Mindhorn – why do Brits love a loser?

Actor and Mindhorn's co-writer Simon Farnaby says washed-up characters make the best comedy

Meet Mindhorn. He’s the latest of a very British breed, whose potential for self-deception is fathomless and whose ego seems to grow in inverse proportion to their actual talent and ability. Mindhorn joins the ranks of Alan Partridge, Basil Fawlty and David Brent, heroes we love to see flail and fail – but secretly root for nonetheless.

Mindhorn is a character from a fictional 1980s Isle of Man-set detective show, played by Richard Thorncroft, who ex-Mighty Boosh-er Julian Barratt portrays in the film Mindhorn, in cinemas this week. The washed-up Thorncroft is enlisted by the police to help track a murderer on the run who believes Mindhorn is real. Back in the spotlight, Thorncroft turns out to be an even worse crime fighter than he was actor.

Simon Farnaby, best known as one of the Horrible Histories gang, wrote and co-stars in the film with Barratt, and explains that Mindhorn was inspired by shows like The Saint, Bergerac and The Six Million Dollar Man, which haven’t aged particularly well.

Basil Fawlty’s anxiety is his status and how people view him. David Brent and Alan Partridge have that

“There’s the theorem: tragedy plus time equals comedy,” Farnaby says. “It works for anything that takes itself seriously. Serious drama plus time… There’s a great scene in The Six Million Dollar Man when he does battle with a yeti [portrayed by Andre the Giant]. Yet you look at Lee Majors and it’s like he’s in Hamlet.

“We listened to interviews with David Suchet, Trevor Eve and all these sorts of actors, should I say respected but slightly pompous, always talking about their craft and process. Trevor Eve talks about Shoestring like a long lost brother: “I was happy to be recognised for Shoestring but I’m more interested in theatre…”

Simon Farnaby plays Clive in Mindhorn

Does every actor fear turning into a Richard Thorncroft?

“It’s funny because I think Julian has turned into him,” Farnaby says. “I went to drama school but Julian didn’t – he’s a street actor, it’s all raw talent! But I remember one of my drama teachers saying, ‘There is nothing more important than your character’s shoes. They are literally what grounds your character to the ground’. Julian found that funny so we built that into his character Thorncroft. Then onset you’d find Julian going, ‘Could I get my shoes?’. The director would say, ‘We can’t see your feet, Julian’ and he’d reply that he needed them to feel like the character. You find yourself turning into these actors whether you like it or not.”

Mindhorn is a pathetic loser, yet just as we take other screen losers to our hearts, we want to see him win in the end.

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“It’s to do with status, which is to do with our old class system,” Farnaby says. “Basil Fawlty’s anxiety is his status and how people view him. David Brent and Alan Partridge have that – the gap between how they see themselves and how we see them, it’s their blind spot.”

Steve Coogan shows up in Mindhorn playing an actor who also starred in the Mindhorn TV series but then continued to have a successful career. In other words, he’s a villain.

“The character he plays is just an arsehole,” Farnaby says. “And I think he enjoyed playing that straight-up arsehole – there’s no one better.”

Mindhorn is out now in cinemas