Meet Ricky Gervais. He’s a “shock comedian” who writes “cruel comedy”. At least, says the man himself with an air of exasperation, that’s the public’s perception, or the “myth” surrounding him. The 50-year-old is sitting in an edit facility in central London explaining himself. The “Twitter storm” that broke late last month over his use of the word “mong” has yet to engulf the comedian.
But this morning he’s already in defensive mode. He’s having to justify his past actions – he’s recently been accused of “bullying” Karl Pilkington, his fall guy in the Sky1 series An Idiot Abroad and on Channel 4’s animated Ricky Gervais Show. Is he a nasty man who exploits people for cheap laughs? No, he’s not buying that.
“The Office and Extras probably had more humanity woven in than most sitcoms. It’s ridiculous,” he sighs. “The thing is, it’s conspiracy theories – everyone thinks they know something, everyone thinks they’ve heard something. Everyone’s got the right to reply now. Everyone’s a critic, everyone’s a journalist. There’s more misinformation…”
This is, it must be said, a weak line of defence, and one that won’t help Gervais much when the “PC brigade” see his next show. If you’re offended by sloppy use of language, then a cursory look at Life’s Too Short might also get your goat.
Meet Warwick Davis. He’s the TV and film industry’s “go-to dwarf”. He first found fame aged 11 when he was cast as cuddly, furry Wicket in Return of the Jedi. Now, 28 years on, he’s (almost) familiar from his (heavily made-up) parts in the Harry Potter movies (Professor Flitwick, banking goblin Griphook).
Alongside acting, Davis runs a talent agency specialising in pocket-sized thespians, with some 100 clients on his books, and a healthy sideline in outsized actors over seven-foot. You might know him from Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s Extras, in which he played an exaggerated version of himself.
Now he has teamed up with Gervais and Merchant again to create a sitcom about a struggling dwarf actor, running a talent agency. The “Warwick Davis” of Life’s Too Short, an even more exaggerated version of the actor, is a creation as hilarious/horrific as The Office’s David Brent and Extras’ Andy Millman. “We cast Warwick to get kicked in the face in Extras,” is how Gervais recalls his and Merchant’s first encounter with the actor.
After his appearance in the hit sitcom, Davis recalls, “I started to be approached by people who wanted to do a real documentary about me and my family.” But the 41-year-old – who is married and whose eight-year-old son and 13-year-old daughter also appeared in Harry Potter – had no interest in slaking the prurient interest of film-makers.
A sitcom “loosely based” on his life, though, over which he had creative control, would be a different matter. Davis approached Gervais and Merchant with the idea. A pilot was shot. But, as Gervais remembers, it didn’t quite work. “It was too quaint, a bit arbitrary. It looked a bit like, ‘We’ve got a dwarf so let’s write a story about a dwarf…’” But when they morphed the idea into a fake documentary, the comedic potential of Life’s Too Short was obvious.
“If The Office reflected those quaint docu-soaps of the 1990s with normal people getting their 15 minutes of fame,” says Gervais, Life’s Too Short “is reflecting the modern documentary that follows D-list celebs living out every second of their lives in front of a camera – and it suddenly made sense that Warwick would do this documentary if his career was on the slide and he had a big tax bill.”
Based on the first two episodes, Life’s Too Short makes for a hat-trick of Gervais/Merchant series triumphs. It brilliantly combines The Office’s deadpan, cringeworthy humour with Extras’ gallery of celebrities lampooning themselves.
It also works on a strange meta-this or post-that level: Gervais and Merchant play bumptious versions of their own selves. In the wake of the success of their shows, the pair spend their days sitting side-by-side at a desk, fending off A-listers eager for the duo’s Midas touch, getting “Barry from EastEnders” to decorate their office, and rebuffing the increasingly desperate Davis.\t
Thus a madness-in-his-Method- acting Johnny Depp hires Davis to assist the Holly- wood star in preparing for the role of Rumpelstiltskin. A po-faced Liam Neeson asks Gervais and Merchant for help breaking into comedy. Further into the series Sting, US comedian Steve Carell, Helena Bonham Carter and Right Said Fred also let the writers’ scripts do with them what they will.
“I was worried about Sting as he’s quite serious,” says Davis. “And I had to call him a certain rude name, and every time I did it I’d apologise profusely. Ricky would come up with worst things to call him, and I’d be like, ‘Now I’ve got to say it to his face?’” he laughs. “It was like an out-of-body experience the whole time…”
All parties concerned are brusquely dismissive of the main charges of insensitivity in their fully collaborative series. Gervais states that, “I do get asked the question, ‘Are you worried that people are gonna be offended?’ And I say, ‘Well, you’ve asked that question because one of the actors is a dwarf – that’s your prejudice thinking it has to be taking the piss out of somebody.’”
“I was very relaxed about the whole thing,” offers Davis. He had “total trust in Ricky and Stephen, having looked at their track record of dealing with people with disabilities and people who are different,” he says, citing the case of Julia Fernandez – “the wheelchair one” from The Office, as she’s described in Life’s Too Short – and the cerebral palsy incident in Extras. “They do it in such a way you’re never laughing at the people with the disability, you’re laughing at the way the people around them – David Brent, Gareth, Andy Millman – get caught up in all of that.”
That said, it’s his “life” and name in the spotlight in Life’s Too Short – was there anything in the early scripts that he thought was too offensive, inappropriate or just wrongheaded? “Not really. I really trust them with this material. Of all writers, I thought they would do this justice. There was stuff that I read where I was like, ‘This is nothing I would do.’ But then, I’m playing a character here. I played an evil leprechaun in six horror movies, and I would never stab anyone with an afro comb.” Spoken like a true Gervais/Merchant comedy alumnus.
Life’s Too Short starts tonight at 9:30pm on BBC2 and BBC HD.
This is an edited version of an article from the issue of Radio Times magazine that went on sale 1 November.