Stand up and be counted
Gosh. What a strange surprise. I had -- hadn't we all? -- thought Ricky Gervais would be something of an annoyance. At best, a cocky man with, admittedly, much to be cocky about. At worst, screeching laughs, boasts camouflaged in drapes of irony: being "entertained".
Instead, it's just a clever man, talking quietly, often passionately, meeting my eye and subtly letting me realise, over an hour or so, why he has such a claim on this nation. And it's not, I come to grasp, that he is necessarily the "funniest man in Britain". There is an oddly, likeably serious side to him, too. A ripe disrespect for cant and mendacity, certainly, and a hitherto unseen principled political strain running through him -- it's like Ben Elton gone right. Above all, there's a savage and all-consuming need to create.
The one time I'm properly taken aback by a response, for instance, comes when we're talking books. What does he like to read? (I can only assume that he does.) "I don't read books. I'm sorry. I can't. I can't read books, other people's books. After the first sentence, the first paragraph, I'm off on my own scenario. It's no longer their book. I'm not reading it any more, I've put it down before turning the first page, I'm writing my own chapters, fitting in my own characters, trying to make it take off my way. So this would happen, then that would happen, of course that character would . . . no, it's hopeless, so now I just don't.'
What Gervais does, instead of reading others, is of course his own thing. Create The Office, then Extras, and his sell-out one-man stand-ups, and quietly take America. Now he's directing a film for the first time, This Side of the Truth. "It's set in a world rather like this one, but there's no gene for lying. Except for me. My character. I can suddenly lie. So I do. A lot."
There will be, I assume, redemption?
"Maybe not quite that but with all the cynicism, everything I've done, I think there always turns out to be . . . a certain forgiveness. Which surprises me sometimes, for such an atheist."
Meanwhile, he's on the final drafts of his new television series, written again with Stephen Merchant, the one who hasn't yet won quite as embarrassingly many Baftas as Ricky Dene Gervais (who has seven so far, along with three Golden Globes, couple of Emmys, as you do). The working title, says this oddly serious Ricky (a change I like but which I find strangely disconcerting nonetheless), is The Men from the Pru. It's about a group of twentysomethings working in an insurance company in the early Seventies. In Reading. This is where Gervais was born, in 1961. "It's a period piece for a couple of reasons," he says. "We wanted to show, for instance, that the sexual revolution was only really going on in Carnaby Street. Not Swindon. Not Reading. It is, essentially, about blue-collar people getting white-collar jobs." And it is about people who would live and die in one town. "Which was one of the big differences between then and now," he says. "So much, we forget, was door to door. Ten pence for a duster, the man from the pools, the insurance man; people saving a penny a time for their funeral. Tens of thousands of people knocking on doors. Also, you would get married at 18 and still live with your mum. And then, at that time, some would watch the telly, have their eyes opened to different countries. There's a line in it where we have a character being asked: 'What do you want to go abroad for? There are parts of Reading you haven't seen,' so it's a bit like that."
Gervais thinks that, in many ways, things are still the same now as then. "We haven't . . . the country hasn't changed all that much," he reflects, "not in everything. Some things remain the same. Friendships. Love and death. All the big ones. The Office wasn't about selling paper. Nor Extras about extras . . . they were about friendship.'
One thing that has changed, and about which he is supremely conscious, is celebrity, which he has described before as the new class. "There are no apprenticeships any more, no one learning anything off the back of someone who knows something. Footballers get paid more than surgeons. Everyone wants to fast-track into celebrity, publicity, whether it's actually, you know, true, or, well, not. And, yes, I can go on about it, because sometimes it's stunning, but there's no point getting worked up that much about it because no one cares. No one minds, no one's getting fired up, no one's not buying the magazines, no one's refusing to keep watching people living their life like an open wound. They've already had celebrity enemas. I mean, God. It will eventually implode, it will self-destruct, but it's with us for the moment. The PR has become more important than the product."
And with too much of British television today, he says, there's a lack of love for the product or respect for innovation. "They might as well say: 'We need 29 minutes filled, what have you got?' But why do I mind? I love the fact that most TV's rubbish, it makes me look better. And with film, well, it's not that we can't make good British films, it's just that it's too easy. Too easy to make a film here. And then you get the PR machine, something's all over the sides of buses for two weeks, and you're meant to think it's huge, but actually, it's going straight to DVD. So it might as well have been a TV show."
What a nicely serious, but seriously serious Ricky, thoughtful and sometimes angry. But I don't want to give the impression he's not smiling, not funny, that he's like Ben Elton gone . . . um, even more wrong. It's just that he doesn't really do gags, he does looks, gestures. Gestures are important. He does it, and knows you'll get it. Sometimes, as with Billy Connolly -- "I always wanted to be a cross between him and Seinfeld" -- the gesture is everything, everything, the words themselves meaningless otherwise.
"If I do that thing I do about Hitler for instance, when he's being quizzed on what he did: 'Come on, Hitler, how many did you kill?' Well, you need the gesture, need the thumb to make it funny. Otherwise, it's just a straight answer." And the thumb comes out, begins to turn on the table, nubbing away on the desk between us in tiny embarrassed circles, the eyes downcast, the answer muttered . . . "Six."
"Speak up, Hitler."
"Six. Six . . . million." The world's most phenomenal tyrant turned instantly into blushing schoolroom twanny, and I hardly know why I'm repeating it because, looking at DVD sales, most of you have seen the routines twice over.
"Yes, things have turned out to be very . . . successful. Which is lovely. But that wasn't necessarily the aim. I'd wanted, with those series in particular, The Office and Extras, mainly to touch a few people a lot. If something's well done, poignant, moving to the deeper side of shallow, it touches a few people hard. The point is to make a connection, and I'd rather there was that genuine connection to one million people than nothing at all with ten million.
"And, I suppose, to do it, you have to work hard. I do work hard. I can't really not. It has to feel right. I'll sit with Stephen, when we have meetings, and for five-and-a -half hours out of six it's just talking to be sure the other's thinking the same way. 'What are you thinking Freddie should look like? Are you sure? No, he'd have . . . he'd look more like . . . he'd be wearing . . .'"
When you imagine Gervais and Merchant in a room together, you'd imagine they'd take their inspiration from schoolboy pranks and juvenile jokes. The reality is rather surprising. "We use mood boards. Poems, music, reminding us of the place, the time, of what we're writing. For The Office, for instance, Betjeman's poem about Slough was there, reminding us. For Men at the Pru, it's Springsteen: Thunder Road. We need to be sure of every aspect of what's being created, and, yes, I am a control freak. Always have been. They could have said, at the beginning: 'No, we're not doing The Office like that, we're changing it,' and I would have been fine -- shame, but gone back myself to working in an office. But I don't see the point in that compromise. There's that quote about a camel being a horse designed by a committee -- I love that quote. I don't think creativity can work like that. I remember getting an email when they did the first testings of the American Office, and their focus groups had tested worse than anything in the history of . . . anything. Well, so had The Office here: tests were awful, the figures were outrageously bad. I simply wrote back saying congratulations, same here, it'll be a triumph. Which it was."
He breaks off, rocks gently on his chair in the spring sunshine, to recall one attempted piece of editorial interference: not mocking, necessarily, but amused. "After the first series they had a letter from Slough County Council. Asking for some input. We don't want to actually script edit or anything, they said, but you do realise that the place is changing, and perhaps you could reflect . . . Right. I can just see how we would have pulled that off. Me looking out the window, going . . . 'Say what you like, Dawn, but this new pedestrianisation initiative in Slough is really working. And clever work with the traffic lights.' Yes, that would have worked." There is no insane chortle, but there is a big, big smile. This creativity, could it simply be an end in itself? Does he actually want to change anything?
"I don't know if we can. I don't know if any comedian can. I know a lot kid themselves. Trying to bring down the Coca-Cola company. Or thinking George W Bush is going to bed in tears because someone had a pop at him in Jongleurs.
"But creating something . . . it is so terribly, terribly important. I've got, now, far too many ideas I want to do. My head aches if I don't. When I'm shooting this film, I'll be thinking of the Pru. When working on that, I'll be thinking of something else, something next. I have to have a lot of projects. And yes I do have a great job, it pays ridiculously well, I am my own boss, and I'm pretty good at it: but there is a rush. I need to do things. If you want to get into a little cod psychology, then yes, it's because I started late. I feel I need to make up for lost time."
He and his long-term partner, Jane, have no children: he has said many times they never will. They have their quiet life in London -- "almost normal. Almost. I do my normal things, but in my own way. I'll walk up and down Hampstead, but won't go for drinks in the pubs, just see friends at home. Yes, I have my pyjamas on early, and no, I still don't go to many parties: I have to chat to people, have to interact, and often I simply can't wait to get home.
"But everyone gets to a point where they feel the need to leave a legacy. Something they've brought into the world. It is so urgent, so important. You have to do something creative. Not a film or a book or a painting or whatever, it could be a garden. A tiny garden, a bit of a garden, something that's yours, your idea: your very own . . . shrubbery. And lots of people could do it, be more creative, but they don't. I was one, couldn't do it or wasn't really doing it for fear of failure. What happened? I met Stephen Merchant, who woke me up. Said nice things. That happened."
It's an absolutely fair point, and self-aware, that he's not here to change anything, just to add to it. But, I say, simply by watching his shows, or the stand-up comedy, you feel there are aspects of life which he really hates. Hypocrisy, for instance? Recreational charity, perhaps?
"Well, yes, a bit, there is that. When I did Comic Relief, I was in Africa, and there was a bit of upset over me crying on camera when people realised what I was doing was . . .well, taking the piss. But I do think, of course it's serious, awful, but when you get actors, celebs, out there, I do think it is absolutely possible, if they are crying, when they are crying, to ask for the camera to turn away. Rather than looking for it, and looking like you're trying to gain attention through crying. Maybe it was the wrong thing to do, try to get a laugh out of Comic Relief.
"But there are three things I really hate. Religious intolerance. Ignoring the laws of the land, of humanity, in favour of ones they've made up about a God who didn't say them in the first place, who doesn't exist, who they've made up, and it's just 'Shut the fuck up, you fascists'. Also, deliberate ill treatment of animals, people who treat their dogs in that way, or run bullfights; I could happily put a spike through the back of their heads. People wearing fur. Sometimes I wish there was a God, to punish them."
He pauses, before describing his third pet hate. "People who just make things up. When they're not true. I don't mind people saying I'm useless. Fat. Saying The Office and Extras were shit. But when someone prints an out-and-out lie, it seriously, seriously angers me: I actually want to go and find out where they live. Hell, I should just shut my mouth, shouldn't I! But for instance . . ." he begins to describe his most recent grievance, "Well, yes, I'm definitely rich. Not hugely proud of it or anything, but I do like the wealth. But I also think you have to pay tax. I think that's a good thing, and I said so. I feel guilty to an extent, and if I'm handing on 40 per cent, then fine, and I don't hugely agree with tax exiles, and said so. Then there was a story about Jenson Button, and tax, and a paper conflated the two stories, and made one up and said I had had a go, personally, at Jenson Button. Not, not true. Not true. It wasn't actually true, wasn't the case, actually, so how can someone write that?"
But the love-hate relationship with the press is always, surely, going to be here, always was: ever since they began to champion him. He must, constantly, be prepared for a backlash: any hint that he's getting too big for his boots? "No, no, that's OK, because I started with a backlash, on The 11 O'Clock Show. And you must remember, in this kind of industry, for everyone who loves you, two don't. It's not criticism I can't stand, it's untruth."
In the years to come, he feels he would like to phase out acting for directing. "I do love it. And the acting is tiring, all the standing. Or at least, when I'm acting, be sitting down a lot. I'd love to do a remake of Ironside."
Ricky Gervais stands and takes his genial leave, not even checking to see whether I've got the joke, which I like. David Brent would have had his head back round the corridor twice, grinning. Easy physically to remember that these two terribly different men, separated by the chasm of self-knowledge, inhabit the same body; but easy, too, to know, immensely, which one to prefer. "Ah, yes," he says. "Well. It's a strange thing. I stopped being funny when I became a comedian."