Ricky Gervais is playing by the rules for a change.
‘I’ve been social distancing for two weeks, apart from walks on the Heath,’ says the usually maverick comedian.
He adds that no one has visited the house in Hampstead, North London, that he shares with partner Jane Fallon, and that he supports the stay-at-home rules.
‘I see people on the news who are not doing this and I know why other people are angry, because you think, “Hold on, what’s the point of me playing by the rules if everyone else is cheating?”‘
Gervais likes to push the boundaries in his stand-up shows, with jokes about terrorists, transexuals and Hitler.
He rips into Hollywood stars without mercy when presenting the Golden Globe awards. And he’s just smashed another taboo with a bleak, but hugely popular, Netflix comedy about grief called After Life, which is returning for a second series later this month.
But with the coronavirus crisis, Gervais is playing it straight.
Comedian Ricky Gervais and girlfriend Jane Fallon attend the TIME 100 Gala celebrating the ‘100 Most Influential People in the World’ in New York
Gervais in popular Netflix series After Life about local journalist Tony processing grief
‘I’m going to do exactly what I am told,’ he says.
In any case, he and Fallon like nothing better than to settle on their sofa by 6pm with a bottle of wine and a box-set, so being locked down in an eight-bedroom house with a garden that offers peace and seclusion is not too tough.
‘I can’t moan,’ Gervais admits. ‘Some people have got a tiny room with no balcony, let alone a garden, so I’m in no position to complain. I know it’s harder for most of the population than me. I’ve postponed a few gigs. We’ll do them at a better time. Do I get down a little bit? I guess so. I want it to all be over.’
We’re talking via video-link, which prompts him to muse: ‘This is the future, isn’t it? No one ever coming into contact with another human. It’s like a sci-fi movie where only you exist.’
He’s wearing his customary black T-shirt, and I notice numerous awards on the shelves behind him, including seven Bafta masks, Emmys and a couple of Golden Globes.
We’re discussing After Life, in which he plays a man called Tony whose wife, Lisa, has died of cancer. The first series featured scenes of despair, dementia, drug abuse and death – but suddenly changed half-way through to become surprisingly uplifting.
After Life was the second-most watched Netflix series in the UK last year after The Witcher, a US fantasy drama starring Henry Cavill as a monster hunter.
Gervais (left) in popular Netflix series After Life about local journalist Tony processing grief
Gervais, 58, says: ‘I’ve never had a reaction like this to anything I have made in how it resonated with people. They came up to me on the street, saying things like, “I loved After Life. I lost my brother three months ago…” Everyone has lost someone or something that they loved.’
The second series will see Tony, a local newspaper reporter in a sleepy English town, still struggling with grief, but being cheered up by the quirky people around him.
‘It’s the saga of a man grieving the love of his life. Tony is going through the seven stages of grief. He’s entering the bargaining phase. Does getting drunk work? No. How about being angry? No. Does volunteering help? Yes, it helps a bit. He’s going: “What can I do to find peace?”‘
The idea for the series came out of his love for Jane Fallon, 59, his partner since they met as students at University College London in 1982.
Now a novelist, she was a successful television producer long before he got his first break, in 2001, with BBC comedy The Office.
Gervais explains how the idea for After Life came about.
‘Imagine if you lost everything and you didn’t care about living any more. You would be free to do or say anything you chose. Then you ask, “What does losing everything mean?” My answer is losing your life partner.’
Gervais considers himself married in all but name, but has said: ‘There’s no point in us having an actual ceremony before the eyes of God because there is no God.’
So how would he be without Jane?
‘I can’t imagine it. I can’t imagine doing anything without her.’
He says he’s embarrassingly dependent on her to get through everyday life.
Gervais as David Brent in the wildly popular sitcom The Office, which spawned a US series
Once, while she was visiting her mum in Brighton, he had to call her and ask how the TV remote control worked. He goes on to refer to Penelope Wilton’s character in After Life who says she’d rather live missing her husband than have him miss her.
‘That’s how I feel. But I also want to die first – and that is selfish!’
Tony in the series says love is everything so you don’t need anything else. Though of course, that’s a lot easier for a rich man such as Gervais to write than someone who is struggling to survive.
‘Yeah, but we didn’t have any money for the first ten years we were together,’ he says. ‘Anyway, money is nothing if you are not happy. This life we have is only good because we were already happy.
‘I’ve been poor and I’ve been wealthy. Everything being equal, wealthy is better because it’s easier… but not versus the stuff that makes you happy. Nowhere near. Honestly. If it was a choice of “give it all up but keep your life partner”, I would say, “No question.”‘
But while he’d willingly abandon all his fame and fortune for Jane, ‘luckily we don’t have to make that choice’.
Gervais drew on their home life for the flashbacks in After Life, showing Tony enjoying moments of happiness with his wife Lisa, including the couple getting drunk on the sofa, playing silly games and making faces.
Gervais says: ‘Jane and I would be mucking about and I would go, ‘Oh, I can put that in After Life.’ And Jane would go, ‘Poor Kerry!’
Kerry is the actress Kerry Godliman, who plays Lisa so brilliantly – either seen in a terminal cancer ward or doing daft stuff like getting the couple’s new dog to chase a toy she calls by a rude name.
Gervais at the 2020 Golden Globe Awards 2020, where he gave a controversial speech
‘The happier the clip that Tony is watching, the sadder it is,’ Gervais says. ‘You see what he’s lost.’ There’s a heartbreaking scene when Tony films the bride and groom at a wedding but he can’t resist lingering on Lisa’s face, until she turns to face him.
‘God, yeah, filming that choked me up,’ says Gervais. In series two, the women come to the fore. Tony says they’re better than men and ‘never stop trying to bring us up to their standards’. Does Gervais believe that?
‘Not scientifically! But growing up, I thought men worked hard – but women worked miracles.’
He was born in Reading to working-class parents. ‘Dad got up at 5.30am and worked on building sites six days a week into his 70s.
‘But when he finished work, he came home and sat in his chair and had a drink. But Mum’s work wasn’t over. She made ends meet.
‘She could wallpaper, she could make clothes, she could knit, she could make a meal every day out of nothing. I always thought of those women as lionesses.’
Such thoughts make Gervais sound very different to his brash, confrontational stage persona. At one recent stand-up show, a bereaved woman in the audience walked out after he pretended to kick a dead baby.
He was using comedy to answer a question he is often asked: why he and Jane don’t have children. His message was that there are too many in this world already and, in any case, he’d be a hopeless parent.
The couple did have a much-loved third member of their family: Ollie, a Burmese cat.
But she had to be put down last month, at the age of 16 because of the pain she was suffering from kidney disease: ‘We didn’t want her to suffer for one moment longer,’ Fallon tweeted.
Gervais is a public supporter of the right to assisted dying as well as for animal rights. He says: ‘I think it was Gandhi who said: “You judge society by how it treats its animals.” That’s true.’
After Life features an alsatian called Brandy, which Gervais says, ‘metaphorically and literally, saves Tony’s life. However depressed he is, he’s not alone. He’s got a dog to come home to.’
Will Gervais himself get a new cat, or even a dog?
‘Yeah, maybe both. Perhaps once the coronavirus crisis is out of the way, we may get a rescue animal. Always a rescue. Well, they are rescuing us aren’t they, really?’
After Life was filmed many months before the virus outbreak but contains scenes that will resonate with many currently struggling to care for or stay in touch with loved ones. How does he think people will react to the series?
‘I don’t know. People will realise I made this before the world was like it is at the moment. Jokes remind people of bad things sometimes, but that’s no reason not to do them. Humour’s job is to get us over bad stuff.’
If we laugh in the face of what frightens us, it feels less frightening, is his view.
‘Comedians are drawn to it. We are naughty three-year-olds seeing what we can get away with and who can cope with it. It’s not that we are invincible. People think that if you tell jokes about taboo subjects, then nothing must worry you and you never get upset. But the opposite is true,’ he says.
‘You can joke about everything, as long as you do the right thing [in life]. We joked about my mum’s funeral. She died of cancer. You must be able to know the difference between a joke and an actual bad thing.’
Gervais has joked about coronavirus from the start of the crisis, with a Twitter video making fun of the way it was being compared to war.
But there was a serious point, too, about those flouting the rules.
‘We’re being asked to wash our hands and keep away from crowds,’ he said. ‘Not as bad as war, is it? And yet some k***heads are finding it just as hard. Don’t be a k***head. Your country needs you… to not be a f****** k***head.’
He snorts in derision at the mention of celebrity messages, such as Madonna preaching from her rosestrewn bath.
‘I’ve always teased people about being out of touch and having egos that are too big,’ he said. ‘I did it in The Office and in Extras and at the Golden Globes.’
Gervais presented the Hollywood awards for a third and final time this year.
Near-the-knuckle gags about Jeffrey Epstein, James Corden and Dame Judi Dench were followed by a reference to the movie Bird Box where, he said, ‘people survive by acting like they don’t see a thing. Sort of like working for Harvey Weinstein’.
There were shouts of protest but Gervais rounded on the audience.
‘You did it. I didn’t. You did it, so shut the f*** up.’
That awards ceremony feels like a different time, he says.
‘It is only ten weeks ago, when the worst thing that happened in the world was a joke. They [Hollywood] are not the worst people in the world. They are just a little bit up themselves. We all are, now and again. But if I don’t know someone, I assume they are basically a decent person first. That’s my default.’
I am surprised by his gentleness today, but the fact is that After Life shows a more reflective side of Ricky Gervais.
‘I am still a human being. Being a comedian doesn’t give me the right to go round upsetting people,’ he says. ‘I wouldn’t enjoy that anyway.’
This kinder, cuddlier Ricky Gervais signs off.
‘Stay well. Wash your hands. Cuddle your dog,’ he says.