Reading’s Ricky Gervais on his lockdown life and reaction to After Life season two

PUBLISHED: 16:02 04 August 2020 | UPDATED: 16:10 04 August 2020

Ricky Gervais at the Bloomsbury Theatre (c) Raph_PH, Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Ricky Gervais at the Bloomsbury Theatre (c) Raph_PH, Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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Originally from Reading, funnyman Ricky Gervais talks about the overwhelming reaction to After Life season two, plus what life has been like for him in lockdown

After Life season two has had an incredible reaction since it began streaming on Netflix. The follow-up to the hugely successful first series, which is written, directed by and stars Ricky Gervais, has had an added poignancy with its release during a time when many have fears and worries about their loved ones.

In After Life season two, Ricky returns as small-town news reporter Tony, who continues to feel the loss of his late wife – a loss that nearly drove him to suicide.

Here, Ricky, who grew up in Whitley, Reading, and based his famous series, The Office, in Slough, talks about why he thinks After Life resonates so much with TV audiences and how he’s coped with lockdown.

How have the last few months been for you?

You won’t hear me complain, not when there are nurses doing 14-hour shifts and I’m swanning around being a writer in a house with a garden. I’ve been getting on with it. My tour is postponed but we’ll do it another time, when everything is back to normal and people can enjoy it more. I’d be writing now anyway, not that I am writing [laughs] but I could be writing if I wanted to.

I’ve been doing a lot more exercise to fill the days. And there’s a lot more hours in the day when you don’t have to go anywhere for things like this [the interview]. I’ll wash but I don’t have to get dressed or get in a car. People are going to miss the hours that they have got in a day when they go back to work and commute and all those things that isn’t their time. But it’s been fine.

I mean, it’s not over. I think a lot of people, particularly in England, think it’s over now. It’s not over yet but I’m fine. I’ve always got enough booze for a nuclear winter. I’ve never liked people coming to the house, so it suits me.

With the grief people have suffered due to the pandemic, the reaction to After Life season two must have been more pronounced…

Well, first of all, the response to season one... I’d never experienced anything like it. And I don’t just mean the size of the response, that could be a reflection of Netflix having 180 million subscribers.

But it was the emotional response. My agent got 300 letters and that never happens, no one writes a letter any more. People would come up to me on the street and it was always about their loss. They’d say: “I lost my brother three weeks before I watched it,” or: “I lost my wife two years ago and I was Tony, that was me, so thank you.”

I realised that everyone is grieving all the time. And the older you get the more you’ve got to grieve about and it’s cumulative. It never goes away, it’s just how you deal with it. And that made me think I’ve got to deal with this responsibly. So he’s not better in the second season…

The response to season two was probably even bigger because it was like a word-of-mouth show. All those people – it took them a year to watch season one, but they were waiting for season two, not just because of the pandemic.

And yes, the connection with what’s happening now... People have had time to think, they’ve had time to worry about their elderly relatives. I phone my family more than I did a year ago. But there’s always grief. It’s just that you are watching something on the news and you know everyone else is going through the same thing, so there’s a camaraderie as well. We’re pack animals and even people who thought they didn’t miss people – they did.

All that made it even more poignant. But the show says: “Life goes on.” I didn’t write it with this in mind, I couldn’t have known, but people make their own connections.

We don’t like to think about these things…

The last great taboo is death. People don’t want to think about it. Comedians are fascinated with it. There’s something wrong and dark with us. We like to go there because we know it makes us and other people feel uncomfortable.

And I’ve said it before in my stand-up, I actively like to deal with contentious and taboo subjects because I do want the audience to feel a little bit uncomfortable because I want them to think about it, I want them to feel something. No harm can come from discussing taboo subjects.

It gets us to a place that they haven’t been before and that’s tantalising for comedy or drama.

You’ve compared it to leading people through a scary forest and when they look back, they say: “I survived that!”

Exactly, and in fiction, we create our own villains and heroes as role play for the soul. And so you go through all those emotions and no one really gets hurt.

But you’re still laughing and you’re still crying like it’s real. Yeah, I do like taking them through the scary forest and out the other side.

Did you know you were going to get a second season after season one?

I knew it had done well. And they actually offered it to me before it was even released, which is unheard of. But I made sure that season one was standalone, just in case.

I felt it was the end of Tony there and then…

Yeah, I always do that, in case I get hit by a bus. You always put everything into it, just in case. I don’t want to sit back and milk it. I don’t want to find a formula. I want to make it a study in something and I want to put all my eggs in one basket.

I want to burn bridges, I want to make the second season harder because I’ve killed off big characters. The same with season three. I knew there was a season three, but it had to be a demanded encore.

I said: “It’s got to go down as well as season one or even better.” They’ve got to be shouting for it. And you’ve got to be able to make it as good. I wouldn’t just do it because they demanded it if I didn’t think I could make it as good. So it needs to tick a lot of boxes. And that’s why it’s very, very finite.

I’ve already made my mind up there won’t be a four. And you do put those things out there to make you remember as it’s tempting. Studios are tempted and the audience are tempted but… there’s an old saying that “to lead the orchestra, you’ve got to turn your back on the audience”. That’s true.

The audience think they want another one, but they’re not sure. So you’ve got to be careful.

How has making this show changed your life?

You always want to do your best and be original and you want people to watch it and you want to be paid a decent amount.

And it’s lovely to be up for awards. But more and more, I realise the only thing that really matters is – was I the bravest I could be?

Was I the most honest? And stand-up taught me that as well. I don’t want to be more famous, or richer or win more awards, I just don’t.

But was I honest? Was I the bravest I could be? Am I giving the audience the best I can? That’s what drives me. Has that been done before? I get an adrenalin rush when I think: “Oh they won’t see that coming.”

That’s what excites me now, it’s just that. I do my stuff, I have a good idea, I write it down, done, let’s deal with it tomorrow. When I’m not enjoying it any more then there’s just no point. I want to enjoy every minute of the day. I want to enjoy every bit of writing.

I want to remember every sentence, where I had the idea. I want everyone to be happy on set – and we still finish at four! I’m having the best time and I go: “Right, that’s it.” That’s the only way to be because life is too short. I don’t want to punish myself for 10 years.

I’ve never been that person to go: “Well I’ll do this job I hate for 10 years and then things will be better.” That’s 10 years wasted! What are you doing?

After Life has shown a different side of you…

It’s nice to just do different things. You don’t want to get bored. I remember once I asked David Bowie: “Why do you still do it after all these years?” And he said: “To stave off the boredom before death.”

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