When you get to chat to two comedy geniuses at once, it doesn’t feel much like an interview. It’s more like sitting in on some well-honed hilarity, and trying not to make a tit of yourself when you try and interject with a question. This is what it felt like when I sat down with Julian Barratt and Simon Farnaby for twenty minutes, in a snazzy central London meeting room, to talk about Mindhorn.
The film, if you’re unfamiliar, casts The Mighty Boosh alum Barratt as a washed up actor by the name of Richard Thorncroft. His heyday was way back in the 1980s, when he played Bruce P Mindhorn in the Isle-of-Man-set TV detective series Mindhorn. Nowadays, Richard is barely getting by, with his only steady work being adverts for thrombosis socks.
Richard is drawn back to The Isle of Man when a murder suspect (Russell Tovey) says he’ll only speak to Mindhorn, not understanding that the detective (who used a bionic eye that can ‘see the truth’ to fight crime on prime time) was never a real person.
So begins a tale of comedy, criminality and belated coming of age, as Richard bumps into his ex (Essie Davis), his TV sidekick (Steve Coogan), his former stunt man (Farnaby, doing a Dutch accent) and a number of other people he pissed off 80s. His decision, back in the day, to slag off The Isle of Man and his Mindhorn co-stars on Wogan before moving to LA didn’t go down very well.
As I entered the aforementioned snazzy meeting room, I was taken aback by a massive lighting fixture, which looked like a pile of enlarged ice cubes dangling from the ceiling. I mention that, or the first bit of this transcript wouldn’t make any sense…
Ooh, this [lighting fixture] is weird.
Julian Barratt: Yeah, it’s like The Fortress Of Solitude.
Simon Farnaby: It’s like that place where Superman lives.
JB: The Fortress Of Solitude, yeah.
SF: Is that what that is?
JB: Fortress Of Solitude.
SF: Is that what it’s called?
It is, yeah.
JB: He knows!
SF: When does he say that?
JB: It’s just what it’s known as.
SF: Yeah, well –
JB: Fortress Of Solitude.
SF: When is that information imparted in the film?
JB: It’s in the screenplay, I don’t know.
SF: He shall go to The Fortress Of Solitude… does Marlon Brando say it?
JB: Maybe Marlon Brando says it. I don’t know when it’s mentioned.
SF: [Marlon Brando voice] Fortress Of Solitude… the ice…. the snow…
JB: Marlon, can we do it again a bit louder? Marlon? Is that okay?
SF: He only had about five lines, but he had them fed in. You could see his earpiece.
JB: The planet was exploding, so, quite noisy…
SF: But he could remember four lines for four million dollars.
So, to start with the big question, what does the ‘P’ stand for in Special Agent Bruce P Mindhorn?
SF: Brilliant. Haven’t had that.
JB: Phoenix. [Laughter from everyone] He shall rise again.
SF: I think it is.
JB: It could be. I just made that up now, but it sort of works.
SF: Phoenix is the name of the actor in Paddington 2 [which Farnaby has co-written the script for].
JB: Ohhhh, okay… spoiler alert. [Lots of laughter]
Big scoop. Big scoop.
JB: You gonna lead with that?
Oh yeah, of course. Speaking of the name, ‘Mindhorn’ comes from an Oly Ralfe song [which he performed on The Mighty Boosh radio show]. Is he getting some sweet royalties from this?
JB: [Laughs] Ralfe, I think, he invented the name Bruno Mindhorn for a song that he wrote. A character called Bruno Mindhorn, and he was sort of a surrealist poet. But [the idea for the film] Mindhorn came from… you [Simon Farnaby] were listening to the tune, and thinking about this idea…
SF: Thinking about a detective thing I could do with Julian, and I thought, that sounds like a good name for a detective. But yeah, he [Ralfe] knows about it.
JB: We bought him a few pints.
JB: As soon as we make any money off this film…
SF: If we ever get any royalties…
JB: We never will. It’s never going to happen.
SF: He’ll have to wait.
I read somewhere that an early concept idea for Mindhorn [the 80s TV show, within the film] was that he had a bionic nose, before it became an eye. How far did you get with working out the bionic nose version?
SF: It didn’t actually last that long.
JB: That was a ten-minute idea. We just thought, because it’s a show that could be quite bad and really badly conceived… which it already is: a man with an eye which can see the truth is already a bad detective trope, because he’ll solve it all in a really quick amount of time. It would have to be about how he damaged his eye every episode, is what we thought, if it ever got made.
The show, it could be anything. It could be superhero. He could have a metal head.
SF: Or an arm.
JB: One arm. It wouldn’t matter, because it’s set in the real world, but the show can be as stupid as you want it to be. But we wanted it to believable as a show that could have been made.
So we brought it into the range of existing shows like Knight Rider or Bergerac, and made it a kind of hybrid of the two. Or Six Million Dollar Man and Bergerac. Combing two. And American England as well. An English version. A small, underfunded, island, TV version of The Six Million Dollar Man.
And angry at Bergerac for the attention the Channel Islands were getting. So trying to do something that was a bit like that. ‘We’ll do one better than Bergerac! We’ll give him a metal eye! A bionic Bergerac. No one can turn away from that idea…’
SF: Bergerac had a limp.
JB: We’re gonna blow Bergerac off!
SF: He had a bad knee.
JB: He did have a bad knee.
SF: He’s crocked.
JB: That’s no use. His knee didn’t sense crime, though, did it?
SF: It sensed rheumatoid arthritis.
JB: Did it sense when there was a damp spell coming? I can sense damp, with my knee! [Lots of laughs]
SF: [Holding his knee] there’s an area of low pressure coming in, from the mainland… I’m gonna have to rest up my knee for a few days.
JB: Urghh. That’ll be the knee talking.
SF: Bergerac and his blumming knee. There’s no low pressure coming in!
JB: He solved crime that way.
SF: Yeah. What, by telling what the weather is?
JB: They said it was a bad storm, but…
SF: There was no storm that evening. I think there was! There wasn’t, because my leg was fine. [Lots of laughs]
JB: But yeah, we liked this idea of a poor man’s Six Million Dollar Man. The sixty pound man.
I guess you have to find the line where its stupid enough that it could exist, but not so stupid that it couldn’t?
JB: Yeah, yeah, I think so. Because once it was outside the realms of believability, you sort of detach from it a little bit. I mean, I love Airplane and I love Naked Gun and all those films, where you’re parodying. Sending up the genre a bit. And you do jokes that wouldn’t exist at that time at all. We tried to…
We did film stuff that was too much. Um, but we took it out in the end. Because much as it is funny, you realise it’s the filmmaker trying to be funny, rather than, there were things that pushed it into a kind of over the top parody of the shows, and doing things that wouldn’t have actually existed.
So we took some of that out. To keep more in the realm of believability, I suppose. Because the conceit is quite – not fantastical – but it’s quite extreme isn’t it, the idea. So we wanted to root it a bit, throughout.
Because, the actual story is possible. You spoke to a police chief about whether that would happen. If a suspect called [and asked to speak to a fictional detective]…
SF: Yeah, they said, if they had no other leads, they’d ask the actor if he was up for it.
JB: They said they’d ask an impersonator to do it first.
SF: Yeah, but not Rob Brydon.
JB: As long as it wasn’t Rob Brydon, they’d go straight to whatever actor.
SF: They would get like a Bobby Davro style, you know, old school comic.
JB: It’s like when someone’s in a coma, and they get someone to bring them out of the coma. Someone they loved. If there was someone in a coma and they were a big Simon Farnaby fan, Farnaby would go to the place, talk to them…
SF: If I was free. [Lots of laughter]
JB: You would go there, you’d talk to them…
SF: For the right fee. How much am I getting for this?
JB: What if you went there, talked to them, and they died? How you gonna get out of that?
SF: Maybe they release themselves from the iron grip of the coma because they’ve made peace.
JB: Because of you. Right, because they’d heard your voice. [Soothing tones] I’m Simon Farnaby, you can let go now…
SF: You can go now.
JB: [Laughs] You can go now! [Laughs some more] Oh, I though you wanted them to let go?
SF: I thought you wanted them to find peace? Sorry, don’t go! Do I still get me fee? Maybe that’s the next film: we need you to go and speak to a coma patient.
JB: So is this a voiceover, or… what are we talking here?
SF: You can go now…. What have you done!! Anyway, so yes, it’s all sort of within the realms of possibility. But you have Melly [Russell Tovey’s Mindhorn super fan character]. He’s our sort of wildcard in a way. Because he’s slightly unhinged.
JB: He’s delusional, he’s naïve, and he’s sort of trapped in the reality of the show, so he can make Richard do quite strange and surreal type things. We’re privy to why that’s happening, but the general public and the police who are tracking it only just see Richard as going mad. So it’s about perceived madness as well. It’s about perceived madness. I’ll just leave it at that.
And when did it come into the plan that Richard would have a music career as well?
JB: I think we always knew he would’ve touched in on that.
SF: Like Dennis Waterman.
JB: He would’ve dabbled. He likes to straddle the genres, you know? He’s got a wide stance. One of the widest stances in showbiz. But he would, yeah, he would’ve done something. And hopefully it would’ve been like what we’ve just created. Which is a song and a video of a very deluded man, who thinks a lot of himself.
But, back in the day, it’s not very far away from a lot of the work of Don Johsnon. We looked through the videos and thought, ooh, we’ll have a bit of that, and that. Just videos of themselves making love. It’s such a weird thing to do.
SF: Mmm. He wanted people to see how he did it.
SF: They’ll be pretty impressed with this.
JB: I won’t put a few extra moves in there, though, that I don’t want to people to do know that I do. I’ll show the sensitivity and also the manly control that I have in that situation.
SF: We always thought he would, and Julian wrote a song…
JB: Yeah, we didn’t have time to fit it in the film. It kind of came during the film, and I wrote it and decided afterwards to make a video for it. But it has coincided nicely, hopefully, with the release of the film. People will get to hear it.
Do you think that was his one hit, or are there whole EPs?
JB: There’s an album. There’s a concept album. There’s a musical. There’s a whole load of stuff he did that’s yet to be unearthed. It’s all there, in a garage, in Leytonstone.
SF: They’re still going through it.
JB: It was owned by the producer that’s now dead. And he died, and they found all this stuff.
SF: They found it in a caravan.
Although you’ve known each other for years, this is your first time co-writing a script together.
SF: The first and the last.
How did you find it working together in that co-writery way?
JB: Good. Simon’s a really good writer, and very diligent. And I’m quite neurotic. So we sort of work quite well together. I think I’m sort of more likely to be, I don’t know… you sort of seem to be able to keep yourself on track with it all. I get a bit like, if it’s not working, I can sort of lose my mind a bit. [Laughs]
SF: Often Julian will have like the brilliant ideas, but then go off them.
JB: Yes. That’s true, yeah.
SF: And I sort of have to remind him. I remember the [spoiler-y cameo redacted] audition. I remember that one, me having to fight for it, despite having been Julian’s idea. You coming in and going ‘what if that, what if this’ and I go ‘that’s brilliant, put it in’. And then Julian, at the next stage, going ‘nah, that doesn’t work, take it out’. [Laughter] And then having to remind you.
JB: It is hard, though, that, because you do lose the sense. I do, I suppose, write an idea, and think about it for a bit, and then think, ‘okay, it feels quite good, but let me take it out and again see what it’s like without.’ Sometimes I do that quite a lot, go back and forth a lot between ideas. Try things out.
SF: You do have to do that.
JB: Ideas that you have, and they drop out, and you sort of put them back in later on and you go, suddenly, ‘why on Earth did that not feature? Why did we take that out?’ But you sort of live with stuff and see if it sustains.
SF: It’s difficult, um, I do think it’s hard. The comedy film is hard. I mean, films are hard. Comedy film has to be funny and have a good story, and very often, the comedy… they get in the way of each other.
SF: And sometimes you have to go, ‘well, if the joke has nothing to do with the story, then it can’t be in the film.’
JB: Yeah, I mean, you might get away with that in the first fifteen minutes or something, maybe, to set up the character a bit more. Well certainly if it’s not to do with the character or the story. And if it’s nothing to do with the film or the character or the story, or anything, it really shouldn’t be in it.
SF: [Laughs] That was our rule. If it was nothing to do with the character, the story, or the film….
JB: Then it was out. We were very, very diligent on that.
SF: We were a hundred percept on that. Zero tolerance on anything that was outside of that Venn diagram.
Simon, were there other accents you experimented with before making Clive Dutch?
SF: Maybe German. I’m fond of German. I quite like doing voices. We each have our way into a character, I quite like accents because it gives me something to sort of focus on. I sort of forget about everything else.
JB: No, it’s good. I think that’s good.
SF: It appears, um, I can sort of be more minimal if I’m concentrating [on doing an accent].
JB: You don’t have to think about what I’m doing with my hands.
SF: Yeah, you can just stand there if I’m doing an accent. Whereas, if I’m doing my normal voice, I’m like, ‘It’s not enough!’
JB: It’s like a mask, isn’t it, I suppose.
SF: It is, yes. Like a clown’s nose. That’s doing it for me, so…
JB: So you don’t have to do as much.
SF: It’s a bit like that.
JB: Whereas I do proper acting.
SF: You do real acting from your soul, don’t you?
JB: I do. I go in deep, and I spent the last ten years just researching bad auditions. Doing bad auditions.
SF: Drinking too much.
JB: Drinking too much. Going where Richard would have gone. Been what Richard would have been, you know? Doing stuff that I hoped was going to work but it didn’t, just to get the feel of failure.
SF: Lots of walking in the park, sort of crying, going to lakes.
JB: A lot of that, yeah. People would often mistake it for reality, but it was research, all of it.
SF: You know Miami Vice? I always liked the bits where Don Johnson – usually, something would hurt him – and he’d drive really fast to…
JB: Phil Collins?
SF: A waterfront. And he’d get out, and he’d stare into the water. You did a lot of that. [Lots of laughter] And the music would be playing. He’d have his hands in his pockets and he’d well up a bit. And then they’d turn up and go, ‘there you are, man! We’ve had a breakthrough!’ And then he’d go. It was a lot of that, wasn’t it? Staring into…
JB: Lakes, yeah.
SF: So, yes… um… how did we get onto that?
JB: The accent, your Dutch accent.
SF: Yes, so, err, it was Sean [Foley, the director], went, ‘try some voices’, and I think that was it.
JB: It’s good, though. I mean, you have a look of a sort of north European, sort of, perhaps Scandinavian…
SF: I am, I’ve done my DNA. I did one of those, well, my sister did.
JB: Where are you from? You must be Scandinavian.
SF: Scandi, yeah, sort of Viking really.
JB: So you came over with the Viking invasions of Yorkshire.
SF: Yeah. I invaded.
JB: So you and the Viking pillager rapists.
SF: That’s why my eyes are small, because of the wind. Apparently the brow comes from going, [squints a lot] ‘where is it?’. You’re probably the same.
JB: Maybe. I’ve got French ancestry in the name, 1066, which was, I suppose, after the Vikings.
SF: [Looks at me] You probably didn’t want to go that far back. The accent, really… the opposite of Richard is what we were after. Sort of louche and laidback, and Dutch is very laidback.
JB: Sort of metrosexual, open to…
SF: [Does the accent] Hey man, relax…
JB: Yeah. Exactly.
You’ve got Ridley Scott as an executive producer, which I wouldn’t have guessed in a million years. How did that end up happening?
JB: Well this company produced it. Scott Free. Jack Arbuthnott [producer of the film] initially worked at BBC Films, and then he went to Scott Free. And then he went, ‘can we go there with it, as a production company?’ And so, yeah, that’s how that happened. We’ve never met Ridley Scott.
SF: No. He exec produced another comedy which I like, Cyrus, which is great.
JB: John C. Reilly and Jonah Hill, wasn’t it?
SF: Yeah. It’s great.
I must admit, I was laughing during the company logos at the start, just because it went from a pixelated Isle of Man Films one to a super sheeny Ridley Scott one.
JB: It is quite pixelated that sign, isn’t it? [To Farnaby] Have you noticed?
SF: You mean when it comes up, the logo?
SF: Yeah, people laugh at that. That’s started to get a laugh. People sort of think it’s a joke.
JB: We did have that, in the background of the character and the show, Mindhorn, set on the Isle of Man, that every episode they would have to mention the temperate microclimate of the Isle of Man. The idea was that Mindhorn was funded by the tourist board of the Isle of Man and they had to kind of big it up, and that was how they got their location access. You know, stuff about the temperate microclimate, and the easy access parking in certain places where deaths occurred.
SF: It’s so easy to park here!
JB: That’s how the murderer got in. [Lots of laughter] He left up this easily accessible route here, which is open to two way traffic after tea time.
SF: I don’t believe you… why? Because there was [slams fist on the table] acres of room to park! [More laughs]
You’ve shown the film over there now, haven’t you? How did it go?
SF: Yeah. It was great, actually, we didn’t have any problems. We sort of anticipated some.
JB: It’s weird because, beforehand, you’re meeting people and they’re going, ‘Hello, I’m the master of keys.’ Just these weird titles. I’m the head dragon. I’m the doctor of chambers.
SF: I’m the shadow master.
JB: I’m in charge of the black knife of Manannán.
SF: The Manannán league. The league of keys.
JB: Yeah, and it all sounds quite shadowy and subterranean. There’s like, in the back of your head, you’ve got this fear that you’re going to be taken below ground and birched by men in long robes. But it wasn’t like that at all.
Oh that’s good to know. They weren’t offended that Richard called it a shithole, then.
JB: They seemed to enjoy the joke of it. And in the end, much as Richard’s got a problem with The Isle of Man, the film makes it look quite good I think.
SF: The Isle of Man comes out really well, I think.
JB: It’s a character of its own. It’s a character in the film.
SF: The best character in the film.
JB: It always stayed in character as well. Longer than Daniel Day Lewis.
SF: It’s been doing it for a long, long time.
JB: That’s right. Always the first on set, always last to leave. [Lots of laughs]
SF: Never complained.
JB: Had it’s own trailer. Never in it, though, always on set. Amazing.
Julian Barratt and Simon Farnaby, thank you very much!
Mindhorn reaches cinemas on Friday 5th May, and it’s really ruddy good.