Actor and comedian Julian Barratt has made a very funny British comedy with his friend, the brilliant Horrible Histories actor and Paddington writer, Simon Farnaby. Here they discuss the making of Mindhorn with Tom Hodgkinson
How does a pub chat turn into something real? Julian Barratt of The Mighty Boosh and Simon Farnaby of Horrible Histories – two of this century’s finest TV creations – have got together to write and star in a wonderful new feature film comedy called Mindhorn. Set on the Isle of Man, it follows the misadventures of a washed-up TV actor called Richard Thorncroft who, in the 1980s, played the eponymous TV detective Mindhorn, replete with tan leather jacket, turtleneck sweater, moustache, Jaguar XJS and Rula Lenska-style girlfriend. Plus an eyepatch that allows him “to see the truth”. Played by Barratt, Thorncroft has the opportunity to make a comeback by helping Isle of Man police with their enquiries: a crazed serial killer has said that he will talk to Mindhorn, and Mindhorn only. But Thorncroft must face his old nemesis, Clive, his former stuntman, a horrible Dutch character played by Farnaby. Steve Coogan and Simon Callow have cameos. It’s directed by Sean Foley. Mindhorn is very silly and very funny – and was ten years in the making.
Here is an extract from the long rambly chat we did for the new issue of the Idler.
Tom Hodgkinson: How did this all start?
Julian Barratt: We wanted to find a way to have fun parodying detective shows, but also to have a storyline and people that we cared about.
Simon Farnaby: You can love a genre, but you still need a twist. What was that Will Ferrell film where they’d obviously enjoyed the Spanish soap operas? Wasn’t it called Nacho Libre?
JB: No, not Nacho Libre, that’s the Jack Black one.
SF: Anyway, they did an entire film speaking in Spanish [It was Casa de mi Padre, 2012]. They obviously loved the genre, and found it funny. But when you watch it, there’s no real twist on it. So the challenge was to do something about TV detectives but with a twist on it. That’s how the “actor” idea came.
JB: Simon initially had the idea of a bloke ringing the police saying, “There’s a serial killer … he’s asking to speak to Mindhorn,” and they go, “Who’s Mindhorn? It was a show on TV, I can’t remember …” That main idea allows you to explore an actor who’s down on his luck.
SF: Originally we thought we’d have to pepper the whole thing with bits from Mindhorn’s original show, because that would be the funniest bit. But as we worked on the story of the actor who played the character, the more he became the focus of the comedy.
TH: Tell me about the writing process.
SF: It was pretty loose in the early days.
JB: Yeah, quite a lot of pub chats.
SF: Lots of pub chats.
JB: Then we pitched it around and it was getting a good response. We realised we were on to something, so we decided to properly write up this thing. Then you pace around in someone’s kitchen, or someone’s house or living room for a bit, often there’ll be one person writing…
SF: One person paces and the other one writes. We would then send each other ideas as they came. I’d get emails from Julian at 5am.
TH: Simon, you said that both of you studied the form, read the classic “How To Do It” screenwriting books. What were those books?
SF: Save the Cat, by Blake Schneider, is a good one. Robert McKee’s Story. No one has ever read the whole of Robert McKee’s Story.
JB: I read it and threw it across the room. It made me so angry. I found my graffitied copy of it, it had swastikas all over it, all over his face. Because I was so annoyed with him telling me what I could and couldn’t do. I would throw it away and then quietly get it again and look at it.
SF: It does that to you. McKee says you have to start the scene negatively and end it positively, or start positively and end it negatively, for your lead character. If you don’t do that then your script is bullshit! He says that. With exclamation marks. That gets you quite angry because it actually doesn’t have to be like that. He sets it out in a very black and white way, that makes you feel like there’s no creativity in it all. And he’ll say that, “If you think it’s not creative, you’re right! Just do it.” And then at the end he’ll go, “but it’s so creative, so wonderful.” No, it’s not. You’ve just killed it. Another one was Into the Woods [Into the Woods: How Stories Work and Why We Tell Them by John Yorke]. Did you read that?
JB: Yeah, I had a little look. Initially I was really excited about it because you think you’re going to find the answer to everything. Then I realised it was just the same stuff again.
SF: There’s a lot of woods metaphors. He says, all a film is is “Man goes up a tree, man throws stones at the man, man comes down the tree”. And that’s your three act structure.
TH: Did you go back and watch famous detective shows to get the vibe?
SF: We watched a bit of Bergerac. Shoestring. Chinese Detective.
JB: Dempsey and Makepeace.
SF: Minder. The Professionals.
JB: The Saint. It was sort of an amalgam of all of it but we were trying to think of where we wanted to set it, timewise. We were aiming at a show that happened at the end of the eighties. Initially we were looking at shows from way earlier. Six Million Dollar Man was a big one. We sort of imagined a slightly later version of that, shot on the Isle of Man.
TH: There’s a bit of David Soul in there as well, isn’t there?
SF: Yeah, a bit of Starsky and Hutch.
JB: He had an ill-fated singing career as well somewhere along the line – the same as Dennis Waterman out of Minder.
TH: The girlfriend in Mindhorn also has a sort of Rula Lenska vibe.
SF: Julian bought me Dennis Waterman’s autobiography, which is called Reminder, and of course, [Mindhorn actor] Richard Thorncroft’s autobiography in his dream sequence is called Remindhorn. It’s all about how Rula Lenska doesn’t let him play golf. And it’s all about how he just wants to drink and play golf. And she spoils his life and it’s not fun anymore. I don’t know how he’s getting on now. They got divorced.
Mindhorn opens on 5 May: http://www.mindhorn.co.uk
A longer version of this interview appears in the Idler 54, the May/June issue. Order here