenever I could, not in any order. I wasn’t waiting for the next album but picking them up as and when. So I would love say ‘Jazz’ and then get disappointed by ‘A Kind of Magic’ which wasn’t my favourate.
That’s like ‘Hot Space’ for me! I didn’t like it much first time around but it has grown on me over the years.
See I didn’t have that as the albums were already released and I would imagine at the time fans thinking ‘what the f*** is this?’ I bought it so much later it was just another one of their albums. When I bought it reminds me of a nice summer in 1994 and I have nice memories attached to it.
When did you first see them live?
After the tribute it would be at the Astoria when they played over the road after the first night of the ‘We Will Rock You’ musical. The weirdest thing for me was Brian May wrote the music for a sitcom I did called ‘Fun At The Funeral Parlour’. Me and Simon Upton asked him to do the music, having said I was a massive Queen fan and Anita Dobson appeared in one episode so we had an in. He watched one and we asked him to do like you did on ‘Flash Gordon’ with the ‘Wedding March’. We wanted a funeral march, a multi guitar thing. He invited us to his house and as fans we asked what was the hardest guitar solo to play. He said ‘Millionaire’s Waltz’ and he played it there and then perfectly. I couldn’t believe I was hearing this! We were there until one or two in the morning and he gave me a lift back in his car as he was going back to London, listening back to what he had recorded. I will never forget that.
What is Roger like?
I was sort of the Brian camp as it were but I gradually got to know him more, especially after ‘The Fast Show Live’ as he was a fan. We met him with Paul Whitehouse and had a night out in Brighton once. He got to know me more through comedy than through working with Queen. I suppose I see more of Roger now than Brian. He is very funny, they are both very different. I see more of Roger socially, especially as I am friends with his son. I can’t believe that can you? Weird.
Roger Taylor always comes across as having a sharp wit, like the Paul Daniels quip on the DVD.
Yes I am glad they kept that in. I have often said to him he should go on something like ‘Have I Got News For You’ or something like that. Rick Wakeman does well on these panel shows. He is that funny, he makes me laugh a lot but I don’t think he would like to appear on things like that.
The recent DVD launch was packed with comedians. Were they there as Queen fans or because they knew you?
I invited a lot as I know them. David Baddiel and Bob Mortimer came as they are my friends and I wanted them to see it. Both are Queen fans as well, Bob Mortimer likes 70′s Queen. Noel Fielding loves Freddie Mercury and Queen, so does Matt Berry who was in the ‘IT Crowd’. He came to see Queen and Paul Rodgers with me, he is a massive fan. A lot of comedians came along to support me but a lot are Queen fans.
I met Matt Lucas though ‘Shooting Stars’ where he was George Dawes. One day I spotted him in a ‘Made In Heaven’ t-shirt and we got talking about Queen. He was the one who recommended the ‘Barcelona’ album as it he said it was the best album and that I must buy it. That’s why we interviewed him as he is a big fan.
I hate current people talking about Queen as it dates the film. There was one a few years ago with McFly but where the f*** are they know? I wanted to talk to Elton John and Rod Stewart but then the film becomes about them rather than Freddie. David Arnold became a composer as he loved Queen music. I met him through Matt Lucas and David Walliams, he was composing ‘Die Another Day’ and he started playing on his piano all these old Queen songs perfectly. He told me that he has worked with a lot of other people who love Queen and are a big influence on them.
What are you currently working on?
I have written a pilot for Channel 4 which is a comedy. It is like ‘Last of the Summer Wine’ but with three younger people in the current climate and no work and trying hard to make some money and get a job. It’s a very ‘Only Fools & Horses’ style sitcom. I am writing two films, one with David Baddiel and one for the makers of ‘The ‘Inbetweeners’. I am doing a lot of writing.
Message for the Queen fans…
There is a still bit more to come. A couple more things, there is a whole documentary that Bob Harris filmed with Queen on tour in the US in the 1970′s. It was never finished. We have all of the rushes, some of it appeared in ‘Days Of Our Lives’. We will finish it in the next couple of years and it will probably come with a major concert as well. One of the US concerts plus the documentary all in high definition and it will look brilliant.