The NS Interview: Stephen Merchant

“With Ricky Gervais, it’s like a marriage and a brotherhood”

You've worked in radio, television and film. Which is your favourite?
The perk of acting is that you don't have any responsibilities apart from remembering your lines loosely. Writing and directing are very stressful but fulfilling. Radio is great fun because it's largely unpoliced. But I would rather sit at home doing nothing other than watching other people's work, if I'm honest.

You do stand-up, too. After all your success, why take the risk?
I used to do stand-up years ago. Recently, I've felt that I've got unresolved business with it. It's a challenge, and I can't hide behind Ricky.

How do audiences respond to you?
They don't know what to expect. I'll get teenagers who like a bit of naughty swearing and then the "retired major general" types who are expecting a Radio 4-style satire. I find that I generally dissatisfy most of the audience.

What's the secret of your partnership with Ricky Gervais?
At the core, it's a shared set of interests and values. We've been working together for 12 years and it's by turns like a marriage and a brotherhood. My suspicion is that we can do stuff apart, but when we do stuff together it will be better. It's got that kind of spark to it.

Did you imagine The Office would be a success all round the world?
Goodness me, no. We didn't think it would get much of a viewership here. I remember us saying we would be happy if it got a small cult audience. It seemed so specific and low-key. But it took on a life of its own.

It's a huge hit in the US. Do you think the TV culture there is better?
I think it's a question of economics. Because they've got a big mainstream TV scene, they can afford to have all this fringe TV that is very experimental. They've got the money to do it.

Are you worried about the future of the BBC under this government?
I'm always worried about the fate of the BBC. We've just made a programme for Sky, but I'm still worried about the march of Murdoch. I do not think the BBC is above criticism; my worry is when the criticism has an agenda.

Are you politically engaged?
I consume newspapers and wake up to the Today programme. But I don't affiliate to a party; I can't subscribe to a doctrine.

What do you make of the Prime Minister?
He presents himself well, but I'll be interested to see what David Cameron does once the paint starts to flake off.

Why don't you do political satire?
It needs someone really informed, like Armando Iannucci, to do it well. I don't have the kind of anger that fuels great satirists such as Chris Morris. I'm more intrigued by, say, those last days of Thatcher - by the emotion in that - than the big brushstrokes.

What draws you to that kind of material?
I'm interested in the everyday, and the idea of big emotions being experienced in seemingly small lives. I don't need to see stuff exploding. The guy who runs the local karaoke night is more interesting than a pop star.

Did your upbringing shape your approach?
I didn't have a father who was a drunk and a mother who worked three jobs - life wasn't really hard. So what intrigues me is those little bits of unhappiness that gnaw away at people.

What do you want to do next?
People assume you can only move forward, as opposed to sideways. The people I really admire, like Woody Allen or Billy Wilder, just follow whatever is interesting to them. I'd love to do a conspiracy thriller one day, or a musical.

In a different life, what would you have done?
I could imagine myself teaching. I like to think of myself as Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society. The kids would thank me when they're winning Oscars.

Where is home?
I still have a soft spot for Bristol, but London's the place I miss when I'm away too long.

Is there anything you'd like to forget?
Not really. I don't feel I've betrayed any people. I haven't done a bank heist. So far I'm sleeping at night, just about.

Is there a plan?
The plan was to try to make a sitcom that you can be proud of, that stood in some people's minds in the way Fawlty Towers did in mine. That, to a degree, came true. Now I'm just making it up as I go along.

Are we all doomed?
Ultimately the sun will burn out or consume us. But I don't think we are doomed because of a lack of God or because of our inherent cruelty to one another. There's enough great stuff in the wonders of the cosmos not to create gods.

Defining moments

1974 Born in Bristol
1997 Becomes Ricky Gervais's assistant at Xfm radio station
1998 Finalist in the Daily Telegraph Open Mic Awards
2001 First episode of The Office, co-written by Merchant and Gervais, airs on BBC2
2005 Their next series, Extras, begins
2010 The film Cemetery Junction is released, co-written and co-directed by Merchant and Gervais

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 30 August 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Face off

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The war on poaching

More than 1,100 rhinos were killed for their horns in Africa in 2016. Quasi-military conservation units are trying to stop the slaughter.

The Savé Valley Conservancy, 900 square miles of pristine wilderness in the Lowveld of south-eastern Zimbabwe, seems like a paradise.

Drive along its dirt tracks, past flat-topped acacias and vast-trunked baobab trees, and you scatter zebras and warthogs, impalas and wildebeest, kudus and waterbuck. Elephants lumber through the bush, leaving destruction in their wake. Giraffes placidly return your stares. Baboons cavort in the trees. A crowned eagle flies overhead with a rock rabbit in its talons. A pack of exquisitely patterned wild dogs lie on the warm red earth. There are lions and leopards, too, but out of sight.

My guide and I meet Bryce Clemence, the stocky, bearded outdoorsman who heads the conservancy’s Special Species Protection Unit (SSPU), by a muddy waterhole so that he can show us the most special of those species. He and a couple of his armed men lead us a few hundred yards into the bush before silently motioning us to stop. We wait, move on, stop again. Clemence points. Thirty yards away stands a two-tonne rhinoceros, a 15-year-old bull. It cannot see us, for rhinos have poor eyesight. It cannot smell us because we are downwind. But it senses our presence. Its ears revolve like miniature satellite dishes.

As we study this magnificent, primeval beast through our binoculars, one thing quickly becomes apparent. It has no horns. Normally it would have two, weighing seven kilos or more, but they have been removed in an effort to protect it. Rhino horn fetches around $60,000 a kilo in China and other east Asian countries, where it is considered an aphrodisiac and a cure for diverse ailments. This animal’s horns would have been worth more than $400,000 – a fortune in Zimbabwe, where the average household income is $62 a month and unemployment exceeds 90 per cent.

Sadly, not even de-horning works. Poachers will kill de-horned rhinos for any residual horn. In February 2015 they shot a six-month-old calf for just 30 grams of horn, Clemence tells me.

Savé Valley may look idyllic, but it is a front line in a war against rhino-poaching. More than 1,100 of the animals were killed across Africa in 2016, leaving barely 20,000 white rhinos, classified as “near threatened” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, and 5,000 “critically endangered” black rhinos. What distinguishes Savé Valley is that it has begun to turn the tide, but only because it has access to the sort of funding that most African national parks can only dream of.

Clemence’s quasi-military operation consists of 35 highly trained men, all expert trackers, supremely fit and equipped with semi-automatic rifles and radios. Working in pairs, they do ten-day stints in the bush, monitoring the conservancy’s 168 rhinos from dawn to dark and endlessly searching for human tracks – or “spoor”.

They are supported by a canine unit whose two Belgian Malinois dogs can track at night and over rocks; a substantial network of paid informants in the surrounding communities and beyond; four 4x4 vehicles and 12 motorbikes; and nearly 100 armed scouts employed by the two-dozen private ranches that make up the conservancy.

Even that force is insufficient, Clemence says. The poaching gangs are growing more sophisticated. They now use high-powered hunting rifles with silencers to shoot the rhinos, and AK-47s to ward off the rangers. Sometimes the poachers use AK-47s against rhinos too: in 2014 one was hit 23 times.

They have begun using poison. One poacher was caught after laying oranges and cabbages laced with the pesticide Temik in the path of a rhino – Temik is nicknamed “Two-step” because that is how many steps an animal takes before dying. Another poacher planned to poison a waterhole, but was thwarted by an informer. “Poisoning is disgusting because it’s totally indiscriminate and has the potential to do massive harm,” Clemence says.

He has also caught poachers preparing to use the sedatives ketamine and xylazine. Having darted a rhino, they would then hack off its horns before it woke. They once hacked off the horns of a rhino that had been knocked out by a bullet and it woke with half its head missing. The creature survived for a week before Clemence’s unit found it. Vets had to put it down. “When you catch a poacher you want to beat him to death with a pick handle and very slowly break his bones, but you have to be professional,” says David Goosen, manager of the 230-square-mile Sango ranch, which forms part of the conservancy.

The odds are stacked against the SSPU in other ways, too. The poachers are paid well by the syndicates that run them – perhaps $5,000 each for a kilo of rhino horn. And even if caught, their chances of escaping punishment are high. Thanks to bribery or incompetence, just 3 per cent of prosecutions for rhino poaching in Zimbabwe end in convictions.

“You have to virtually catch them in the field red-handed, and even then they often get away with it,” Goosen says. “As soon as they get to the police station, a well-connected lawyer turns up, which means someone higher up is looking after their interests.” The maximum sentence for intent to kill a rhino is nine years for a first offence – less than for stealing cattle.

The SSPU is prevailing nonetheless. In the first three months of 2012, when Clemence arrived, the conservancy lost 14 rhinos. In 2015 it lost 12, last year three. It has also defeated Zimbabwe’s most notorious rhino-poaching gang.

Tavengwa Mazhongwe learned his craft from his older brother, “Big Sam”, who was killed poaching in 2009. Mazhongwe was responsible for at least 150 rhino killings, including many in Savé Valley. In December 2015 Clemence learned he was planning another attack and put his rangers on alert.

They found the gang’s spoor at 6.30 one morning, and tracked the four armed men in intense heat for nine hours. The gang took great care to cover their tracks, but late in the afternoon the rangers found them resting in a river bed. The rangers opened fire, killing one and seriously wounding a second. Mazhongwe and one other man escaped, but he was arrested near Harare two weeks later and given a record 35-year sentence for multiple offences. A judge had to acquit an officer in Zimbabwe’s Central Intelligence Organisation who drove the gang to the conservancy in a government vehicle because, he complained, the police did not dare investigate govenment officials. The rangers recovered an AK-47, a Mauser rifle with silencer, an axe, rubber gloves, a medical kit, tinned food and a phone-charger pack.

“You’ll never get to where you say ‘we’ve won’, but we have won in the sense that we’ve brought poaching down to a manageable level,” Clemence says. “We’ve taken out some of the most notorious syndicates. Victory will simply be breeding more than we’re losing and having sustainable numbers to pass to the next generation.” He hopes that the conservancy’s rhino population will reach 200 within two years, enabling it to relocate some animals to other parts of Zimbabwe where the battle is going less well.

The SSPU’s success comes down to skill, motivation, organisation and – above all – resources. The unit costs $400,000 a year, and is funded mainly by foreign NGOs such as Britain’s Tusk Trust. It receives practical support from the conservancy’s private ranches, some of whom – given the dearth of tourism – have to generate the necessary funds by permitting limited elephant and lion hunting for $20,000 an animal.

Zimbabwe’s national parks have no such resources. That is why private conservancies have 80 per cent of the country’s rhinos but 1.5 per cent of its land, while the parks have 15 per cent of the land but 20 per cent of the rhinos. Within a few years most of those parks will have no rhinos at all.

Martin Fletcher’s assignment in Zimbabwe was financed by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting

This article first appeared in the 30 August 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Face off