Julian Barratt made his television debut as Victor Munro in 1996's Asylum, an experimental comedy show that would leave co-stars Simon Pegg and Jessica Hynes so impressed with Barratt's performance that they wanted to write a part for him in a TV show they were working on called Spaced. But the character of Brian, the pretentious and madcap artist, would be played by Mark Heap in the end as Barratt by this stage had entered into a blossoming comedy partnership, creating The Mighty Boosh with Noel Fielding.
That surreal show existed on stage, radio and television, retaining an almost feverish cult audience 10 years since it was last broadcast.
Barratt has also appeared in a variety of other film and television projects of equal cult allure over the years, such as Chris Morris and Charlie Brooker's hipster satire Nathan Barley and Ben Wheatley's lysergic A Field in England. Last year he put in a star turn alongside Olivia Colman in the brilliant, and darkly comedic, exploration of depression in Will Sharpe's Flowers.
This year however, Barratt is a leading man on the big screen in a film he has co-written fellow Boosh star Simon Farnaby. Mindhorn is a playful ode to Eighties detective shows in which Barratt plays Richard Thorncroft, a washed-up actor doing ads for orthopedic socks when he gets a call to assist the police with a real case due the delusions of the criminal believing Mindhorn to be a real detective.
It's a thoroughly daft but extremely enjoyable film that also sees some great supporting performances from the likes of Farnaby, Steve Coogan, Essie Davis and Russell Tovey. It’s pace and unfolding sense of action and calamity often recalling Alan Partridge’s move to the big screen in Alpha Papa. Here Barratt speaks about the film, the longevity of The Mighty Boosh and how he still can't quite figure out what it exactly it is he does.
I know you don't normally watch projects that you're in, but given the level of involvement in this one, have you seen it?
Oh yes, I've seen it many times in the editing suite and also when we screened it at the London Film Festival. You can just become a bit numb when you start watching it and it stops being the fun thing a film should be because you're in it. I'm just happy the people have reacted well to the film, I didn't know whether that was going to happen or not and I was quite nervous when I first saw it with an audience. It was a massive screening and I did worry that it could be a calamity, it could be awful, you just don't know. I wasn't even sitting down, I was going to go if the laughs didn't come, I was ready to leave and just get the hell out of there but they started to laugh and I started to sit down and I watched the film.
It restored my faith in it because you sort of lose your way a bit in the process. In the filming of it you have fun but we you get to the edit you realise that you've been to the shops and you think you've got the ingredients but you realise you haven't bought any eggs or celery, so you have to make something else. That transition can be quite painful sometimes, it can be psychologically tortuous. Simon probably wouldn't say this though, I'm probably a bit more neurotic than him, I think.
Is this film a deliberate attempt to go for the big time and make a bit of a commercial hit? It strikes me as having potential crossover appeal.
It's quite high concept, I suppose, but people did respond to it a lot. We knew it was a good idea and you don't come across really good ideas all that often. You don't need a high concept to make a great film of course, Withnail & I is not, it's probably not much on paper but it's one of the funniest films ever made.
The pitch of this film really connected with people though, even in America too there was quite a lot of interest over there. We didn't go down that route in the end and ended up doing our take on it and focusing on the small-scale fame of someone like Bergerac or that type of show, a poor man's version of The Six Million Dollar Man. I think people like the idea of it and it was a long time writing and gestating this film and it stayed compelling to us over that period.
I have no idea, though – people don't know how anything is going to work out in film, do they? It's all focused on a single weekend. I come from TV where you have a show and it's on the air for six weeks if you get it made, so you have this broad swathe of time where people can come towards your show whereas I suppose now because of the way money works in film it's all focused on this initial weekend and if it rains it's great because people go to the cinema and if it's sunny people don't go and it cuts your audience down. It's so whimsical and weird.
I found it interesting to read after seeing the film that HBO's Eastbound & Down was an influence for this as during watching it, I thought that it felt like a very, very British Kenny Powers on screen.
I love Danny McBride and I love that show. We really like that sort of stuff and he's quite a despicable character and he really pushes it. He's a massive fan of Alan Partridge actually, he's obsessed with Partridge. So it's the idea of these failed men that are compelling to people. I think you can find a different way of doing it and I think what we maybe took from someone like Kenny Powers is that you can see into his character a bit more and you see the sad and frightened man underneath.
Is there any real fear in your own life of becoming a washed up TV star?
Yeah, I mean you're never very far away from being Richard Thorncroft. It's only a few bad decisions away. I feel like life can go wrong quite easily so you have to have a bit of sympathy for these people. It's a weird profession as I don't really consider myself an actor. I did at one point and I went and started doing auditions and I was so useless at them and so demoralised by doing audition after audition and not getting them and also not being able to take it in my stride at all, I just felt crushed and worthless. Eventually I stopped doing them because I couldn't face it, I was no good, often I knew I could do it but I would not be able to perform in the room. Auditioning is a situation all in itself really and unless you know what you're doing in those rooms then you just sort of fuck it up for yourself. Or I did. So I gave up on that and I much prefer writing and producing my own stuff and writing music. The acting life can be quite scary really.
So, if a stranger comes up to you and says, 'what do you do?' What do you answer with?
I do have trouble with that. Everything I could say I feel is a bit pretentious. I could say I'm a writer or that I'm a musician but I don't really do music, I do music to go with things I'm developing. Then I do act in a few things but I'm not really an actor, I'm not a comedian but I am known for comedy. I just don't know. I feel like I'm a slightly interdisciplinary jack of all trades. I've also directed a music video for Richard Thorncroft and I love directing, so I think I'd like to do that but I don't really know where I am to be honest. When I go through customs I may say I'm in comedy and they'll ask for a joke but I can't tell any jokes at all, I've got none, it's just awkward.
Presumably that means that while you may not be able to give a snappy answer to the question, there's a positive in not being confined to one particular discipline?
Yeah, I'd like to be able to spin that like it was a decision I made, like [puts on a voice] “I just don't like to be pinned down, I like to be able reach out of any box you put me in” like a salamander. I mean, none of this is based on a decision. I was just like floundering forwards in the dark, basically going from doing stand-up to being in an acid-jazz funk band. I love all that stuff and I am enjoying the journey but it's not like a plan, I wouldn't say, 'right, what you need to do is you start doing stand-up, then you join a funk band then...'. I think a bit more messiness and side-tracking can be a good thing though.
The film explores nostalgia quite a bit. Are you nostalgic? Do you pine for old films, TV and music or are you more a forward-facing person?
I suppose where your tastes are forged is quite a resonant place to visit but I don't think everything was great then. Am I forward-thinking? I don't know, I'm a bit of a gadget freak sometimes and other times I just want to throw all technology into the sea and just go back to living in a small croft, bringing up chickens and cows.
Richard Thorncroft is a bit of a relic, still rooted in the past and part of that means he's pretty sexist. Is it tough to write for characters like that as you have a fine line you need to tread?
Yeah, we were trying to show that he's out of time and he's unreconstructed. That was one aspect of him we found funny and we were aware of making sure we weren't doing what he was guilty of it, we were conscious of bringing him up against people who weren't going to find it amusing or if they did they were playing along with him for nefarious reasons to hoodwink him in some way. We had a lot of fun with that and his attitudes. It was baked into the premise, that he was from the past.
I do like things that are not afraid to do that, I think people are afraid to say things that are considered racist or have characters that are racist or sexist as though there aren't any that exist. Because it's comedy you have to be careful and make sure you know what the joke is and for what reason and I think we've got that right. You can't really account for an audience's response to something either, look at someone like Al Murray or Harry Enfield's “loadsa money”, there's a few examples of characters that have been right-wing and ended up with a right-wing audience coming along and not getting the satire. It's odd, you can't know how they are going to react but you can't not do it because of that – it's still worth satirising these people.
I was just doing a music video for him and I suppose it is quite a sexist video really, but I was trying to show how stupid a lot of those videos were in the Eighties and how unreconstructed they were and how they're just basically frightened men who are afraid of women but are either always trying to put them on pedestals or make them into crazy demons. It's all about power and their fear of losing it.
Mindhorn is a character that he can't let go of. Has creating certain successful characters like Howard Moon from The Mighty Boosh ever been a weight around your neck to carry in that sense?
It's like you have a new child and you have a slightly grown up child and someone just asks about the older child, you sort of go “yeah, yeah, he's doing all right. He doesn't phone much anymore but he's OK”. I have a good feeling about that, though. You always want the new thing to be as good as everything else you've done but you don't really have much control on that. It's not a cross to bear at all, it's all good.
You spoke recently of watching The Mighty Boosh with your kids and that giving it a bit of a new lease of life for you. Did you ever envision the show would have such longevity and be passed onto new generations?
Initially when you come out of something like that you want to do something new, thinking you're a different kind of beast. Then that sort of passes and you start to have affection for that original thing and realise that it was a very rare thing that Noel and I did. It is rare to find someone that you click with on that level that is very different to you, who you share a vision with. Also, the timing of it, we didn't have kids and we were off on these different adventures around the world with this bizarre show we were building as we went.
It was a rare and magical thing. We love it and it's not something that seems to go away because it wasn't of its time, in a way, it was a bit more outside of time. At the time we were making it, The Office, very rooted in reality, was tearing up the globe and we were this weird, surreal, odd show that was a bit wonky and strange and looked homemade with this strange way of talking. We were very influenced by Monty Python and Terry Gilliam and we just wanted it to have this sense of fun and strangeness to it. Like watching The Goodies when I was young with my dad, something that my folks and me would watch together – that was something we did think about when we conceived that show.
It's the same with Mindhorn, albeit less strange, re-engaging with the things that shaped your young mind. Like the first time I saw The Holy Grail, I could not believe that something could be that funny. Those experiences stick in your head. So I just want to do something that could possibly be anywhere near as good as that.
What's it like to be forever associated with another person even after you've moved on from working together? For example, I imagine you'll be asked a lot about Noel being on The Great British Bake Off. Is that weird or irritating at all?
I find it quite amusing the way we're linked. It is like a brotherly thing, he's kind of a brother of mine. I don't feel angry if people ask me what he's up to. I think people might presume we live in the same flat or something or we hang out together. We see each other quite a bit but we're not necessarily aware of what the other person is up to all the time. We have a relationship that never really changes, it's like there's an ongoing double act between us.
I like partnerships, I prefer it to doing stuff on my own to be honest. I love double acts, I love Sideways, Withnail & I, these sorts of duos that aren't comedy double acts but kind of are, a great pairing of two types of characters. I really love that, I don't know why. When I did stand-up I found it quite lonely. You get this strange feeling if you do well on your own, it's really odd, it's like doing an amphetamine type drug - quite hollow. I much prefer sharing things with other people if I can. It's the idea of getting excited about something with someone else, rather than getting excited about something on your own.
I've read that you have quite a bit of an affinity for Bernard Manning who once said of The Mighty Boosh: “These two haven’t got a fucking clue. Absolute rubbish. How do they get away with it? About as funny as a burning orphanage.” Is that simultaneously the greatest insult and compliment you've ever had?
I think so, yeah. When I saw the programme [he said that on] I was in the back of my head thinking, “Is Bernard Manning going to see this and go, 'you know what, these guys are weird but they've got something”. Maybe there's a hope but no, it was [puts on thick accent] 'these two haven't got a fucking clue'. Of course he would hate what we do. Although I'm sure he was also professionally aware that he had to slag off the new crop of people, he slagged off everyone. I wouldn't say I have an affinity for him as a person. I do think he was a good jokesmith, a certain type of Northern delivery that I find quite remarkable. His joke delivery was world class but his politics were obviously wrong.
All these years on, how do you feel about Nathan Barley being credited as being something of a blueprint for, or premonition of, hipster culture?
I don't think it's had any effect, particularly. Satire doesn't really work in that way. I look at Alec Baldwin's impression of Donald Trump and know that it's not going to make any difference at all. I don't know what it does. I think the thing with the culture that Nathan Barley explored, is this idea of that we'll appropriate anything whether it's a joke at someone's expense or if it's satire or whatever it is, they just took it on board as something they could get involved with. Nathan Barley got involved in the joke and ate it up and devoured everything. Does satire do anything though? I don't know.
I had the same conversation with Armando Iannucci just recently.
I admire his shows. I think it's basically still a form of entertainment but it's just connecting politically with a moment but it's still entertainment essentially. No matter how much you make people look ridiculous I don't think it really affects them.
Has there ever been any discussion about bringing back Nathan Barley?
No, not as far as I know. Initially we had some workshops to go into a second series but that was years ago. If they said they wanted to do it I would be bang up for it because it's Chris Morris and Charlie Brooker and they are brilliant, you'd drop everything to do something with those guys. I don't think they like re-visiting stuff, they have their own trajectories and I don't think going backwards is part of their plan. Maybe you could do something about where they all are now and if they've settled down and what happened to Nathan Barley, did he evolve or not? Did any of them evolve into anything else?
What does the future hold for you? Any exciting new projects on the horizon?
Film-wise I have three or four things I'm writing and involved in trying to get made. Some are not funny at all, one is like a ghost type thing and another one is a slightly more edgy type of comedy. So, developing those, doing music, I'm doing another series of Flowers in August. So I'm actually at the stage where I need to stop doing some things and just be a bit more at home because otherwise my kids will be angry.
Julian Barratt stars in ‘Mindhorn’, which is out on 5 MayReuse content