Julian Barratt is Mindhorn, the Isle of Man’s finest TV detective, sporting a robotic eye which can literally see the truth. If that sounds like the greatest TV show never made then you’re right; but it’s also an albatross around the neck of actor Richard Thorncroft who has faded into obscurity since his show was cancelled.
In another world, Mindhorn could have been as big as Alan Partridge, and Julian Barratt could have been Steve Coogan. Both of their comedy creations share a self-reflexive outlook on male idiocy – that bulwark of British comedy – and a wickedly self-deprecating sense of humour. While Mindhorn may not match the brilliance of Partridge’s highs or his recent big-screen outing Alpha Papa, it’s worth remembering that this is Mindhorn’s debut, and Partridge was crafted over numerous cameos before he became the comedy titan we know and love today.
In a meta touch, Coogan himself actually features as Windjammer (you can’t help but love character names this silly), Mindhorn’s one-time sidekick who has since gone on to become UK TV royalty. Barratt is undoubtedly the star of this show, however, proving that he’s always been the more under-appreciated half of his Mighty Boosh partnership with Noel Fielding. Barratt has been superb in cult comedies like Nathan Barley and Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace for years, and he finally shows he’s more than the supporting straight man with this lead role.
Barratt plays the two sides of his character brilliantly, slipping into the delusional male fantasy of action hero stardom with Mindhorn and then sinking back into the faded glories of a mid-life crisis with Richard Thorncroft. These characters are at turns arrogant, sexist, selfish and cowardly, but Barratt plays them with an obvious love for the characters, balancing out their flaws with empathy and charm.
The plot sees a mentally unstable killer (Russell Tovey) demanding to speak to Mindhorn, and the police and Thorncroft are desperate enough for justice and a last shot at fame to play along. What follows is a delightfully weird rampage through TV cop tropes that never quite outgrows its small screen roots. Fictional though it may be, Mindhorn does feel tailor-made for TV. The whodunit is stretched to its limits within the tight 90 minute runtime, and although the jokes keep landing until the end, the story doesn’t quite have the same legs. The logical next step (and perhaps this was always their aim) would be to make an actual Mindhorn TV show.
The character created by Barratt and co-writer and co-star Simon Farnaby is certainly strong enough to deserve more outings, whatever size the screen. His pompous arrogance is hilarious to watch, without ever becoming unlikeable, as so many similar characters do. Co-star Farnaby also comes close to stealing the show with a brilliant performance as Clive Parnevik, Thorncroft’s Dutch ex-stuntman, who has since married his ex-wife and is enjoying the domestic bliss Thorncroft longs for.
Mindhorn is a risky prospect in this day and age: an original British comedy that doesn’t trade off an existing set of characters. Thankfully the result is more than worth a chance, delivering hilarious and slightly surreal laughs from some of the finest comedians around.
Words by Tom Bond
Mindhorn is out in cinemas on May 5, 2017