How would he like to die? What’s happening with The Men From The Pru? And why is he wearing pyjamas in a graveyard? Our greatest comedy misery-guts reveals all
As well as being a protection from the unsettling glare of his fame, the Giorgio Armani sunglasses Ricky Gervais wears are a concession, a hint at his status as the British comedian, writer and director who went to America and came back with an armful of Emmys, Golden Globes and Hollywood contracts. But at least he is not wearing them indoors. We are wandering through a dappled churchyard not far from his house (and his office) in Hampstead, and the sun is shining.
Gervais couldn’t be accused of dressing like a star, though. Tramp would be closer to the mark – a 47-year-old tramp who hasn’t shaved for days and is wearing trainers, a cord coat and what looks like a pair of the pyjamas they give you when you fly long haul in first class.
At the mention of these I get to hear the manic Gervais laugh that is familiar to fans of his podcasts. ‘They are pyjamas! But I got them from M&S. I do wear the ones with the v-neck that you get on airlines. I walk around the house in them looking like William Shatner as he is now, not how he was in Star Trek. I always choose what to wear based on how soft and comfortable the clothes are. There’s no point killing yourself.’
When we come to a bench which has a slat missing on one side, Gervais half-heartedly offers me the good side, but having just listened to him explain how important comfort is to him, I insist on taking the bad. He quickly agrees, on condition that I mention that he offered.
We sit down and contemplate the gravestones, some gothic, some lichen covered, some at strange angles, thanks to subsidence. Shelley would have approved. He was never far from a graveyard. Nothing he liked better than a memento mori.
On the subject of which, there is a photograph of Gervais taken years ago when he was the epicene singer in a new romantic band. Does he contemplate that photograph now and weep for his lost youth? ‘No, but whenever it is brought out I do groan, not because I’m embarrassed at how I looked then but about how I look now. I had great cheekbones then. I removed all the mirrors from my house in about 1990.’
Gervais likes this graveyard, but not out of religious sentiment. Indeed he is a patron of the National Secular Society. ‘I feel angry that I even have to say I am atheist. The alternative is so ludicrous to me. I don’t want to dignify the idea of religion by saying that. The burden of proof should be on their side, not mine. I feel like saying to Richard Dawkins: “Don’t bother. Not worth it.” I know there is no God more than I know anything else in this world.’
Gervais became an atheist at the age of eight when Bob, his older brother by 11 years, asked him why he believed in God. ‘My mother went “Bob!” and that was it. I knew she was hiding something and he was telling the truth. My tool to understanding throughout my life has been non-verbal communication, observing the minutia of human behaviour. It’s in my acting and my writing and that was where it began.’
I ask if he is familiar with an Arthur Miller quote about mankind’s craving for immortality – that it is as futile as scratching your name on a cube of ice on a hot July afternoon. ‘No, but I like that. I would like The Office to be still considered good in 20 years’ time, but after I’m dead I don’t care. I don’t care what it says on my gravestone.’
How will the papers report his death, does he suppose? ‘It depends how I die. I might have won an Oscar and found the cure for Aids but if I die by slipping and landing on a giant spike, the headline will be “Man Dies From Spike Up A—.”‘ He’s laughing again now, as am I. ‘The awful thing will be the funeral when people who haven’t read the papers ask how I died and when they are told they will get the giggles.’
Gervais met his partner, Jane Fallon, when they were at University College, London. They decided not to have children but to concentrate on their careers instead (she is a television producer and a novelist).
I ask what he makes of the idea that there is a form of immortality in passing on your DNA. ‘That’s just scratching your name in a cube of ice in a very cold country,’ he says. ‘It’s not real immortality. There are loads of reasons why people have children. You think it will be nice and good and worth the hassle. But in human terms, procreation hasn’t been about propagating the species for years. We’re safe. The human race is good.
‘So I don’t think the genetic legacy idea works. I don’t think people on their deathbeds go: “At least half my DNA is still walking around.” They say: “Can you remove this spike from my a—, please. Say it went through my head and it happened while I was saving a child from a burning building. And it wasn’t even my child”.’
Gervais stretches out on the bench. There is a chinking sound of coins falling on the ground. ‘My money has fallen out! Now you’re going to see me scrabbling around in an undignified way in case it’s a pound. If it’s 20p I’ll leave it. That’s the problem with wearing pyjamas.’ He gives up looking. ‘Karl says you’re alright, by the way. That’s high praise from him. That’s like getting six out of 10 from a teacher who never normally gives more than three.’
Karl is Karl Pilkington and two and a half years ago I became the first journalist in the world to interview him. I don’t imagine he has done many interviews since because he is a man completely lacking in ambition and, as Gervais regularly points out, he is ‘f—ing lazy’. Pilkington acts as a deadpan muse to Gervais and his writing partner Steve Merchant. The three do podcasts together, the most listened to podcasts in podcast history, and lately they have been bringing out a series of downloadable audiobooks, too, called The Ricky Gervais Guide to…
So far they have done guides to the arts, medicine, natural history and philosophy, clocking up around three million sales per episode. The latest, available from next week, is The Ricky Gervais Guide to… The English. Later, when I email Karl to tell him how it went with Gervais, he replies: ‘People always say he’s nice but that’s cos he doesn’t try squeezing your head.’
‘Me and Steve treat Karl like an experiment,’ he says now. ‘We’re a couple of chancers going around 19th-century America with a thing in a cage.’
For all the abuse Gervais directs at Pilkington, he loves him really and the two talk on the phone several times a day. In fact, if you want to know the real Ricky Gervais you could do worse than see him through the strange prism of Karl Pilkington. ‘Karl is a lovely man with unexpected talents such as dancing, editing and illustrating. He’s an idiot savant who will make you see a subject in a way you have never seen it before. He’s a friend first and foremost, but, well I know how to work him, get the best out of him. He’s the funniest bloke I know, sometimes intentionally, sometimes unintentionally.’
On the podcasts, Pilkington will say something so unexpected Gervais will lose his breath as he giggles like a hyena and says: ‘I’m gonna die! I’m gonna die!’ Pilkington, he reckons, inhabits a cartoon world. ‘He doesn’t have a malicious bone in his body. Completely unpretentious. Pretension is a concept that doesn’t exist in his world. He’s not comfortable when things go right. It’s like he feels guilty about the audio books doing so well because he doesn’t consider them a proper job. He goes down to Kent and does painting and decorating as well because that feels more like real work. He feels guilty about how easy the podcasts are. I’ve gone through the same thing, to an extent.’
There is nothing Pilkington wants, he adds. ‘And I’m a bit like that. I didn’t want fame and neither does he. And we are both creatures of habit. The only difference between us is formal education. I’m not ambitious in the sense that I will be prepared to compromise to get an extra million viewers. It’s like if they say there is a red carpet event I should attend because it will help the film I refuse to go. They are saying the wrong thing to me. They are always saying the wrong thing.’
Who ‘they’ are is not clear but you suspect it is uncreative people, administrators, conformists. Gervais doesn’t seem to hang out with other celebrities much. He prefers staying in watching television to going out. But Pilkington reckons there is more to it than that. He doesn’t use the word ‘misanthrope’, but that is what he means. He points to the fact that Gervais can’t bear hearing people chewing, for example. ‘I don’t know whether it’s a phobia or a neurosis,’ Gervais now says, ‘but it’s often justified. The sound of traffic, mating geese, thunderstorms, no problem. But if there is someone next door with their telly on too loud I want to go around and kill them.’
As for his other flaws, Gervais admits he has the attention span of a toddler and can be grumpy, too. ‘When it comes to creativity I’m ready for war. I’ll square up if someone says they have “notes” on something I’ve written. Steve will say: “Calm down, Rick, calm down.” He’s a very calm person. When Steve was 23 he was 52.’
They met in 1997 when Gervais was presenting a radio show on the music station Xfm. He needed an assistant and hired Merchant, a man 13 years younger than him, and a foot taller. Gervais would make Merchant laugh with a character he called Seedy Boss. One day Merchant filmed him for fun and, after that, they began writing a comedy around the character.
The BBC commissioned a pilot and, in 2001, it broadcast the first episode of The Office, with Seedy Boss now called David Brent. A new genre was born, the comedy of embarrassment, and… we know the rest. The Office has now been shown in 70 countries worldwide and has been remade eight times, the latest being the Israeli version. India is also planning a version and Gervais and Merchant think they might be hands on with that one, executive producing it as they did for the US version.
Extras, their follow up to The Office, explored the world of a bit-part actor, Andy Millman. It managed to be just as funny and even more moving, yet could not have been more different in approach – a testament to their confidence as writers. Now they are working on a film together, set in Seventies Reading and involving the aspirational yet ultimately frustrated lives of men working in insurance, one of whom will be played by Ralph Fiennes. It was to have been called The Men From the Pru but the real men from the Pru read the script and decided that, er, on balance they didn’t want their company name used in the title. Gervais now wants to call it Cemetery Junction after a place in Reading, but Merchant has doubts, saying he thinks it sounds too depressing.
Meanwhile, Gervais has just finished This Side of the Truth, a film he has written, directed and starred in, and which is due for release in September. The cast list reads like a Who’s Who of US comedy talent: Tina Fey, Jason Bateman, Jeffrey Tambor, Christopher Guest… Such is his control freakery he has the final edit – the only other directors who get away with this are Woody Allen and Quentin Tarantino – and the film will not be tested on audiences.
Although he starred in last autumn’s box office hit Ghost Town, Gervais did not consider that film ‘his baby’ because someone else wrote it, albeit with Gervais in mind. ‘This one is definitely my baby,’ he says. ‘It’s set in a world where humans haven’t evolved the gene for lying. I play a loser, and when I discover I can lie it becomes like a superpower.’
A couple walk past and do a double take when they see Gervais. ‘Round here people tend not to bother me,’ he says. ‘When I’m in the sticks, it’s a bit hairier. People behave as if an alien has landed. First time people started looking at me I didn’t know what they were looking at, then I remembered, “Oh yeah, I’m on the telly.”
‘The first time I was asked for my autograph I said: “Really?” and they looked hurt, like I had insulted them. Now I’m more polite. But my dread is missing a train because someone wants an autograph and I don’t want them to think I am being rude. I can’t even send my soup back now. Before I would have sent it back for being too cold but now I have to be gracious. It’s exhausting.’ He grins his fangy grin to show he’s joking. ‘It’s like I had to offer you the nice seat. And now I have to pretend that I don’t mind I’ve lost that pound coin that might only be 20p. I’m going to come back after you’ve gone and have a proper look for it.’
What do people normally shout when they see him then? ‘Well I don’t have a catchphrase so what they tend to do is the David Brent robot dance instead. What I don’t like is when people take sly pictures without asking. It’s just a matter of politeness. I don’t mind if they ask.’
What about if they were to take a photograph of him when he was out jogging? ‘I don’t care. What are they going to say? That I look fat and sweaty? I’m a comedian running. I’m not a model. What bothers me is intrusion. It would give me the creeps if someone went through my rubbish, and actually my shutters are always down to avoid long lenses. I live in a giant panic room.’
If he met his 20-year-old self right now, would he find him gauche and embarrassing? ‘I would. He was cocky. I’ve got less cocky as I’ve got older. But that 20-year-old me was only cocky because he found everything too easy. He felt sorry for kids who weren’t as clever as him. He played his cleverness down. Up until about 25, I prided myself on getting the best mark possible without trying.’
Being seen not to try, of course, gets to the heart of Englishness. So does the class system. Gervais grew up on a council estate in Reading. His father was a labourer. ‘I think class is more significant than race or sex,’ he says. ‘To this day, in a room full of overprivileged Oxbridge graduates I feel them giving me a sideways look.’
Meaning? ‘Perhaps I’m being paranoid but I do feel that they are saying: “We know… We know that eventually you are going to let yourself down. Eventually you are going to make a faux pas at this dinner party.e_SDRq’ That’s awful. ‘I don’t care. I quite like it because I’m not going to make the faux pas at this dinner party unless I mean to – you know, using the wrong knife deliberately.’
This paranoia surprises me because I don’t think I’ve ever come across anyone with an ego as healthy as his – anyone less insecure, I mean. But then perhaps there is a pattern here. When I interviewed Stephen Merchant a couple of years ago he told me: ‘Ricky has an incredible memory and a natural intelligence but is happy for people to think he is an oik from Reading.’ He also said that Gervais didn’t realise his background was working class until he went to UCL to read philosophy.
‘That’s true,’ Gervais now says. ‘I don’t think we even had a middle-class teacher at my school. I could read as well as I can now at three. I lost that art at the age of four. Got bored. I had better things to do. At the age of five I would be outside all the time turning over leaves to find a stag beetle.’
Did his father advise him not to become a labourer? ‘No, I always knew I would move away from home at 18 and go to university and everything would be all right. Blind optimism.’ A Candide figure, perhaps. But it was Mike Leigh, not Voltaire, who was the biggest influence on his formative years. ‘I remember seeing Abigail’s Party when I was 14. I loved it but hated it at the same time, because the mockery of working class aspiration was a mockery of my family. I’m a snob when it matters. Snobbery can be a shot at excellence. But if someone mocks people for breaches in etiquette, I hate that.’
I ask Gervais about his relationship with Merchant, who, though younger, seems to be the more mature of the two, or at least the less frivolous. ‘It’s us against the world. You have to be complete fascists when it comes to art. There is no room for democracy. We don’t want anyone else’s opinion. I don’t know about Steve but I do this for the fun, for the creative process, not to see my fat face on the telly. It’s about bringing something into the world. All my DNA is in the work that I’ve done.’ He stops. Shakes his head. Looks worried. ‘I ended on a pretentious note. I’d been doing well until then. F—ing hell. I also said we ended and that sounds rude, like I’m cutting the interview off… So now I’m worried about two things. I’ve been pretentious and I’ve been rude. F—! And now I’ve sworn again.’