Ricky Gervais: Don’t ask me the price of milk - I fly by private jet
With a new comedy series in the offing, Ricky Gervais talks about fame, fortune and fidelity – and a future without laughs
The most peculiar thing happens to people when you mention that you are off to interview Ricky Gervais. They smirk, then they sneer, then their faces are overcome with a look of such utter revulsion that they appear to be aping Munch’s The Scream. He is one of our most successful entertainment exports, and so, naturally, in that very British way we have, we can’t stand him; how dare a boy from Reading storm Hollywood and forget about us all?
When I put this to Gervais he takes it on the chin, which, incidentally, is covered with the goatee he had 10 years ago when David Brent first hit our screens. “I think you have to assume that if you’re opinionated then you will polarise people, and I also think that you have to celebrate that.” He says all of this with his feet up on his desk, another David Brentism, but he doesn’t want me to think it’s a power play. “I just find it more comfortable.”
Gervais tells me that when he wrote The Office, he wanted it to be a million people’s favourite show rather than 10 million people’s 10th favourite show. “I think that the point of any art, even one as lowly as comedy, is to make a connection, and I’d rather make a big connection with a few people than just slightly touch everyone. I think you’ve got to assume that as many people are going to hate you as love you. You want a strict door policy on your pub. You want to turn people away. I remember an advert I saw when I was six or seven, where there was a pyramid of tinned salmon. A hand came along and knocked them all over except for one, and the voice-over said 'it’s the salmon John West rejects that makes John West the best.’ It’s the things you discard that make it.”
Reading this back, it all sounds more pompous than it was at the time, a bit more grist to the mill for those of us who can’t work out where Ricky Gervais ends and David Brent begins. And I must confess that I had come to his office in Hampstead expecting an hour with a snotty megalomaniac, having read as much in previous interviews. But try as I might, I find little to fault in Gervais other than a slightly limp handshake. He is engaging, both interesting and interested, someone you would be pleased to be seated next to at a dinner party, if only he threw them. “God, no! They mess the place up.”
His “place” is just around the corner from his office – an office which he happens to share with an estate agent. He has a swimming pool, and a gym, and a personal trainer. “But,” he says, sensing my eyes rolling out of their sockets, “I only do it so I can open a bottle of wine and eat more cheese.” Has he had plastic surgery? “No!” His teeth whitened? “No!” I suppose Ricky Gervais’s USP is that he looks like Ricky Gervais and not a Ken doll.
He lives with his partner of 29 years, the writer Jane Fallon, “and when we moved in, I felt a bit like the Beverly Hillbillies turning up. Like a lottery winner. You know, honk honk” – he mimes a car horn – “bang goes the neighbourhood!” They have never married and don’t want children. “People don’t ask why people decide to have kids, which I think is a far more important question. I mean, what qualifies you to bring a child into the world? It’s weird. And one good reason I don’t want them is that I don’t think I’d sleep at night. Before this interview I had to check twice that I hadn’t left the doors to the pool open because I was worried the cat would go through them and drown. So with a child, I’d just be stood over it, making sure it was still breathing.”
So his cat is his kid then? “Well no. I’m not mental.”
Gervais is the youngest of four but he was, in effect, an only child. His nearest brother in age is 11 years older than him, a painter and decorator, while his sister works in a school for children with learning disabilities and his oldest brother is a retired teacher. “I’m closer to my youngest brother’s son in age than I am to him. I was eight when his son was born. I remember saying to my mum, when I was about 11 or 12, 'Why are the others so much older than me?’ And she went, 'Because you were a mistake’. I think I just laughed.”
He grew up in a suburb of Reading, where his friends seemed largely to be animals: he was obsessed with frogs and toads and water boatman, and was “utterly gutted” when he found a hedgehog drowned in a pond. The Gervais family lived on an estate, his father working as a hod carrier, “but I didn’t realise I was working class until I got to university and everyone spoke like the Queen.”
He studied biology at UCL, before switching to philosophy, because, “I had two ways to go: work on my accent or play up to being, you know, the revolutionary.” The latter seemed the best option, given that he had already gone through a Marxist phase when he was about 16. “I had a poster of Che Guevara on my wall to annoy my mum, but she thought it was Robert Lindsay so that backfired.”
Upon graduating he formed a band before going on to manage one – the successful Nineties indie group Suede. From there he went on to radio station XFM as “head of speech”, where he would meet his future co-writer Stephen Merchant. Then came The Office, followed by Extras, and the rest, as they say, is history.
He is 50 now. How much has his life changed in the 10 years since David Brent appeared on our screens? “Well I have money, fame and access. But I’ve still got the same values, the stability of the same girlfriend, same friends. Circumstances have changed. I remember the first time I went to the airport and they took me through a special diplomatic door and my head was down and I was thinking 'Oh my god, everybody must hate me for pushing in’. But the next time I went, I was all 'Where’s that bloke who walks you through?’”
Once you’ve turned left, there’s no turning back, I suggest. “That’s true.” Does he always fly first class? “Well…” Crikey, is he now so famous that he doesn’t even fly commercial any more? “When I made the film The Invention of Lying, they gave me a private jet for getting back and forth between New York and London. I thought 'I will never use it’ but I ended up using it every weekend. You turn up, right, and the airport is completely empty. I mean, there’s just someone at the desk and then the pilot, who says, 'Are you ready to go?’ and you say, 'Don’t you want to see my passport?’ and he goes, 'Oh yeah, I suppose I’d better.’”
Gervais realises how ridiculous all this sounds. “So now you think I have a cat as a baby and that I only ever fly by private jet,” he sighs. “Please don’t ask me how much a pint of milk is, because my answer will be something like a thousand pounds.”
Next up is a comedy series called Life’s Too Short. It is about dwarves, and will feature appearances from Johnny Depp and Liam Neeson. The way he describes it, it sounds like a cross between The Office and Extras, and is, in common with most of his stuff “excruciating”. Will it be as offensive as his turn as presenter at the Golden Globes last year? “Well, that’s an offensive question. Just because it has dwarves in it, it doesn’t mean it has to be rude. People buy into this myth that I’m a shock comedian. But I think what I do is about drama and romance.” Really? “Yeah. The Office was the Dawn and Tim affair and with Extras it was about my character’s friendship with Maggie. If I did a biopic of Adolf Hitler, I’d probably make it a romance between him and Eva Braun.”
He doesn’t worry too much about the future. “The other day someone said to me: 'What happens when we lose it, when we think we’re funny and nobody else does?’ And I went, 'Who cares?’ One of my favourite quotes, one that I sort of lived by before I had even heard it, was by Bob Dylan.” It is this: a man can consider himself a success if he wakes up in the morning, goes to sleep at night, and in between does exactly what he wants. Gervais scratches his bearded chin. “But mostly, I just want to live long enough to be able to eat more cheese and pasta.”