A decade after The Mighty Boosh’s TV run ended, it’s Noel Fielding who has inevitably held the spotlight. Clearly the boundary-pushing surrealist of the team, he’s has huge success on panel shows, IT Crowd guest appearances, and even his own (simply terrible) sketch show. But, though his body of work and public recognition may be smaller, these ten years have also proved that it was Julian Barratt’s more grounded, tragi-comic sensibilities that lifted Boosh from memorably wacky sitcom to an all-time classic of British TV. Finally, Barratt has got around to full on movie-making with the very silly, and very funny, Mindhorn, which he stars in and co-wrote with fellow Boosh alum Simon Farnaby.
Barratt plays Richard Thorncroft, a superstar TV actor in the ‘80s thanks to his title role in cop show Mindhorn, about a detective with a bionic eye that allowed him to literally ‘see the truth’. In the present day, Thorncroft is utterly washed up, with the closest he comes to a real acting job being a fabulously uncomfortable audition as a schizophrenic Jamaican man. It’s a vanity free role for Barratt, who had to gain a lot of weight and spends plenty of time in an ugly bald cap.
Salvation for Thorncroft comes from an unlikely source. A murder has been committed on the Isle of Man, where the Mindhorn show was filmed, and an obsessive fan (Russell Tovey) is the prime suspect. Refusing to speak to the normal police, ‘the Kestrel’, as the killer dubs himself, demands an audience with Mindhorn, so Thorncroft has to squeeze back into his old suit and eyepatch to save the day. Immediately exasperating and infuriating the local police, especially lead detective on the case Baines (Andrea Riseborough), it soon becomes clear that Thorncroft has only taken the case on to get back into the limelight and hook up again with old flame and former co-star Pat Deville (Essie Davis).
With a conceited and delusional failure attempting to get his celebrity back in a niche UK setting as the thrust of the film, the spirit of Alan Partridge hangs unavoidably over Mindhorn. To its credit, the film embraces this fully, even going so far as to have Steve Coogan in a central role as the actor whose Mindhorn spinoff show – entitled Windjammer – ended up being astronomically more successful than the original. As the case against the Kestrel progresses, there are some Hot Fuzz-esque twists and turns, and the way that Barratt and Farnaby weave all the film’s stories together in the raucous, go-for-broke final act is remarkably satisfying, as well as hilarious.
As anyone who has watched Boosh can attest, Barratt is a master of both subtle dejection and wonderfully overblown rictus expressions of cowardly horror, and Thorncroft gives him plenty of chances to show off his full range. There are no direct references to his Howard Moon days, but there are plenty of moments that will feel familiar to fans, including appearances from Farnaby as Thorncroft’s moronic stuntman and other recognisable Boosh support, with the whole cast getting at least one proper belly laugh moment. Debut director Sean Foley doesn’t go in for any particularly flashy techniques, but he’s got a real knack for recreating the feel of ’80s action TV without going in to too obviously spoofy territory.
For every instance where Mindhorn stretches itself too thin or goes too broad, there’s always an inspired joke or set-piece to bring things back. From a long sequence in which Thorncroft is dressed as his own action figure, complete with ridiculous hair and a muscle suit, to a poignant moment so brutally undercut that the laugh arrives a full second or two after the shock, Barratt and Farnaby have crafted a uniquely silly, but still utterly English, cinematic comedy. Whether its appeal stretches far beyond those already well-versed in UK sitcoms remains to be seen, but it is definitely the funniest film of 2017 so far.