As we count down to the official release of Mindhorn, the new film written by and starring Julian Barratt and Simon Farnaby, we bring you the inside story of the development and making of the film, as told by the stars, cast and crew.
Ten years ago, Julian and Simon decided they wanted to make a film that was a nod to the kind of 1970’s/80’s detective shows they loved, like Bergerac and The Six Million Dollar Man – but without being a full parody. “I thought, ‘Is there a way of doing that retro detective thing, but not just be that?’” says Simon. Over a decade later, the pair turned that idea into Mindhorn.
Although the film took a long time to make, and much would change about the script, the central idea remained intact. “I said, I have this idea about a detective, but it’s the actor who played the detective, and someone calls the police saying, ‘I want to speak to the fictional detective,’” says Simon. That conceit was fleshed out by Julian, who added the idea of “a guy who wanted his career back, and this was the golden opportunity. We both went off from there” he adds.
With the pair busy on other projects, serious work didn’t begin on the Mindhorn screenplay until around 2010. “We knew we had a pretty good idea, but we didn’t write a script straight away” recalls Julian. “It was a whole process for me at the time, having not written anything longer than a thirty-minute sitcom.” Simon also admits that there was a learning curve as they slowly developed the story of the film. “We learned as we went along,” he says. “We worked quite hard on structure and trying to get it right.”
One key decision early on was to dial back the duo’s natural propensity for surrealism and absurdity. “We tried to make the police be funny, or the villains quite fun,” says Simon. “Julian spotted quickly that wasn’t going to work.” Julian elaborates: “I wanted it to be a reality that Thorncroft was coming up against. We wanted a credible type of crime and threat for him, so he realises he’s way out of his depth.”
Director Sean Foley came on board in 2014. There was just one small problem, as Foley himself disclosed in their very first meeting on the project. “I leaned over and said, ‘I don’t know if anybody’s told you, but I haven’t directed a single minute behind the camera in my life,” he says. However, he was a comedy veteran – as an actor and writer who had enjoyed West End success with a string of comedies including The Play What I Wrote and an adaptation of the classic Ealing comedy, The Ladykillers.
There was also a plan in place that would not only see Foley notch up some invaluable time behind the camera, but also significantly change the direction of Mindhorn.
That plan involved convening a small cast and crew for five days soon after Foley’s appointment, with the intention of shooting a teaser for Mindhorn. “We did that mainly to look at some of the style and the premise of the film,” says the director. But the move had other benefits too. It allowed the team to make crucial changes to the script. “We did learn a lot from that. Thorncroft had a sidekick, Rod, who was part of the pre-Isle Of Man story,” says Simon. “But he was overshadowing the comedy.” Julian concurs. “He was actually more of a mess than my character, so we backed off that and focused on Thorncroft.”
The teaser also worked as a proof of concept, helping to secure funding from Studiocanal and the BFI, while Baby Cow, the production company behind the Boosh, also came on board.
It’s very rare for a production to test the waters with a teaser, but the film’s producer, Jack Arbuthnot, is full of praise for the benefits. “Everyone should do a teaser,” he says. “We could make it for very little and try lots of things that might have set us back. We were able to hit the ground running on the main shoot in a way we wouldn’t have if we hadn’t had that trial.”
In the summer of 2015, the production decamped to the Isle Of Man for a fast and furious five-week shoot. The idea had always been to set Mindhorn on an island, in a nod to the BBC detective drama Bergerac, which took place on Jersey. Julian and Simon had considered a number of contenders, including the car-free island of Sark (“we thought it would be quite fun to have a tractor chase,” laughs Julian) and Guernsey. In the end, though, the Isle Of Man got the nod. “It usually doubles for locations, and we thought it would be fun if it was the Isle Of Man in the film,” he continues. “And we had a really good time there. It’s got such an identity.”
The island also informed the film’s story, with landmarks such as an electric railway and the giant waterwheel, The Great Laxey Wheel, being incorporated into the action. The film’s climax takes place in and around a traditional Manx parade which some viewers may think was concocted specially for the film. Not so. “It was an actual parade,” says Simon, “…that we hijacked. We went along for the day and tried to fit in around the floats.”
There was, however, one major drawback of filming on the Isle Of Man: “It was beautiful, but literally four seasons in one day,” laughs co-star Essie Davis. “Torrential rain and wind on a day that had started off as a 26-degree sunny day. And hail for the afternoon.” As a result, a subtle running gag was threaded into the framework of the movie, which posits that Mindhorn (the TV show within the movie) was set on the Isle Of Man due to its temperate microclimate. “The Isle Of Man does not have a temperate microclimate at all,” states Julian.
At one point in the film’s development, an American A-lister expressed an interest in being involved in the film – but on two conditions: one, that the action be relocated to the US, and two, that he could play Thorncroft/Mindhorn. “We refused,” says Simon. “It always felt like a character Julian should play.”
As the script progressed, the duo found that the focus of the film landed squarely on Thorncroft as a character, rather than Mindhorn himself. “Mindhorn was always this two-dimensional thing,” says Simon. “But we thought about Thorncroft a lot.”
They also didn’t shy away from daring to make the often vicious and venal Thorncroft unlikeable, at least at first. When we meet Thorncroft in the present day, he’s balding with a pot belly, shuffling from awful audition to awful audition, unable to reconnect with the success he once enjoyed. “Thorncroft is such a brilliant failure,” says Foley, the director. “He’s so unaware of how pompous he is and how misplaced his ideas are about the world and his own place in that world. But through the travails he goes through in the film he realises he is an absolute arsehole.” Simon also has a theory about Thorncroft’s narrative arc in the movie: “His journey is from lies to truth,” he says.
Accompanying him on that journey are a variety of wonderfully-drawn characters played by a brilliant British cast. As well as coming on board as a co-producer through Baby Cow, Steve Coogan jumped at the chance to play a former co-star of Thorncroft’s who has since struck out on his own to great success in the Mindhorn spin-off, Windjammer. “We wanted someone who was similar in status to Thorncroft, but who had succeeded,” says Simon. “And we wanted him to be a slightly soulless businessman with his own range of weatherproof clothing.” Steve also has a history of working with, and supporting, Julian in his comedic endeavours. “He did that quite a lot with Boosh as well,” says Julian. “When we were doing Boosh, he came and saw us, took an interest and that helped us get that away.”
Other cameos include Simon Callow playing himself, embodying the kind of successful actor Thorncroft so desperately wants to be. “We wanted Richard to be a contemporary of great actors, but he had never got their glory,” says Julian. “It’s driven by the desperation that we do have as actors. It’s quite a desperate world, and we were tapping into that.” Sir Kenneth Branagh also appears as himself, enduring one of Thorncroft’s excruciating auditions.
Russell Tovey plays Melly, the would-be criminal who drags Thorncroft/Mindhorn back out of retirement and into a murder conspiracy. “Russell brought pathos to what could have been a cheesy character, which makes that whole plot work,” says Foley.
There’s also Andrea Riseborough as DC Baines, an Isle Of Man officer assisting Thorncroft as the murky mystery deepens. Riseborough came on late in the day, taking a crucial role that had originally been written for a man. “We always wanted good actors,” explains producer Arbuthnott. “We ended up with exceptional actors. Sean talked about great actors with funny bones, and Julian and Simon knew that they needed those straight actors around them that would be their foil, in a way.”
One such foil is Essie Davis as Patricia DeVille, Thorncroft’s former co-star who has forged a life on the Isle Of Man since Thorncroft walked out on her years before. “We felt it was important to have someone who was believable and had soul and sadness,” says Julian, “but who could also give Richard some shit.” Davis, an Australian actress who recently enjoyed breakthrough success with The Babadook, was excited to get the call. “I love the Boosh,” she smiles. “They are mighty! I was utterly thrilled to have been asked to do it. Patricia is important – she’s essentially the straight guy. Richard has disappointed her so much, and as an audience you can put yourself in both sets of shoes and feel for them.”
In the film, Patricia hooks up with former Mindhorn stuntman Clive Parnevik, a Dutchman who enjoys wearing as few clothes as possible, and whose relationship with Thorncroft is contentious.
It was the perfect role for Simon, famous for his penchant for stripping off in Yonderland. “We had done a similar sparring thing in the Boosh,” says Julian. “Clive is relaxed. Richard is not relaxed. He’s quite tense. Clive is very at home with his sexuality and what he’s capable of.” Simon agrees. “He’s almost from a porno film,” he laughs. “Open-minded and free, which worked against Julian’s character in a comedic way. He’s also more sexy and slender and muscular.” Julian tuts, dramatically. “The irony is that at the time we were writing it, I was incredibly fit and made Simon look silly,” he deadpans. “So I had to put on quite a lot of weight for the movie. Otherwise it would have been embarrassing for Simon.”
The release of Mindhorn represents the culmination of a near decade-long journey for the pair. “It was one of those ideas that just keeps hanging around. They don’t come that often. It’s testament to the idea.” says Julian. “And it was really good fun,” he adds. “I would ring up Simon going, ‘you need to watch this episode of Bergerac’. You call it research, but really you just end up watching Bergerac.”
And while neither of them is keen to jump the gun, there’s a suggestion that Mindhorn could very well ride again. “The character itself could do more,” notes Julian. “I like the idea of Clive and Richard being forced to do something together, or a prequel back in the day where they don’t like each other.” At this Simon considers the lengthy gestation period of Mindhorn, and laughs. “There’s stuff we’d like to do,” he says. “But we’ll have to write it as geriatrics!”