Beloved curmudgeonly comic Julian Barratt makes a jump to the big screen with the endearingly silly Mindhorn, in which he plays a washed-up actor caught up in a murder plot. He talks about the pomposity of actors and a possible return of the Mighty Boosh
Movie actors are a funny old lot. Essentially they’re big kids who’ve been paid handsomely to raid the dressing up box, but to hear them talk you’d think they were curing cancer. Comedian, musician, writer and, yes, actor Julian Barratt finds his fellow thespians’ self-importance endlessly hilarious. “It’s so hard to not sound like an arse when you talk about acting,” he says down the phone from London. “So it’s a very rich territory for comedy.” You can see this self-seriousness at work on shows like Inside the Actors Studio and those round table discussions The Hollywood Reporter do around the time of the Oscars.
“Oh, those roundtables are just great,” Barratt chuckles. “They’re full of people trying to make out they don’t care about acting and it’s just a job. ‘We’re just like plumbers, but working with different materials; the plumber works with pipes, I work with human emotions.’ Or when you talk about how privileged you are to work with whoever – even that comes across as annoying.”
Barratt channels some of this pomposity into Richard Thorncroft, the protagonist of Mindhorn, his inspired new comedy, which he co-wrote with Simon Farnaby. At the start of the film we discover Thorncroft enjoyed some low-level fame in the 80s as the title star of Mindhorn, a cheesy detective show in which the titular sleuth uses his bionic eye to literally see the truth; his ocular gift helped him interrogate bad guys, but it also came in handy while seducing women. We see snippets of the show – which comes across like a mashup of Bergerac and The Six Million Dollar Man – throughout this feature-length comedy, but the majority of the action takes place in the modern day, where Thorncroft has become a grotesque has-been; overweight and toupeed, he reaches a career nadir when he loses his latest gig, a TV ad for orthopaedic socks, to John Nettles (of Bergerac fame).
Thorncroft is a joke, but Barratt can certainly empathise. “He is very much a version of me after a couple of bad decisions,” laughs Barratt. He reckons all actors are a few poor choices away from Thorncroft’s predicament. “I don’t think it takes much: make the wrong career move here and there, and a couple of bad relationships, and suddenly you’re on your own and you’re grasping at straws.”
Barratt is being modest, surely. The 48-year-old has been a key player in some of the 21st century's most feverishly adored British comedies. With Noel Fielding he created the wildly surreal The Mighty Boosh, in which he played "jazz maverick" Howard Moon, a character even more pompous than Richard Thorncroft. Then there’s Dan Ashcroft, the self-loathing journalist who finds himself inside a maelstrom of idiocy in East London’s hipster scene as depicted in Chris Morris and Charlie Brooker’s prescient sitcom Nathan Barley. He also had a recurring role in spoof supernatural medical drama Garth Marenghi's Darkplace. And that’s not to mention Will Sharpe’s brilliant Channel 4 show Flowers, from last year, in which Barratt gave his darkest – and finest – performance yet as a suicidal children's book author.
Despite this success, Barratt insists a Richard Thorncroft-style fall from grace is a real worry. “Sure, I’ve made shows that have connected and that I’m very proud of, but you’re always trying to think of the next thing you’re going to do. You have to keep asking, ‘Do I still have it in me to do another thing that people want?’ I have friends who never got into show business at all, and they have proper jobs – they do their job and they’re not constantly thinking, ‘What can I do next?’ ‘How can I make it valid?’ ‘Is this going to work?’ ‘Are people going to be interested?’ They just do a job and then at the end of the week they turn off and go out. I sometimes envy them that sort of life.”
We’re glad he’s stuck with comedy, as Mindhorn contains some of Barratt’s most gut-bustingly funny material. With his career in the toilet, Richard Thorncroft is given a reprieve. When a deranged serial killer on the Isle of Man tells the police he’ll negotiate, but only with Mindhorn, whom he believes to be a real detective, Thorncroft is given a cushy gig resurrecting his old character to try and solve the murders. Filed the film with ¡Three Amigos!, Galaxy Quest and Tropic Thunder, the other great comedies about actors being mistaken for their characters and pulled into real-life peril.
The initial idea came from Barratt’s friend and co-star Simon Farnaby. “Really nerdy fans of The Mighty Boosh will know that Mindhorn is the name of a half-man, half-fish creature that appears in one of the Boosh’s songs,” Farnaby explains when we meet him in Glasgow ahead of the film’s Scottish premiere at Glasgow Film Festival. “He’s very obscure, he appears in one of the songs from the radio show, I think. Julian had given me the CD and I heard the name Mindhorn and I just wrote it down because it sounded like an 80s detective show, you know, these one word shows like Wycliffe or Spender.”
The pair clearly love this very particular genre; you have to love something to satirise it as well as Barratt and Farnaby do in Mindhorn. But the film isn’t simply a nostalgic piss-take in the mould of, say, MacGruber, Will Forte’s hilariously crude parody of MacGyver, the action-adventure American equivalent of the shows Mindhorn send up. Barratt came up with the twist that the films should be about the actor who used to be in Mindhorn, and Richard Thorncroft was born.
This was over a decade ago. “Originally Julian thought he was too young to play Thorncroft,” says Farnaby. "Whoever played the character had to be old enough to be believable as an aging has-been. We thought: let’s get someone like Ben Kingsley to do it!” But so slow was the writing process that Barratt soon found he was approaching the perfect vintage to take on the role. “He likes to tell people he put on weight for the part,” chuckles Farnaby, “but he didn’t, he just carried on doing what he normally does.”
Barratt is far more complimentary about his writing partner: “Simon is great because he’s very pragmatic. He’s great at just getting to the end of things. I’ll get really caught up with the problems and the details, agonise over them a lot, so we were a good team.” How does he feel about writing on his own? “I can’t stand it to be honest. I’ll do it. I mean, I like to write with someone and then go off and write a bit on my own and bring it back. But writing on your own is lonely, it’s bloody awful.”
Talking of writing partnerships, Barratt is still best known for his wildly inventive stage show and BBC sitcom The Mighty Boosh, which he co-wrote and co-starred in with Noel Fielding. It was a classic chalk and cheese double act: Fielding’s Vince Noir was a glam rock dadaist with a childlike spirit of adventure while Barratt’s Howard Moon was a curmudgeonly jazz-enthusiast and the butt of almost every joke. Rumours of a revival, or even a feature-length project, have been floating around since the pair's last official Boosh performance in 2009.
Barratt sounds open to the idea. “I don’t want to start any rumours, but we never finished with the Boosh,” he says. “We parked it essentially. So it’s like a crazy old car that we drove around in, and it’s still there. We could get it out, we could look at it, try and get the engine going again, give it a new coat of paint. Sometimes you think it’s best just to leave something where it was and not try and recreate that magic, but who knows?” He gives a long pause and chuckles. “We’ll probably run out of money at some point and you’ll see us doing it.”
Mindhorn is released 5 May by StudioCanal