Simon Farnaby

Simon Farnaby

'Maybe I'm going to become an absolute monster...'

Mindhorn creators Julian Barratt and Simon Farnaby speak to Jay Richardson

'Do I get off on the pain?' Julian Barratt wonders. 'Like Mel Gibson with The Passion of the Christ? I don't want to go there, it's too scary a thought.’

The Mighty Boosh star never intended to play washed-up former TV star Richard Thorncroft in the new film Mindhorn. He and co-creator  Simon Farnaby initially envisioned 'someone like Ben Kingsley, someone who could do comedy but was known as a proper actor’.

Barratt felt he was too young to play the third-rate thespian, still trading on and trapped by his iconic role as the bionically-enhanced, detective hero of a naff, 1980s television series, washed up on the Isle of Man after a deranged killer insists he will only communicate with the fictional sleuth.

But then Mindhorn took more than a decade of development, ensuring that  Barratt, now 48, was 'obviously more than ripe' to play the paunchy, balding actor.

As with the self-immolating Thorncroft, Barratt’s hopes of breaking through in the US with The Mighty Boosh had not materialised. And he feared forever being associated with the pompous, pretentious Howard Moon. 

Although proud of his partnership with Noel Fielding, – soon to be revived – he reflects that ‘reinventing yourself is quite rare … it's quite hard to reboot yourself. I’d like to do something that's not funny. I'd love to make a horror film. But no one will give me the money to do that.’

Thorncroft, he suggests, is 'despicable and venal, exploiting a murder to revive his career'. But 'sat here, staring at a six foot poster of myself doing a high kick through some flames, I'm trying to get my head round where I finish and he begins. Maybe I'm going to become an absolute monster.’

That seems unlikely. For Mindhorn's premiere at the London Film Festival, Barratt sat at the back so he could slink away unnoticed if the audience hated it. Part of why the film took so long to make was his perfectionism.

'If I'd left Julian to it and not bullied him to hand the script in, he'd still be tinkering' Farnaby smiles. 'He's a great tinkerer, a jazz man. But jazz is never finished. He really is like that. I had to more or less drag him to the Isle of Man to shoot it.’

In films like Three Amigos, Galaxy Quest and Tropic Thunder, the persecution of egotistical actor characters with the baggage of their onscreen roles has become a knowingly fertile genre of comedy. Mindhorn might be a mischievous homage to all the 'one-name detective shows', exemplified by John Nettles's turn as the Jersey-based cop Bergerac. But the challenge facing these debut feature writers, and theatre director Sean Foley, making his first film, was how to accomplish that without lapsing into parody. 

They decided to retain a character who's unshakeably convinced of Mindhorn's reality throughout, murder suspect The Kestrel, played by Russell Tovey, driven out of his wits since a childhood trauma.

'Often in those films, like Three Amigos, it starts really funny. But once everyone knows they're not real, it falls away a bit,’ Farnaby argues. 'I like that Thorncroft goes "I love this character" but when he has to become Mindhorn again, it's an absolute nightmare. So we enjoyed seeing just how far we can push it, if we could keep it up to the very end.’

Farnaby himself contributes to Thorncroft's woes in the form of Clive, Richard's toned, tanned, Dutch and routinely semi-naked former stuntman, now in a relationship with his ex, Patricia, played by Essie Davis. 'He's supposed to be the opposite of Richard to annoy him, louche and cool, while Richard's quite uptight and worried about his status' he chuckles.

Mindhorn Farnaby  Barratt

'Simon's very relaxed in his body, very relaxed' marvels Barratt. 'His dad's a northern businessman so he's got that pragmatism. He's fine with putting in the work but he's fine at just letting things go. Which I'm not.'

Both men cite David Brent, Alan Partridge and Basil Fawlty as templates for the quixotic Thorncroft, with ambition greatly exceeding his abilities and self-awareness. Barratt also nods to Danny McBride's hubristic performance in Eastbound & Down, as the blowhard ex-baseball player Kenny Powers forced to return to his hometown and become a gym teacher.

Tellingly though, he also evokes tragic sporting drama The Wrestler. And somewhat bizarrely, real-life, on-the-run killer Raoul Moat, whose 2010 stand-off with police directly informed a shootout between Thorncroft, The Kestrel and armed authorities on Manx tourist attraction The Laxey Wheel.

'I remember Gazza was on the news because he knew Moat, saying, "He’s a great guy, I'm going to take him some chicken and cans of beer",’ Barratt recalls. 'It was just this weird collision of fading celebrity and a crime situation. And I just thought - "this is so good!"’

Equally, the masochism of writing 'interesting punishments' and 'escalating nightmares' for Thorncroft felt familiar, if only because watching 'yourself as an actor, you're constantly reminded of how old you are, all the time, because everything becomes a frozen moment. Richard is an extreme version of that. And I don't really see myself as an actor. But I find that world, auditions and so on, so harsh. I like the idea of a guy who used to be this swashbuckling ladies man, the vanity of trying to hold onto that. There but for the grace of God.'

It seems like Thorncroft, who 'isn't horrible but is pretty misguided', channels Barratt's own fear of being misunderstood.

'I'm very afraid of coming across as pretentious or arrogant, but I love portraying those types of people. John Cleese said that the best comedy creations are you without a sense of humour and I think there's something true in that. There are elements of [Thorncroft] in me but luckily I can stand outside them. You need to have a certain belief in yourself. But that can easily mutate into something horrific if you're surrounded by yes men’.

Thorncroft's nemesis, Peter Eastman, is played by the film's executive producer, Steve Coogan, once again appearing as a brittle, egotistical version of his tabloid persona. He'd met Farnaby for lunch after seeing a Richard III documentary he'd made for Channel 4. 'It was only when Coogan came on board that the money really fell into place,’ he says. ‘You don't see many British comedy thrillers because it costs quite a lot. As soon as you have explosions, guns and car chases, the budgets just go through the roof. But we've got quite a few of those elements. Steve having Alpha Papa and Philomena behind him really helped convince everyone that we could do this.’

Taking advantage of tax breaks for shooting on the Isle of Man helped too, with theirs the first film shot on the island to actually be set there. Thorncroft had to be trapped somewhere, with no way off. Guernsey was rejected as too close to Bergerac's Jersey. Sark was also considered 'because they have no roads and we thought it would be funny if they were all on tractors' Farnaby grins.

'But the Isle of Man, some of it's really quite beautiful and it's got it's own iconography. All I'd known about it before was the motorcycling and that saying about 30,000 alcoholics clinging to a rock. It's more like 60,000' he jokes. 'But there's also something slightly Wicker Man about it which suited our needs.’

Shooting with intense time pressures offered little scope for improvisation. And the little that Barratt did attempts so annoyed veteran actor David Schofield, that the disdain he directs at Thorncroft as the irate chief of police is all-too real, Farnaby reveals.

Barratt also wants Thorncroft 'to have a life beyond the film', with the stage 'a good route for him’.

'I wouldn't do stand-up now, the idea of me observing the world and what's it like, I never felt at ease with that,' he says. 'I'd much rather do character stuff. It's changed from when I began because there are now lots of gigs with people doing characters, which is great. So maybe I'll swing back that way.’

Then there’s Thorncroft’s vanity project single which features in the film,  You Can't Handcuff The Wind, which has been released commercially. 'I like imagining that he had this parallel singing career, a bit like Dennis Waterman or David Soul. And I'm thinking about performing that live in a comic sort of way.’

Creating the Mindhorn television series' cheap, retro look within the film was also 'great fun' Farnaby explains. They'd anticipated using those scenes more heavily, in the style of Garth Marenghi. But gradually it was reduced to a 'drip feed, that we didn't need to rely on for laughs.’

Mindhorn

In their early drafts, Mindhorn's bionic enhancement had been a nose that could smell than truth, rather than his all-seeing eye. 'But we knew a false nose wouldn't look good. Then Julian suggested an eye that could see the truth. Which is kind of hilarious. Because if it was a real show, he could always see the truth and your storyline's over in about four seconds. I wouldn't want to write a Mindhorn series.’

Incredibly though, they have been approached to make a one-off, television episode, 'which we are definitely interested in doing. We'll have to somehow damage his eye so it's slightly faulty.’

'It depends on how the film is received but I'd love to do it' agrees Barratt. 'We've been mucking around with the idea of going back to the Isle of Man if the film is a success, if it gets its own following. And then as myself I could get caught up in some sort of bizarre echo of the film, like a postmodern hall of mirrors. 

‘I don't know if you could do a series of that though. Garth Marenghi did it brilliantly but that was a while ago. Watching some of those old shows, it's very hard to make things even half as funny as they are when they're not intending to be.'

Still, the experience has encouraged him to believe that he and Fielding might yet be able to make their much-anticipated Boosh film. 'Hopefully the next thing is going to be a live thing, then off the back of that, we'll put together the next phase of Old Man Boosh. The difficulty is because we've got very different trajectories and live in different timezones. I've got kids and he's got Bake Off.

'When I saw him on the front of the Daily Mail, I thought "Oh God, what's he done? Got caught in some kind of awkward situation?" They'd picked a picture of him looking rock 'n' roll, hungover, and were trying to say how debauched he was. But I think it's great and it'll help him launch the next phase of what he wants to do'.

Meanwhile, Farnaby is returning for a third series of Mackenzie Crook's sitcom Detectorists, is plotting his next show with his Horrible Histories/Yonderland castmates and is waiting to hear if his recent appearance in the Star Wars saga as pilot Blue Five in Rogue One will deliver him an action figure of himself.

'I was processed for it' he recalls. 'I don't know if they're going to produce one but somewhere on a little disc is a template for it with my proportions.’

Barratt is facing no such uncertainty. Mirroring the deranged Kestrel's shrine, he's kept plenty of Mindhorn's props, memorabilia and toys from the fictional series.

'Yeah, there's quite a lot of it, it's great' he enthuses. 'I was obsessed with that sort of stuff as a kid, my Six Million Dollar Man doll was a prized possession. So I've kept the Mindhorn posters and I've got some of the dolls. I've got some of his teeth too. I put them in every now and then to frighten my children.’

• Mindhorn is released in cinemas on Friday.

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Published: 2 May 2017

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