Mindhorn: Julian Barratt’s limp, laugh-an-hour ode to naff TV

 Barratt usually plays the jumped-up buffoon who is never quite as classy, clever or hilarious as he believes himself to be. Unfortunately, that could double as a description of Mindhorn.

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The Mighty Boosh was the most doolally British comedy series since Monty Python’s Flying Circus but a promised movie version looks less likely than ever since the show’s director, Paul King, had a box-office smash with Paddington (a sequel arrives in Nov­ember) and Noel Fielding was announced as a spicy new ingredient in The Great British Bake Off. That leaves his co-star Julian Barratt, an endearing actor capable of locating pockets of pathos in his chosen persona: he’s usually the jumped-up buffoon who is never quite as classy, clever or hilarious as he believes himself to be. Unfortunately, that could double as a description of Mindhorn.

Barratt plays Richard Thorncroft, a washed-up TV star whose glory days as the Manx detective Bruce Mindhorn are a distant memory. In that role, he wore an eyepatch studded with a glowing red bionic eye that enabled him to see the truth in any situation. The irony is that Thorncroft couldn’t see the truth about himself. Back then, he was an alcoholic braggart with sickening fashion sense (tangerine roll-neck, tan leather jacket, slacks). Now he’s wearing a toupee and a girdle and is fuming over having just lost a job to John Nettles. This is all familiar Alan Partridge territory and it’s not surprising that Steve Coogan’s production company, Baby Cow, co-produced Mindhorn, while Coogan appears as Thorncroft’s preening former co-star, who has prospered as the face of a cagoule company.

Comedians of this vintage have made a pretty penny out of spoofing the crap tele­vision they grew up on, the high-water mark being Matthew Holness’s lovingly crummy Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace. It’s a way of paying a twisted sort of homage – and of processing retrospectively what we were too young to comprehend properly as children when we watched through the balusters on the stairs while we were meant to be in bed. Only later did it dawn on us that adults may not have been as stable or as confident as they appeared. The admission that the TV we loved might also have had its shortcomings represents a miniature version of that breakthrough.

Mindhorn’s director, Sean Foley, stages some cheesy mock-ups of retro action sequences, with Thorncroft rolling needlessly over a car bonnet, though its writers, Barratt and Simon Farnaby (who stars as a Dutch stuntman), have erred in making the Mindhorn series a 1990s phenomenon when the confluence of elements from The Six Million Dollar Man, Bergerac and The Professionals clearly dates it to the 1970s or 1980s.

To their nostalgia for naffness, the film-makers have added another aspect: a super-fan who believes Bruce Mindhorn to be real. The Kestrel (Russell Tovey) has been linked to a recent murder on the Isle of Man but is refusing to negotiate with anyone other than the red-eyed detective. Not quite grasping the gravity of the situation, Thorncroft turns up at the police station, orders an Americano from a passing WPC and asks the chief superintendent to stick a few people on the guest list. The Kestrel isn’t the only one living in a fantasy world.

To dabble in this sort of comedy, you’d better make sure your film is at least as amusing as Three Amigos, in which a beleaguered Mexican village enlists a trio of ­namby-pamby movie stars to defend them from actual bandits, or the wonderful Galaxy Quest, which transposes the same scenario to space. Not only is the film not up to snuff in that regard but it also does away with this promising idea in a handful of scenes. Possibly the writers realised too late that they’d painted themselves into a corner with their explanation for the Kestrel’s delusions. He experienced a severe personal trauma while watching Mindhorn at the age of nine, you see, and has been mentally frozen at that age ever since. Hardly prime comedy material.

The film-makers have called in all their favours – luvvie cameos (Simon Callow, Kenneth Branagh), decent actors (Andrea Riseborough, Harriet Walter) and an executive producer with clout (Ridley Scott). But a few extra drafts of the script might have made this more than a smile-out-loud, laugh-an-hour experience.

Mindhorn (15) is directed by Sean Foley

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article appears in the 04 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Russian Revolution

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