Ricky Gervais - Directing is no joke

As Ricky Gervais's new film, Cemetery Junction, opens, James Mottram asks what it takes for TV comedians to be successful at the movies

The film industry is littered with TV comics who have tried and failed to make it on the big screen. Remember Gladiatress, the 2004 comedy set in Celtic Britain during the Roman invasion and starring the Smack the Pony gang? No? Neither do I. What about Morons from Outer Space, written by and starring Mel Smith and Griff Rhys Jones? Or the deeply disappointing Magicians, featuring the Peep Show boys David Mitchell and Robert Webb? All were consigned to the comedy graveyard, a place where comics dreaming of film careers are left dead and buried.

While all three doubtless failed due to inadequate scripts – more suitable for the half-hour TV format but stretched to feature length – they also boast one other thing in common: the stars left the directing duties in the hands of others. Even when the script is their own, as in the case of Steve Coogan's woeful big-screen outing The Parole Officer, allowing another to sit in the director's chair relinquishes the creative control they often enjoyed on their television work. Perhaps this is why more and more comedians are making the leap to film directing.

Most recently, we've seen Armando Iannucci, the writer and producer of The Day Today, steer In the Loop, his feature-length spin-off of the BBC political satire The Thick of It, to Oscar and Bafta nominations for Best Screenplay. Meanwhile, the next few weeks see the release of two films directed by comedians best known for their work on the small screen. The first, Cemetery Junction, a nostalgic growing-pains tale set in 1970s suburban England, is written and directed by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, the wildly successful duo behind The Office and Extras.

Then comes the more cerebral – though no less hilarious – Four Lions, a near-the-knuckle lampooning of a Muslim group of Sheffield suicide bombers from the mind of Chris Morris, the arch satirist behind Brass Eye. Based on a script co-written by Peep Show's Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong (making a better fist of it than they did on Magicians), it marks Morris's long-awaited debut feature, after he directed the 2004 Bafta-winning short My Wrongs 8245-8249 and 117, and a handful of episodes of his TV shows Nathan Barley and Jam. Premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, it has already drawn a favourable response in spite of its controversial targets.

Like Morris, having co-directed both The Office and Extras, Gervais and Merchant already boast considerable experience behind the camera. While Cemetery Junction is Merchant's first feature-length effort, his partner has already gone the distance. Last year, the self-proclaimed "fat bloke from Reading" – who already has a Hollywood profile, thanks to appearances in Ghost Town and Night at the Museum – made his first foray into feature-film directing with The Invention of Lying. A rather lame comedy fable, as it turned out, about a man living in a world of truth who suddenly finds out he can lie, it nevertheless gave Gervais valuable insight into what it takes to make comedy work in the cinema.

Doubtless, the actor-writer has also benefited from spending time with US comics-turned-directors, be it his Night at the Museum co-star Ben Stiller or the Spinal Tap legend Christopher Guest (who, in his most recent film, the 2006 Hollywood satire For Your Consideration, starred with and directed Gervais). Not that there is much correlation between Gervais's US outings – or, indeed, his earlier work with Merchant – and Cemetery Junction. The story of three young male friends just starting out in life, it is a much gentler and less excruciating comedy than The Office or Extras, and certainly less gimmicky than The Invention of Lying.

While Gervais and Merchant have not been afraid of sentiment before (they had the good grace to allow Tim and Dawn to finally get it on in the finale of The Office), Cemetery Junction is unashamedly feelgood. "This is the first time we've left that veil of irony behind," Gervais admitted to me recently. "The comedy is incidental. The comedy is because there's funny characters when you grow up in a world that's blue-collar and harsh and cool and exciting." Even so, the film is no Working Title-like time-warp to 1970s Britain. Elements such as the antipathy between Bruce (Tom Hughes), the most volatile of the lads, and his father layer the film with a dramatic coating.

The film's success is partly due to Gervais and Merchant's awareness that they are making a movie, not a half-hour sitcom. As a result, to portray 1970s Britain without making it look like an extended episode of Bless This House, they took inspiration from Hollywood "We glorified it a bit," says Gervais. "We glorified it like America glorified America. Like Saturday Night Fever glorified working in a paint shop and dancing at the weekends. We purposely went, 'We're going to find some cool Brits that are like James Dean and John Travolta. We're going to do Rebel without a Cause mixed with Saturday Night and Sunday Morning'."

The same cinematic ambition can be said of Morris's film, which borrows from classic Ealing comedies to put the fun into fundamentalism. Proving that terrorism is a farcical business at the best of times, Four Lions may not have one eye on Hollywood like Cemetery Junction, but neither does it feel like an overworked Brass Eye sketch. What also works in both cases is a willingness to take a back seat on screen and concentrate on directing. While Morris doesn't appear at all in his film, Merchant just makes a cameo in Cemetery Junction while Gervais – playing a bigoted factory worker and father to lead character Freddie Taylor (Christian Cooke) – appears in just a handful of scenes.

All three seem to recognise that bringing your TV persona to the big-screen doesn't automatically guarantee success. It's no coincidence that some of the greatest comedy films from Britain – namely Monty Python's Life of Brian and the team's medieval outing, Monty Python and the Holy Grail – relied not on regurgitating old characters from the BBC show. Even Sacha Baron Cohen, who experienced considerable success by bringing Borat to the big screen with the help of the Curb Your Enthusiasm director Larry Charles, previously saw his most famous character flounder in Ali G Indahouse. And it's perhaps why we have yet to – and may never – see Steve Coogan bring his finest creation, Alan Partridge, to film.

Arguably, the best comics-turned-directors have learned the oft-times brutal lesson that what worked on TV doesn't always transfer to the big screen. Take Mel Smith. After failing to make his on-screen partnership with Griff Rhys Jones work in cinemas, when they wrote and starred in Morons from Outer Space, he subsequently found much greater success directing comedy films with others in them – notably The Tall Guy and Bean, both starring Rowan Atkinson. Then again, straying too far from your comfort zone – as Ben Elton experienced on his couple- trying-to-conceive comedy Maybe Baby – is not what the fans want either.

It's a tricky balance – deliver something new, and something that works as a film to boot, without alienating the hardcore fanbase. Certainly, Gervais, Merchant, Morris and Iannucci have managed it with their recent films, all three movies suggesting these British comedians will certainly direct for the cinema again. But, as Smith says, there's only one real secret to making a good comedy film. "In the end, you make a film that you enjoy," he says. "That's really the truth. Make a film that you would go and see yourself."

'Cemetery Junction' opens on 14 April; 'Four Lions' is released on 7 May

FROM THE SUBLIME TO THE RIDICULOUS: COMICS-TURNED-DIRECTORS

The best...

Terry Jones
His later works, such as 'Erik the Viking' and 'The Wind in the Willows', disappointed. But after helming all three of the Monty Python films – twice co-directing with Terry Gilliam, while flying solo on 'Life of Brian' (above) – his place in the pantheon is assured.

Mel Smith
The former on-screen partner to Griff Rhys Jones, when Smith branched out into directing he produced the charming comedy 'The Tall Guy' (below) followed by the ultra-successful 'Bean'. In between, there was even time for 'Radioland Murders', a bizarre collaboration with George Lucas.

Eric Idle
Another ex-Python, Idle's directorial career may not have been as illustrious as Jones', but that hardly matters when you consider he made the genius spoof Beatles comedy, 'The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash'.

... and the worst

Ben Elton
The former scourge of "Mrs Thatch", and co-writer of 'The Young Ones' and 'Blackadder', Elton confirmed to all that he had sold out by directing 'Maybe Baby', a wretched comedy about a couple trying to conceive a child.

Stephen Fry
He may be a national treasure, but his horribly tepid 2003 adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's novel 'Vile Bodies' took some of the lustre off his image. Like his old 'Blackadder' cohort Elton, Fry has never directed again.

David Schwimmer
The 'Friends' star had helmed episodes of the US sitcom, and more recently, he directed six episodes of 'Little Britain USA'. But his big-screen debut, 'Run Fatboy Run', a tiresome London-set comedy starring Simon Pegg, wheezed from start to finish.

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