The spectres of Bergerac, Steve Austin and Alan Partridge converge in this pathos-tinged comedy from the alumni of The Mighty Boosh that could well be subtitled “Alpha Papa Goes to the Isle of Man”. When a washed-up actor, once famous for playing “the best TV detective ever”, is called back to his old island stamping ground to assist the police in a murder inquiry, he spies a headline-grabbing opportunity: “TV cop helps real cops solve crime!” Lively if somewhat familiar riffs about fading British celebrities with delusions of grandeur ensue, with co-writers/stars Julian Barratt and Simon Farnaby producing just enough dramatic steam to keep this televisual locomotive rolling through a landscape that is alternately madcap, messy and melancholy. The results may be as uneven as the famously changeable Manx weather, but they are also sporadically hilarious as we rattle through what director Sean Foley calls a story in which “an arsehole realises that he’s an arsehole”.
After years of figure-trimming hosiery adverts, balding has-been Richard Thorncroft (Barratt) is in no position to be picky about his roles. So when a suspected serial killer (Russell Tovey) insists that he will speak only to fictional crimebuster Bruce P Mindhorn, whose bionically enhanced eye can “literally see truth”, Thorncroft grabs his wig and heads across the Irish Sea in search of a career revival.
Back on the island, his path crosses with that of former co-star/lover Patricia Deville (The Babadook’s brilliant Essie Davis), now a TV journalist and partner of Thorncroft’s one-time stuntman Clive Parnevik (Farnaby sporting short shorts, bare chest and an Austin Powers-style “smoke-and-a-pancake” Dutch accent.) Meanwhile, his small-screen sidekick Peter Easterman (Steve Coogan) is living the island high life after striking gold with his Mindhorn spin-off series Windjammer, peddling a strange mix of sleuthing and weather-resistant clothing that has somehow permeated the popular consciousness.
From early recreations of the delightfully dismal titular show to the soft-rock anthem You Can’t Handcuff the Wind that makes the end credits a must-stay, Mindhorn keeps the laughs coming, even while giving the impression of being a 30-minute TV sketch stretched out to a 90-minute feature. Crucially, we just about believe that a TV show this terrible really could have spawned action figures and fawning magazine covers back in the 80, the era in which Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace supposedly proved “so risky, so dangerous, so goddam crazy” that broadcast bosses banned it.
Barratt is queasily comfortable as the tragicomic buffoon who steps into character by slipping on a pair of talismanic shoes and fine-tunes his performances through bouts of “dramatic capoeira”. Crash-zooms into Mindhorn’s trademark eyepatch (a nod to Kurt Russell’s altogether cooler Snake Plissken from Escape From New York) have comic kitsch appeal, but there’s something else stirring beneath the x-ray-eye prosthetics – a very British fear of failure and humiliation that harks back to the painful comedy of manners once parlayed by the likes of John Cleese.
An impressive supporting cast adds heft, with top marks going to the mercurial Davis who lends real oomph to the object of Thorncroft’s thwarted desire, a glamorous career woman oozing the smooth, confident success that her former partner pitifully craves. David Schofield and Andrea Riseborough are excellent, too, as the police officers struggling to cope with Thorncroft’s idiocy, the merest whiff of the small-town cops from Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz tingeing their otherwise admirably straight-faced performances. Meanwhile, Kenneth Branagh and Simon Callow gamely play themselves in self-deprecating cameos.
As for the Isle of Man, having provided eye-catching scenery for a dizzying array of movies (everything from rural Ireland in Waking Ned to the theatres of 1930s New York City in Me and Orson Welles), Mona’s Isle here gets a rare and welcome chance to play itself. From the steam packet sea terminal in Douglas to the spectacular Laxey Wheel, first-time feature director Foley (whose distinguished theatre CV includes The Play What I Wrote) takes us on a whistlestop tour of island landmarks. It all adds breezy charm, harking back to the innocently scenic adventures of George Formby in the 1935 TT comedy No Limit, ironically conjuring a visual love letter to the IOM despite the inevitable “limited gene pool” gags that locals have long learned to take on the chin.