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Tricky Ricky's a smash hit in the US


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Onwards and upwards: Ricky Gervais with his partner Jane Fallon


Bedecked in huge designer sunglasses and reclining behind the blacked-out windows of a unashamedly showy stretch limousine, Ricky Gervais has, in recent weeks, been navigating the streets of New York accompanied by his personal "property finder".


The brief: to find for the comedian a suitably gracious residence in the fashionable districts of Soho or Tribeca.


These days the demands of the Reading-born labourer's son are exacting.


He has decreed that for the £3 million he has to spend, his new American home must be imposing enough to allow him to entertain his growing band of Hollywood "mates".


He has also ruled - and only half in jest - that it must not be too far from "Bobby's place". Bobby, he is happy to inform the uninitiated is his new best friend Robert De Niro.


All of which is rather grand and not a little self-indulgent. But then Gervais is proving something of a natural when it comes to treating himself to the privileges on offer, thanks to newfound fame in America.


He has, say friends, become quickly and impressively blase about the piles of embossed invitations he receives to some of the most swanky parties.


Nor is he fazed by the prospect of performing his live stand-up show at New York's Madison Square Garden.


Which is hardly surprising given that he has just appeared in his first Hollywood role with Ben Stiller in America's No. 1 box office smash, A Night At The Museum.


At the same time the U.S. version of his hit TV series The Office is a huge success, he has sold five million DVDs and his comedy podcasts have gone into the Guinness Book Of Records as the most downloaded ever.


No wonder the portly Gervais, 45, is feeling rather pleased with himself.


Not least because he is about to swop the modest rented flat he has shared with his girlfriend of 25 years for another lavish residence - this time among the British showbiz set.


He has invested £3.5million in an impressive Victorian townhouse in Hampstead, North London, where he can rub shoulders with his friend Jonathan Ross, plus fellow local residents Gwyneth Paltrow and Coldplay's Chris Martin.


Not that his arrival has met with the unanimous approval of the residents of this decidedly upmarket neighbourhood.


Even before Gervais has moved in with his partner, Jane Fallon, a TV executive-turned-novelist, they are already enmeshed in a disagreement with their soon-to-be neighbours over a £1million renovation.


Workmen are digging below the foundations to build a subterranean swimming pool, gym, games room and even a state-of-the-art golf simulator.


All of which has been creating a deafening racket in the designated conservation area thanks to two pounding generators and a compressor, operating six days a week.


Next-door neighbour Angela Humphery told the Mail: "The noise has been horrendous."


It has caused, say neighbours, a high-volume fall-out between Mrs


Humphery, a travel writer and photographer, who has lived in the road with her husband for nearly 40 years, and the formidable Miss Fallon, whose best-known productions include Teachers and controversial drama This Life.


One resident said: "Everyone is seething about the noise. The whole area shakes. There won't be many inviting them round for coffee when they finally arrive.


"Angela and her husband Martin are very sweet people, but their lives have been made a misery. Frankly, I don't know why Ricky Gervais didn't just buy a place in Essex. Hampstead is a village. We don't do swimming pools."


The row came to a head last week when Miss Fallon, who has remained with Gervais in their Bloomsbury flat while the work is done, put the phone down on Mrs Humphery.


Another neighbour said: "Before the work started a month ago, Jane went round to see the Humpherys and said they could contact her any time. She also very kindly said she would get them tickets to Ricky's stand-up show in London in the autumn.


"Angela rang her last week to give her some dates, but she has been so upset that I'm afraid when Jane asked how she was, it all came out. She said she and Martin are living under siege. She regrets it now, but she told Jane that she and Ricky should have bought a house that already had a pool and wasn't in such a residential area.


"Jane told Angela she thought it was very insensitive of her to ask for tickets and then tell her she didn't want them as a neighbour. Angela was instantly sorry and tried to apologise, but Jane said 'I don't want this conversation' and put the phone down."


Upsetting the neighbours apart, Gervais, who shot to fame as selfimportant paper merchants' manager David Brent in BBC's The Office, has, it must be said, developed something of an air of imperiousness of late.


Just last month in an interview with the Los Angeles Times he branded as "idiots" Brits who did not understand Extras - his most recent comedy series about struggling bit-part actors.


At the same time he was bemoaning getting stopped in the street by fans and even by other celebrities.


"A fellow celebrity thinks he can be your friend just because he has been on telly, too," he opined.


He has also got into hot water during his hugely acclaimed live tour for his often painfully nearthe-knuckle humour.


In January he was forced to defend himself to the grieving parents of Ipswich prostitute Tania Nicol after he claimed on stage that the best way to become famous was to kill a hooker.


Gervais - who is a devoted fan of Left-wing politician Tony Benn, and who survived in a succession of low-paid jobs until he was 36 - delights in teasing his audience with the idea that success has spoiled him.


Witness the "ironic" introduction to his sell-out live shows which focus on his musings on the subject of his newfound fame.


The stage is dominated by a 10ft high model of the Emmy award he won for The Office and he arrives with a crown and cloak to a fanfare and announcement proclaiming him: "Hollywood's hottest Brit - the Podfather."


Hardly subtle, but then Gervais has much to brag about.


Celebrities are queuing up to work with him. David Bowie, Robert De Niro and Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe have all


appeared as themselves on Extras. And given his new mainstream success, it is hardly surprising that Gervais - long the darling of the cool set - has also witnessed something of a backlash.


Viewers of BBC3 voted him one of the most annoying people of 2006. He has also come in for flak in recent months for a series of obsequious interviews with his heroes such as U.S. comic Garry Shandling and Spinal Tap creator Christopher Guest on his Channel 4 series Ricky Gervais Meets.


Notwithstanding, he has landed a part opposite De Niro in the forthcoming fantasy movie Stardust, which is being written by another friend - Jonathan Ross's wife Jane Goldman.


Not that he needs the money. He has made a second fortune from his children's books, Flanimals.


All of which is a long way from his upbringing as the youngest of four children on a council estate in Reading, Berkshire, with his mother and French-Canadian father.


After studying philosophy at University College London, where he met Miss Fallon, he stayed on for seven years as Student Union entertainment officer.


While Miss Fallon went on to early success as the producer of EastEnders, Gervais was plucked from obscurity after he co-wrote The Office with Stephen Merchant.


Now Gervais has set his sights on writing a Hollywood romance starring George Clooney and Sandra Bullock. There will be, it seems, no shortage of takers.


Of course, as well as his new London home and grand New York bolthole, his burgeoning movie career will also involve a suitable home in Hollywood.


But rather than risk falling out with his famous neighbours, Ricky Gervais might be advised not to plan too many home improvements.



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Comedy, says Ricky Gervais, Britain's finest and most successful contemporary comic, is "easy". It's like falling off a log to him; he could write something funny right here. "If someone ran in and said: 'Oh my God, we need a sketch for three people and it's got to be about this', I could do it. I could do it as I spoke, it would rattle off my tongue. It's easy."


We are sitting in a particularly uninspiring back-stage dressing room at Birmingham's National Indor Arena, whose stage Gervais will take later tonight on the Fame stand-up tour. He is dressed like a roadie in jeans and black Tshirt, and isn't nearly as plump as he appears on TV, though, at five foot eight, he's definitely as short. Clothes aren't a priority. Once, as he walked the red carpet on his way to an awards ceremony, he was asked by a TV reporter to name the designer who'd made his suit. "I said I really didn't know. So she said, don't you like getting dressed up? And I said, 'No I f***ing hate it. I'd be here in my pyjamas if I could.'" Afterwards, he worried that he was rude, but it was a pretty daft question. "I'll talk about comedy until the cows come home, but I don't want to talk about the shampoo I use."


And, sure, he's funny - in a rather prickly, clearly instinctive way, like the witty, acerbic bloke in the pub or, yes, in the office. He does the odd gag ("Ooooh, he's just asked me to pop my top off!" to a bemused security guard , a s he's photographed), and otherwise spatters his answers with that heavy irony, that glance to the complicit camera, that has become a kind of trademark.


But at 45 Gervais is by no means an unserious person. He is at times an outrageous comedy and TV snob, and at others surprisingly vehement in his loathing, say, of the C-list celebrity culture. Yet you could easily argue, paradoxically, that his huge success is largely the result of the intense seriousness with which he views both comedy in general, and his career in particular.


His great facility for writing great comedy - his stand-up, the record-breaking podcasts; The Office and Extras - and now his role in the box-office hit A Night at the Museum with Ben Stiller have clearly made him very famous and very, very rich. (He owns a place in Bloomsbury and a £2.5 million mansion in Hampstead, intowhich he and his long-term partner TV producer Jane Fallon will move this summer, once the builders are finished and is said to be looking for a £3 million home in New York at which to entertain his Hollywood "mates".) Yet Gervais claims to be truly comfortable with neither stardom nor wealth. "I can categorically say that having money is better than not having money," he says. "But how much money do you need, you know?"


In the first few years, he says, when the money started rolling in from The Office - the syndication, the DVDs - he found that "it ruined it all a bit for me". I ask him what on earth he means. Millions of pounds? He didn't want them? "No, really, for the first couple of years, I'd get a cheque through the post and I'd go, oh ..." he mimes glancing at it, and then putting it down unhappily. "I thought it was distasteful. I suppose I felt guilty for making such a lot of money for doing something that is such good fun, but also, I'm not fighting in the trenches, I'm not a nurse doing an 18-hour day ... I want people to know that the money has never been a driving force in what I do."


It's a key insight, I think - if you believe him. Throughout our interview, Gervais returns to the touchstone of his career as a writer and comedian: his refusal to compromise the "vision" he and co-creator Stephen Merchant first had when they dreamt up The Office, and his refusal to concede any artistic control ever since. "I wouldn't have changed a single word [of The Office] even if it had meant an extra million viewers," he says. And later: "If the BBC had said, you can't play David Brent because we're giving that to, I dunno, Bill Treacher, I'd have said, no. And I'd have taken it somewhere else, or maybe it wouldn't have got made."


What really matters to him, he insists, isn't money or the recognition or the cabinet full of awards (though he does go on about the awards) but the "integrity" of the "product". This is the central conceit around which he and Merchant built the second series of Extras. The misery of sitcom writer Andy Millman, who does compromise, is at the heart of every gag.


Not that Gervais was always this highminded. In the late Nineties, he kicked around a number of low-rent sketch and chat shows before teaming up with Merchant, whom he met at radio station Xfm. Merchant was in his early twenties; a media studies graduate who wanted to be a stand-up comic. "I'd muck around a lot and make him laugh," says Gervais. He had a character called Seedy Boss, "which I was going to do nothing with" but who was David Brent. Merchant went on a BBC training course, and as an exercise in production techniques, filmed Gervais's Seedy Boss. This mini-fake-documentary fell into the hands of suits at BBC2, who commissioned a pilot.


Gervais was 40 when The Office reached the screen and though Merchant had a galvanising influence, I wonder why it took him so long to exploit his talent. "I never tried. I never bothered," he says. Brought up on a council estate in Reading, Gervais was the fourth child in a family that valued the work ethic. His dad, born in Quebec, was a labourer and his mum a housewife. "The most important thing growing up was get a decent job, live a normal life and have a laugh. As long as you didn't miss a day's work, you were allowed to have a laugh." Yet: "I was incredibly lazy. I never sat around thinking: 'One day I'll do it.' Like most creative people, I had ideas for six novels that I never got round to starting and 12 films that didn't get past the credits. Then I took redundancy from Xfm and thought, this is the chance. They gave me about £10,000 and I thought: I can live on that for a year."


With acclaim for The Office came, very quickly, the trappings of celebrity, or at least the offer of them. The panel show invites and the film scripts were on his doormat almost before the credits had rolled. "Steve had common sense beyond his years," says Gervais. "At 23, he knew the score. We knew people who made the mistake of doing 30 panel shows, 30 adverts and five bad British films as soon as they got a hit. In the early days, I'd say to Steve: 'Look, I've been invited on to this!' And he'd say: 'Would Woody Allen do that?


Would Billy Wilder do that?'" Gervais laughs, maybe at the comparison. But no, they wouldn't - and so, cannily, neither did he.


And how he hates people who court fame for fame's sake. Fame is a great comedic theme of his, of course - from David Brent, who thinks fame is the route to happiness, to self-aware Andy Millman, who discovers it's so not. In Extras Gervais subverts fame by getting the famous to parody their public, famous selves - a move that, in the real world, makes them more famous by association with Gervais.


"I despise those people who are never famous enough," he remarks. "Fame is nothing, nothing. It's never meant anything to me." His voice is raised now. "These people who, when they're going to rehab, call the papers before they call a cab! F***ing hell. Love me or I'll kill myself !"


If Robert De Niro and Samuel L Jackson were the blockbusting "guest stars" of Extras, Keith Chegwin and Les Dennis provided the car-crash moments. Chegwin became a racist, homophobic weirdo; Dennis, a self-pitying, unfunny cuckold. Was it hard to persuade them to do it? "They were big asks," says Gervais. "They're the ones that resonate, the ones that provide that comedy of embarrassment, that Schadenfreude, the feeling you've seen into someone's soul and wish you hadn't. They're just like us: they have car trouble and sometimes, you know, the milk goes off - which never happens to De Niro or Sam Jackson - and because you think you know them, you feel their pain more.


"It was particularly close-to-the-knuckle stuff with Les Dennis, and I thought he was great to accept and do some of the lines. I have to say, obviously he's not like that in real life ... I also have to say they're both really good actors."


Extras, like The Office, settled down to ratings of about four million in Britain on BBC2. Gervais claims not to care much about ratings and that sitcoms written for a broad popular demographic - comedy "by committee", he calls it - are almost always rubbish. "It's not Terry and June, no. I think Stephen and I were watching the early rounds of X Factor, and he turned to me and said: 'You know why we always get four million people watching our stuff ? Because the rest of the population want to be a contestant on this."


He laughs loudly, that inimitable cackle. "There are four million people in Britain who'd never enter Big Brother, never enter X Factor, and they're the ones who watch us ... I always wanted a door policy on my club. I don't want people who are not - right."


Yet he is extremely proud that Extras is now a nationwide hit in America. Gervais sounds like Robbie Williams's agent when he explains the "breaking" of America but factor in his appearance in Night at the Museum, and he's pretty big over there. Not long ago, he shared a bill with Jack Black, Will Ferrell, his mate Stiller, and - wow - Jerry Seinfeld, at a benefit gig in New York.


Next, Gervais and Merchant will write an Extras special to wrap up the story. Then they're going to concentrate on "a drama with funny bits", as Gervais puts it. They've been watching the great American shows, The Sopranos, The West Wing, 24, but are equally drawn to British classics such as Billy Liar.


What he wants, he says, is to do something fundamentally less easy. " I've learned that working hard for something is the reward in itself. When I grew up, I was born clever and never had to try hard and I liked the idea of getting top marks without studying. I've changed my mind now. I don't find any joy in anything that comes easy. It's like I had that revelation at the age of 38.


"I'm not sweating blood over comedy, and most things I come up with are 90 per cent there in the first take. But it's the last 10 per cent that really matters. That's the fun bit, and that's the hardest bit, and it's the bit most people don't bother with. I remember how Stephen and I got excited the first time we came up with the joke [for The Office], and how we jumped around the room for an hour. We thought about it for 24 hours, came back the next day and had to find another minute that good. That's the joy for me and Stephen."




Favourite London restaurant: The Ivy, because it panders to my proletarian tastes. Well, proletarian with money to spend. I'm quite squeamish with food - I can basically eat chicken and mince - and I like their shepherd's pie. I have been known to go to posh restaurants and have fish and chips on the way back.

I love to walk: from Teddington to Richmond. Really lovely. Feels a bit like you could be in the country.


The last film I saw: Martin Scorsese's The Departed. It went straight into my top 10. When it started, I got a little tingle and thought, I'm going to love the next two hours - and I did.


What's on my iPod: Dylan, Neil Young, David Bowie, Cat Stevens, some folk, U2, Radiohead, Coldplay - all the big boys. And The Killers, who are my new favourite band.


Favourite London building: The University of London Senate House in Bloomsbury. I love that 1930s architecture. So strong and austere. I've never got bored of that building and I walk by it every day.


The second series of Extras is on DVD, £21.99. Ricky Gervais Live at Hammersmith Apollo, 3-29 September, 0870 145 1163.



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