Simon says it's Mindhorn over matter
James Dean made Simon Farnaby think he couldn't become an actor, but Vic and Bob changed his mind
Comedy troupe The Mighty Boosh developed a cult following but their surrealist humour was unquestionably niche market - you either got it or you didn't. It is probably fair to say that most people didn't. As part of the troupe Simon Farnaby learned a lot and it was with Boosh co-founder Julian Barratt that he spawned the idea for Mindhorn.
It is, he agrees, more broadly accessible comedy, part homage, part parody and it will ring bells for anyone familiar with shows like The Professionals, Bergerac and MacGyver, but it also pokes fun at actors and the human condition in general.
"We wanted to do something around those detective shows of the 1980s and 1990s that we love," he explains. "Bergerac, even things like Lovejoy, American ones like Knight Rider and The Six Million Dollar Man, I devoured them and loved them and then they disappeared from our consciousness a little bit and you do go, 'What happened to those guys? Where did they go?'"
The idea to do a story around an actor like that was born over a decade ago. "We used to be drinking buddies me and Julian and we would meet in pubs and discuss the story of the film." They read all the screenwriting books and worked consistently, although not continuously, for a decade from conception, through approximately 30 drafts and then into a lot of rehearsal, which is relatively unusual in film. The film director Sean Foley, like Farnaby and Barratt, comes from a comedy theatre background so they treated it like a theatre project.
What evolved was the story of Richard Thorncroft, star of 1980s detective series Mindhorn, possessor of a bionic eye, see-er of all truth and saviour of the Isle of Man. His brief heyday collapsed following a Wogan appearance on which he managed to alienate everyone, and 30 years later he is unemployed, unemployable and vaguely delusional. A lease of life comes when a dangerous loon on the Isle of Man insists he will only speak to Mindhorn and the police are left with no choice but to call Richard in to reactivate the character. They want to solve a crime, Thorncroft wants his glory days back.
Julian Barratt plays Mindhorn, Farnaby his stuntman nemesis. Andrea Riseborough, Harriet Walter, Steve Coogan, Kenneth Branagh and Simon Callow appear in various guises too. And all in the increasingly unusual 90-minute time frame.
It turns out I'm not the only one who dislikes unnecessarily long films. Trying to fit a film into his three year old's nap time has made him realise that very few films fit. "There's a sort of arrogance I think to go, 'Let's put them through another hour'. You've already been there an hour and forty minutes, are you that interesting? Couldn't you have cut anything? No one's ever come out of the cinema and said "I wish it was longer, have they?"
The humour in Mindhorn is layered, and over that decade of creation they mined much of what they have seen and learned over time. "We know some horrible actors, not mentioning any names," Simon laughs, "Well, you hear stories but Richard's fault lies in wanting to be something he isn't, or thinking he is better than he was. In our film we force him to confront all the mistakes he has made in his life, basically. The irony for us was he used to play this character that could see the truth but Richard can't see the truth about himself. He hides everything, he's bald but he wears a wig, he straps his belly."
His role as Clive the odious stuntman means he spends a lot of time in shorts in the film. "My daughter was a baby then, or one, and I would do a lot of babycise," working out by lifting a rather delighted child into the air. Julian just got to eat curries and do what he wanted to do."
There is also gentle fun poked at the actorly process, based on real actor lore, "You hear about actors, like David Suchet, who once he has got his moustache on will only speak in a French accent and he sometimes has to be talked out of character by a psychotherapist." He also made use of lessons he learned in drama school: "One of my drama tutors said, 'The most important thing you will ever do as an actor is choose your character's shoes because they are literally what connects you to the ground'. And you listen as a student and you go, 'Yeah, that's really important to get the shoes right', and then end up using it in a film as a subject of humour."
Born in Darlington in 1973, Simon was keen to act, but saw a couple of obstacles. Firstly where he was from. "Darlington is a weird place in between, it's not quite Geordie and it's not Yorkshire. You don't associate your voice and how you talked and how you're funny with your friends with being on the TV. For so long it was very Oxbridgey, the Pythons, and you went, 'Well I'm not at those universities and I'm not doing jokes about Plato,' but then Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer came along. Big Night Out was when I realised you could be from Darlington and still get on the television. Then I got to work with them and I told them this story and they weren't really interested," he laughs.
The other obstacle he saw was himself. "When I was young I spent a couple of years obsessed with James Dean. That's when I wanted to be an actor, but when I did drama people would just laugh at me anyway so I knew I wasn't going to be James Dean. Thank God!" In acting school he focused on comedy. "I don't really know how to do drama. I don't know how you know if you're doing it right without the laughter I suppose."
There has been plenty of laughter at screenings so far. "At the London Film Festival screening, it was amazing, it was 1,600 people all laughing. We wanted to make a laugh-out-loud comedy because you do get comedies where they say, 'It's a comedy but you don't have to laugh because there is another aspect of it', or, 'It's very wry', or, 'It's very dark'. But we actually did want to make a flat out comedy."
He also sees comedy as a release from reality. "On Twitter I do actually try and stay away from politics, I have a lot of kids that follow me [because of his work on Horrible Histories] so I have to be careful and not swear. But sometimes you do think What is happening, it's all Brexit and that stuff. You can just end up getting really wound up. What can you do? Go and watch a comedy, and go and laugh at the human condition."
Mindhorn opens on May 5
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