As Ricky Gervais's new series is full of stars, we wanted a star interviewer to discuss it - so we sent John Humphrys to meet the king of comedy.
I felt like a character in a Bateman cartoon, the one everyone was pointing at in horror: "The man who ..!"
I was presenting business awards at a posh London hotel. The programme had a picture on the front page of a slightly demented-looking character with a beard. "Is he the big winner tonight?" I asked my host. There was a long silence. "No," he said, "that's Ricky Gervais, possibly the biggest name on TV these days."
I tell Gervais that story when I go to interview him. Your average star would be offended, but all he says is: "Oh. Right." He doesn't seem in the least surprised that I haven't watched television for nearly five years.
He watches a lot of what he calls "good trash". Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares is a favourite. And he never misses Big Brother.
"You like it?" I ask.
"No, I hate it, but I can't not watch it."
He thinks it's demeaning: people going on television "to show off, to show the world how good they are". I find that a bit odd. Isn't everyone who goes on the box a bit of a show-off? No one makes you do it.
Gervais acknowledges that reality TV is what made The Office. He created David Brent because of it. Even so, Gervais savages programmes like Big Brother. "Shame on the programme-makers," he says, "and shame on us for watching it."
So will he be accepting any offers to appear on these shows? You've got to be kidding. He made it perfectly clear to me that he'd prefer to nail his tongue to the door.
Gervais says he hates his own fame: "Being recognised is the worst bit of the whole package. It's very, very strange that people can be happy just from the recognition. I'm sick of the sight of my face, so Christ knows what other people think of it."
Nor does Gervais get any satisfaction from the money he's made. There's been a lot of it - and he could have made much more. The BBC was so desperate for another series of The Office, he could have named his own price. But he walked away. "People think £10 million will make their lives better. It's ludicrous." I recall the gag about the man who said money can't buy happiness. No, said his (richer) friend, but it makes you a lot more comfortable in your misery. Is Gervais miserable?
Probably not. He laughs a lot - and when he does, it sounds as though David Brent is taking over. But he really doesn't seem to enjoy the things that wealth can buy. The night before bur interview, Jonathan Ross had taken Gervais for dinner at the Fat Duck restaurant. Its owner Heston Blumenthal produces exotic fare such as snail porridge, and wins even more awards for his food than Gervais won for The Office. Gervais said he liked chips. When the waiter delivered the main course, fish, it was accompanied by a single piece of fried potato. It's hard not to warm to a man who prefers fish and chips to snail porridge - and doesn't mind saying so to the most famous chef in the land. Gervais is a big star, but there's about as much starriness to him as there is cellulite on Mrs Beckham's thighs. Not that he's burdened with false modesty. He thinks, for instance, that God would like him. Except that he doesn't believe in God. Being an atheist makes someone a "clearer thinking, fairer person", he tells me. "They [atheists] are not doing things to be rewarded in heaven; they're doing things because they're right, because they live by a moral code."
He also thinks he's a good writer and observational comedian. But what about his acting?
"I don't consider myself a real actor, but if I've written a part, I'm the man for the role."
What Gervais doesn't do is act starry. He's seriously dismissive of his many awards: "I'm very flattered that seven people in the world thought The Office was the best show that year." There's no PR minder with him when I arrive. As for me being the interviewer, he specifically said he wanted someone who might give him a hard time. That's refreshing in these days when Z-list celebs, with less talent in their whole body than Gervais has in his little finger, demand "copy approval" before they'll expose themselves to the lightest puffball of a question. Maybe it was a smart tactic to win me over, but why should he bother to do that? There's no shortage of interview requests sitting on his desk.
Nor does he look starry: there's anapologetic air about him, as though he feels a bit guilty for having been so successful. And he certainly doesn't dress starry: he wears tracksuit bottoms for our interview and the photo session that follows. He worries a bit about how that will look in the photos - but not enough to go and change. And he does everything the photographer asks without so much as a rolled eyeball. When he does try to hurry him up a bit, it's only because I say I'm running a bit late. And when I say I laughed aloud at the episode of Extras I've seen, he seems genuinely delighted - even surprised. So to the big question: will Extras cement Gervais's reputation as the brightest comic talent on our screens, or will it prove he's a one-trick pony? Well, there's no doubt he's taking a gamble. Each show has a star (see above), and there's a risk that he'll be accused of doing the Hollywood thing of basking in reflected glory rather than relying on his own talent. Or that he'll be overshadowed.
A bigger risk (and I say this on the basis of seeing only one programme, featuring Ross Kemp) is that the stars appear as themselves, but then assume another persona. In Kemp's case, he tries to impress Gervais (who plays Andy Millman, a lowly extra on the film set) by acting the hard man. Then he's confronted by Vinnie Jones, who's also playing himself, and is shown up as a snivelling softie. Gervais is the observer, rather than the principal character who drives the story, as he was in The Office. Can it possibly be regarded in the same light?
"No. Even if it was better. Because we've had our turn." is his answer.
That's a pretty honest assessment. But then I suspect Gervais is a pretty honest sort of person. I also suspect he's got a few more turns to come.
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