“He’s an areshole but within the arsehole there’s a heart,” says writer and comedian Julian Barratt of his new and clearly complex comic creation Richard Thorncroft. Once a prolific actor famed for his turn as the semi-bionic Detective Mindhorn in a 1980s cop show that made Knight Rider look suave, Thorncroft had it all: fame, respect, a robotic eye that could literally see the truth. A man’s man and a ladies man, hunting down wrongdoers on the Isle of Man, Mindhorn was a hit. However, it wasn’t long before Richard Thorncroft discovered the fickle nature of fame.
Cut to 2017 and the washed-up star has seen better days but when a deranged serial killer, who believes Mindhorn is real, forces him to return to his Isle of Man stomping ground, Thorncroft’s offered a rare chance at redemption and more importantly, a bit of a career boost. “I think everyone’s only a couple of bad decisions away from being Richard Thorncroft,” Barratt tells Big Issue North when we catch up with him a few weeks before Mindhorn’s theatrical debut. “Arrogance, selfishness, bitterness, envy – it’s not far below the surface of almost everyone, unless you’ve been in therapy since you were born. Most people have access to that reservoir of emotions so it’s quite good fun to go there and play those things.”
Bursting onto the scene with cult hit The Mighty Boosh in 2003, Barratt has since kept a decidedly lower profile than his Boosh buddy Noel Fielding, avoiding panel shows for select appearances in indie movies and slick telly spots. And when he and writing partner Simon Farnaby stumbled upon the idea for Mindhorn the duo knew they had something special on their hands.
“I’m an incredible baker so I don’t know why they didn’t come to me really.”
“A friend of ours, Olly Ralfe, who’s a singer-songwriter, wrote a song about a man called Bruno Mindhorn,” recalls Barratt. “He wrote it for the Boosh – it was like a surrealist poem. But the name Mindhorn was just something Simon thought sounded like a detective.”
A detective with a very specific skill set, apparently. “His skills were up for grabs when we first came up with the name. We thought maybe he could have a cybernetic nose that smelled the truth. We had all these ideas about him being a normal bloke that’s robotic in some way. Eventually we landed on an eye that can see the truth. It’s a rather silly idea but it was just silly enough. You might call him the Bionic Bergerac.”
“He’s an idiot and he’s kind of dislikeable. He’s sort of racist and sexist and all sort of ‘ists’ and constructed as out of date, out of shape and out of luck but there’s something within him that’s not wholly disgusting and despicable. If you get through all those layers of rubbishness you might find something. It’s just fun to play.”
Infused with a similar strain of off-the-wall, oddball humour that made Barratt’s turn as Howard Moon in The Mighty Boosh so enduring, Mindhorn has late-night cult gem written all over it. While brilliant cameos from the likes of Steve Coogan and Kenneth Branagh certainly help, the majority of the legwork comes from Barratt’s expert comedy chops. “When I was growing up The Pink Panther was quite big, then Python. They were the things that I was into,” says Leeds-born Barratt.
Is there such thing as a distinctly northern comedic style? “It does seem like that sometimes, yeah. When I saw Vic and Bob it sort of reminded me of a lot of people that I knew in Leeds – slightly odd people who were really funny and strange. Different towns seem to have different comedic styles.”
But Barratt’s current comedic tendencies are a little more leftfield. “I’m rewatching Miami Vice at the moment actually. I was initially watching it because I’m trying to make a music video for Richard Thorncroft and I thought I’d watch some Miami Vice to get into the vibe. Now I’m just watching it, not even ironically. When I’m on my own at night I secretly watch Miami Vice – no one else wants to watch it with me so I’m just watching it and really enjoying it. I’m not sure what that means.”
Whatever it means, it looks like this won’t be the last time we see Barratt take centre stage on the big screen. But those crossing fingers for a movie version of The Mighty Boosh may have to hold out a little longer. “Noel and I still see each other quite often because we live very close to each other but we’re doing different things at the moment. We’ve made it and we’re very proud of it and there’s lots of things we haven’t done with it which we could do. I think when we both feel that the time is right we’ll do something. Obviously he’s got to do the Bake Off so we’ll see how he feels after he’s done a bit of baking. I’m an incredible baker so I don’t know why they didn’t come to me really.”
Does Barratt see himself venturing behind the camera? “Yeah, I’d love to direct. I think that’s what I’d like to do next year,” he tells us before hinting that this might not be the last we’ve seen of Detective Mindhorn. “There’s more to be done with him, I think. He’s quite a good character to explore, a certain type of pompous masculinity. I’d quite like to do something live with him as well. He’s like a weird car that you can get inside and drive about in. It’s quite fun to get into that vehicle.”
Mindhorn is released in cinemas on 5 May