Julian Barratt is Richard Thorncroft who was Mindhorn, or so goes the premise of a hilarious new Brit flick starring the man known to many as jazz-loving Howard Moon of the The Mighty Boosh. Fitting neatly alongside Galaxy Quest and The Three Amigos within a genre of films that riff on the idea of actor mistaken for the character they play (admittedly it's not a huge genre), Mindhorn sees Barratt as the washed up Richard Thorncroft, called upon by police when an escaped killer says he will speak only to the fictional, 80s detective that Thorncroft made his name playing. It's all very silly and very funny, with an Isle of Man setting that feels as much a part of it all as the characters themselves (a sentence we never thought we'd write, readers). With the film out in cinemas right now, we had a chat with Julian about kicking crime where it hurts, and the unfinished business he has with The Mighty Boosh.
Hello Julian. Could you describe the character of Richard Thorncroft?
Well, Richard Thorncroft is an actor. He used to play a detective in the 80s, on the Isle of Man, in a show called Mindhorn. A classically trained actor, who lucked out in the 80s and got this show. Now 30 years later he's lost his way and no one knows who he is and he's angry and won't let go of the fame and the glory that was due to him. So he's sort of stewing in bitterness and regret and nostalgia, but pretending that he's not. He's full of falsehoods, ironically, because he played a man who could see the truth, but he can't see any of the truth about himself. So the line of it is to sort of balance a character that is vain and narcissistic and ambitious, with someone you can care about a little bit. At moments.
And that's kind of the journey that he goes on, right? Someone who is vain and narcissistic and a bit of an arse, who realises he's vain and narcissistic and a bit of an arse?
A little bit, yes. Not too much, but enough to feel as though a journey has been taken and something has been… I don't know if he's learnt something. He's learnt little bit. It's hard with comedy because you don't want to do too much too soon. It stops being funny. So we give him enough problems and character deformities, if you like, so you don't feel sorry for him. Because we put him through a torture mechanism, basically. The whole film is him forced to confront various nightmares. His ex-wife is now with his former stuntman, things like that. He has to come up against horror. And the mistakes he's made and the loves he's lost. So he has to hit them dead on. And in that way you need a character who is bad enough for you to enjoy that process a little bit.
You get the impression that as an actor, all you need to do is make one or two of mistakes and you end up like Richard Thorncroft…
That's right. You're only a few bad decisions away from being Richard Thorncroft. I made those decisions. You realise, it isn't granted to you, any success you have. It's very ephemeral and you need to make peace with that early on. If you don't, you're constantly grasping for the next purchase, the next foothold, on this desperate climb to where you need to be. I know I am an actor. I do act and stuff. But I don't really identify myself as an actor. So I don't know whether that's like saying, I drink all the time but I don't identify myself as an alcoholic. I like generating material and then I just tend to be in it, if I can play the part. But I wouldn't say I was multiple versatility man. I've got a narrow-ish range, but within than range I think I can do something that I can get away with.
Did you always plan to be in Mindhorn?
Sort of, yeah. Initially, I said, let's write it and maybe I'll play the part, but let's not constrict ourselves because what if I'm a bit young? Of course it took ten years to write and I was too old by the time we finished it. But, you know, the wonders of makeup and spanx and you've got yourself a twenty years ago look.
Are there any elements of yourself in him at all?
Yes. Lot's. John Cleese said the best comedy creations are the person you would be without a sense of humour. I mean, [Steve] Coogan's the same. Coogan and Partridge. There's bits of him in it and he'd admit that. But I suppose you just come across a lot of these people in the world of acting and the media. And it is terrifying becoming an actor, ageing and getting older. The march of time and the drying up of parts. Am I still valid? Does anyone really like what I do anymore? If you're not careful it can really be like a vortex. But luckily, as I say, I don't identify as an actor. I think of myself as a musician who has ended up doing something a bit odd on the side. I mean I started off doing music. In the Boosh I did music and I've written a tune for the character which we've released. I feel most comfortable doing that stuff to be honest. I do like doing comedy and writing -- it was great to try and write a film. Because structurally it was a challenge to do something at length.
How did you come to choose the Isle of Man as the setting?
Well, the short answer is tax reasons. We were thinking about the Channel Islands, because Bergerac was set there and that was sort of the inspiration for it. Bergerac and the Six Million Dollar Man. But the producer said, why don't you think about the Isle of Man? They've got good tax incentives to film there. And we thought, okay. But we never make decisions based on money, ever. So we looked at the Isle of Man and it was perfect for what we needed. As a place it was a bit like being in the 80s. It felt like not that many people knew about it. I think it used to be a sort of vacation place back in the day. Kids would go on holiday and their parents would tell them they were abroad. Richard, the main character, sort of hates the Isle of Man because it represents everything he lost in his life; the fame, the glory, the good times, the good old days. But I think the island itself comes out of it okay. They were okay when we showed the film there. They liked it and enjoyed it and didn't mind having a laugh at themselves.
You mention Bergerac. Obviously Mindhorn is sending up those shows but it does feel as though it comes from a place of affection…
Oh, yeah. I loved all those shows. I had a steady diet of them as a kid. There was nothing better than watching Starsky and Hutch on a Saturday night or Bergerac. Shoestring. Six Million Dollar Man. Quincy. Rockford Files. Miami Vice. Sweeney. They're just part of the fabric of the 80s. So we do love that sort of world, but we live in the present and we knew the character had to be a man now. Not a parody TV show. We wanted him to be a person you could sympathise with and relate to. When we discovered the idea of the phone call by the suspect asking to speak to Detective Mindhorn, we knew that was a good way to encompass all the things. The parody show, the washed up actor and the deluded fan who thinks he was real.
What are you going to be working on next?
There's going to be another Flowers. We're filming that in August, I think. Writing stuff. Writing music for Richard actually. There might be an album. I'd like to do more of that. I'd love to do another film and hopefully it won't take ten years. Hopefully nine.
Any appetite for a Boosh film?
Yeah, once Noel's got this baking thing out of his system. Once he's shaken off the bake then we'll put our heads together. There are things we haven't done, you know? Unfinished business. It'll happen at some point, I'm sure.
Mindhorn is in cinemas now.
Text Matthew Whitehouse