From the least cool kid in school to trusted custodian of the Queen archives, comedian Rhys Thomas has turned his obsession with the band into a labour of love. Terry Staunton talks to him about his new documentary.
When the makers of Channel 4's spoof celeb comedy Star Stories trained their mocking cameras on Freddie Mercury, their first choice to play the Queen frontman turned them down flat. The episode focused on Elton John, but was to include a scene where he visits Freddie on his deathbed - which was too much for Rhys Thomas.
"I'd been in the first two series [appearing as Andrew Ridgley, Jude Law and Daniel Day-Lewis, among others], but I thought the idea of making such a joke about Freddie was just wrong, it made my mind up for me not to be involved in the third series at all," he says. "I thought it was in such bad taste. Freddie was my hero, I didn't want to take the piss out of him like that."
Thomas, a veteran of The Fast Show, Swiss Toni (which he also co-wrote), Charlie Brooker's Screenwipe and more recently Bellamy's People, had other ideas about how Freddie should be immortalised on screen. As producer of the two-part Queen documentary Days Of Our Lives, he sets out to celebrate the band's legacy, rather than ridicule it.
It's a film rich in detail, packed with rare footage, that tells the band's whole story, from their humble college beginnings 40 years ago, to their Top Of The Pops break in 1974 when David Bowie pulled out of the show at the last minute, to their conquering of the world, the missteps that scuppered their success in the US, right up to - and including - the last days of Freddie Mercury.
Having worked closely with the surviving members on numerous DVD projects in recent years, it's the most high-profile project yet for Thomas, and an opportunity to examine Queen's strengths as enduring, if often critically overlooked, figureheads of British rock. A dream gig for someone who boldly risked being ostracised by his contemporaries for his unwaivering loyalty to the band.
You're 32 now, clearly too young to have bought the records first time round. How did you become a fan?
Rhys Thomas: One of the first gigs I went to, when I was 12, was the Freddie Mercury tribute at Wembley Stadium - not because I was into Queen, it was more to see George Michael, embarrassingly. But I came away from it thinking these were some of the best songs I'd ever heard, and the obsession took hold. Over the next four years I bought every album and single in the back catalogue, saving up my pocket money. I don't think I bought any other records between the ages of 12 and 16.
So, when your school friends were into Blur or Oasis, or the likes of Nirvana, you were on a Queen mission. Were you the unhippest kid in the playground?
RT: I was, actually, but I didn't really care. In fact, I used to try and convert people by playing them tracks which weren't like the typical Queen hits they'd already heard; things like 'Stone Cold Crazy' from Sheer Heart Attack, or 'Fight From The Inside' from News Of The World.
How did you first get involved with Queen professionally?
RT: I wrote a sitcom in the early days of BBC3 called Fun At The Funeral Parlour, and I approached Brian May about doing the theme music. We wanted to use the Death March, but played in his multi-tracked guitar style, and amazingly he was up for it. While we were discussing that, I asked him what was happening with the Queen video and film archives. There'd been some good VHS releases in the 80s, but the only DVDs available were poorly-assembled rehashes, so me and my producing partner Simon Lupton offered to take on the job.
We've worked on about half a dozen DVDs since then, but we always had the idea in the back of our minds to do the ultimate documentary. Hopefully, the BBC films give a broader, more complete picture, and they tie in nicely with the band's 40th anniversary.
The BBC films are full of rare material; do you have any favourite clips?
RT: There was tons of footage in storeage in Vienna, of all places, lots of stuff the public hadn't seen. We didn't want to limit ourselves to the things that had already been out there. Freddie famously said 'I am a musical prostitute' - it's a great quote, but everybody knows it and there wasn't much point in rolling it out again.
We uncovered a video for 'Bicycle Race' which had never been shown before, and there's a great documentary they did with Bob Harris that hasn't been seen since 1977, so we've used a few clips from that. Then Brian gave us some home movie footage of his first band Smile playing at the Royal Albert Hall in 1969. It didn't have any sound, but we've dubbed one of their early tapes onto it. There's also some great out-takes of them during video shoots and working in the studio, which I think give a fresh insight into the four of them as people, how they worked together and what strong friends they were.
The new interviews with Brian May and Roger Taylor are very revealing. It's touching to see Brian wipe away a tear when talking about finally getting his father's seal of approval after watching the band at Madison Square Gardens.
RT: That's a lovely moment, and something that Brian has never talked about publically before. I think both he and Roger are on great form in the new interviews. They really opened up for us, speaking more candidly than at any time in their past. There's more that we couldn't fit into the two one-hour programmes that are being broadcast, so we might end up doing an extended cut for DVD at a later date.
Would you say you're trying to re-position Queen in the marketplace, maybe trying to promote a cooler perception of the band?
RT: You always see people walking around wearing Ramones T-shirts, or Stones or Nirvana shirts, but you don't see people in Queen T-shirts. Fans of those bands need to be reminded just how tight a rock band Queen were in the early days. There's nothing wrong with 'Radio Gaga' and all the big 80s hits - I love them all, obviously - but the early 70s stuff was really raw and experimental. Queen II is an astonishing album. That's what we feel needs to be reassessed, because some people are too locked into one idea of Queen, which has tended to be exaggerated into a sort of cartoon.
There's a nice scene where manager Jim Beach recounts Freddie's instructions about how he wants the Queen catalogue to be administered after his death: You can do anything with my music, but never make me boring.'
RT: That's a good legacy to have. I don't think Freddie could ever be boring. He was great comedian, a very funny man, and I hope that comes across in the films. We didn't want to cover his death with a slow-motion montage of clips, that would have been such a cliche. We wanted to leave viewers with a positive picture of these guys, knowing more about them and hopefully liking them as people, and to also remind them of all that great music.
Queen: Days Of Our Lives is on BBC2 at 10pm on Sunday, 29 May, with the second part showing at the same time the following evening link