Back in 1989, Mindhorn was a popular television cop show starring Richard Thorncroft (Julian Barratt) in the role that made him a star. The plot had it that Detective Bruce Mindhorn had been surgically augmented in Eastern Europe so that he had a mechanical eye which could literally "see the truth" of the suspects he encountered, leading to many an action sequence around the setting of the programme, The Isle of Man. The public loved it, but Thorncroft revelled in his fame too far and wound up a washed up hasbeen all these years later, getting by with adverts for orthopaedic socks, not that he is about to accept his day is done. When he receives a call to return to the island, he doesn't realise he is in for the role of his life...
The British love of failure has informed many of its most popular comedy creations, and there was little liked more than watching a sad little man (or indeed woman) with delusions of grandeur constantly having his ego punctured, so Mindhorn was merely the latest in a long line of such characters, and found a receptive audience as a result. Not blockbuster level, but it made a name for itself as a reliable bet for solid laughs, and much of that was down to the grasp of the ridiculous that the script by stars Barratt and Simon Farnaby put across. Perhaps they were not breaking down any humorous barriers or pushing back boundaries, but they displayed a canny ability to get to the heart of what made each situation funny.
Always useful when making a comedy, but the understanding that Mindhorn was a pathetic soul who blew his big chance at a lasting career was what fuelled the narrative, and since this was one of the fictions about actors, and was penned by actors, there was a sense that they were indulging in a little "there but for the grace of God" musings rather than cruel laughter at the losers of their profession. Fortunately, the people involved were talented enough to create their own vehicles that turned out to be what audiences wanted to see rather than the coasting on nostalgia Thorncroft has been reduced to, although this did highlight how actors were at the mercy of the material, and getting offered the best material when quite often that wasn't going to happen.
When Thorncroft hears through his agent (Harriet Walter) that the Isle of Man police wish to invite him back to the place, he is reluctant until he finds out what they want him for: a murder has occurred there and he can help, because the suspect has made a demand that he will only talk to Mindhorn. Our hero makes the journey and slips into his old persona just as comfortably as his all-important shoes (proper footwear being vital for the roles he plays), but manages to allow that ego of his to run rampant and sabotage the investigation. However, after a fashion and a lot of faffing about, the suspect, Paul Melly aka The Kestrel (Russell Tovey), has been apprehended and Thorncroft finds his brief resurgence of fame jeopardised by his own foolish decisions and the fact that he is none too popular on the island.
That's what you get for badmouthing the region in an embarrassing Terry Wogan interview, but he's just as unpopular with those who stayed there and were involved with his TV show, including his co-star and ex Patricia Deville (Essie Davis), who has taken up with Thorncroft's stuntman Clive (Farnaby), or his old sidekick Peter Eastman (Steve Coogan), whose spin-off from Mindhorn proved far more successful and made him a very wealthy man. At every turn Thorncroft's deficiencies are rubbed in his face, and thankfully there was a measure of pathos, not overbearing but an undercurrent that suggested some sympathy with the tragic underachiever we were spending time with. That events offer him a shot at redemption was an old cliché in many a thriller of this type, but we were watching a comedy, so it had to be absurd, even unbelievable, that the faded star would succeed against the odds. With its consistent run of big laughs, maybe that's all that mattered here, but the milieu was more pointed than it maybe admitted. Music by David Holmes and Keefus Ciancia.
[Studio Canal have released Mindhorn on DVD. Those abundant extras in full:
Commentary by Julian Barratt and Simon Farnaby
Film Shout Outs
Thieves in the Cinema ad
The Mind of Mindhorn
Richard Thorncroft Interview
Clive Parnevik Stunt Masterclass
Music Video: You Can't Handcuff The Wind by Richard Thorncroft.]