Stephen Merchant: 'Harrison Ford would find a shop selling toilet roll'

The co-creator of The Office and Extras on how Ford’s 90s thrillers are helping him through lockdown and why he rarely watches comedy

I’m locked down in London with my girlfriend and we do a movie a night. I tend to curate – not because I’m dictatorial, but because she’s not that interested in doing deep-dives to see what’s just popped up on Amazon Prime.

My go-to are thrillers. We recently had an impromptu season of 90s Harrison Ford movies including The Fugitive, Patriot Games and Presumed Innocent. I miss those classy, well-made, intelligent thrillers with good leading actors. I could watch one of those every night. Feels like something Netflix should be making.

Living with Harrison Ford would be very reassuring in the lockdown. He’d get things sorted. He’s been the president, he’s been Jack Ryan, he’s stopped terrorists. He’s a man of action with a calm, cool head. He’d find a corner shop that was still selling toilet roll; he wouldn’t wait around for Ocado to deliver.

Harrison Ford as Jack Ryan in Patriot Games.
Stand and deliver ... Harrison Ford as Jack Ryan in Patriot Games. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

I’m writing something at the moment with a conman element so I’ve also been re-watching movies that might be tangentially useful, such as House of Cards, The Grifters and The Sting.

I’m aware these are all quite blokey choices, but we do mix it up. The other night we saw the new Juliette Binoche thriller, Who You Think I Am. A few days ago it was Howards End. The new version of The Invisible Man with Elisabeth Moss was great. Klute, too: Jane Fonda is just exceptional in that.

My girlfriend never remembers any movie. We could’ve seen it the week before and she’d go: what is this again? No memory of it. I get up before her and so often watch something then that I don’t think she’d especially like. More esoteric leftfield choices such as Atlantics and Ash Is Purest White, which are both fantastic.

I very rarely watch comedy. It’s too much of a busman’s holiday for me. Quite a few people have contacted me to say my film, Fighting With My Family, has become something of a lockdown favourite. It’s an optimistic movie with an uplifting ending, which is appealing at the moment; people don’t necessarily want something gloomy and grim. So that’s very pleasing. It only took a global virus for the film to really connect with people.

I haven’t rewatched Contagion; I’m not that good with things like that at the best of times. I can cope with zombies because they seem unreal but as soon as it’s any kind of actual disease you could really get I struggle. In the same way, I get very anxious any time a child is kidnapped in a movie.

I don’t know how coronavirus will change storytelling in the future. Will films have to acknowledge we were all in lockdown for six months? I suspect not. After the 1918 influenza pandemic it wasn’t as if all the subsequent Charlie Chaplin films had lots of scenes of people with the flu. Maybe people would prefer to forget about it. It depends if it changes our lives so much that you can’t not mention it.

It does change how you watch movies now. If a film was shot quite recently you can’t help thinking how oblivious they all are. And you look enviously at people doing the most pedestrian things. You see someone having a beer in a pub and go: Wow! Look at that guy! You don’t have to escape to the Star Wars universe for it to seem exotic and weird – it’s just someone in a cafe having an omelette.


Stephen Merchant

The GuardianTramp

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