‘Mindhorn’ Review: The Best British Comedy in Years

Chris Tilly

Mindhorn screened at the Glasgow Film Festival and hits UK screens on May 5. There’s no word yet on a US release date.

Julian Barrett as Richard Thorncroft as Mindhorn.

What is Mindhorn About?

Mindhorn was one of the most popular sleuths on British television in the 1980s. His eye removed and replaced with an optic lie-detector, he could literally see the truth. Making him the greatest plain-clothes cop the Isle of Man had ever known. But when Mindhorn was cancelled, the work dried up and the fame faded for the man who played the title character – Richard Thorncroft. A cold-blooded killer throws the washed up actor a life-line however; the criminal’s obsession with the show meaning Thorncroft must revive the character one last time to deliver the performance of his life.

A Tale of Two Idiots

First things first – Mindhorn wasn’t actually a real TV show. But watching this film’s hilarious prologue – which owes as much to cult sitcom Garth Marenghi’s Dark Place as it does to the likes of fictional super-sleuths Bergerac and Lovejoy – you’d be forgiven for thinking it is.

The screenplay perfectly captures what made those provincial TV detectives so strangely lovable. Mindhorn is like a cut-price version of the bionic man – less six million dollars and more six quid and a couple of postal orders.

His eye-patch, tan leather jacket, handle-bar moustache, and prehistoric attitude towards women make Mindhorn a very ‘80s kind of cool, and you can imagine watching him solve uninspired crimes every Sunday at tea-time.

Richard Thorncroft meanwhile, is a lovable idiot. We meet him 25 years after a disastrous chat-show appearance caused the cancellation of his show, with Thorncroft now little more than a vague memory to the public that once adored him.

Richard spends his days failing auditions, annoying his agent, and trying to publish an autobiography no one wants to read. And Julian Barratt – the Mighty Boosh star who co-wrote the script – perfectly captures his miserable plight, Thorncroft putting on a brave face, but his eyes filled with sadness and regret.

Thorncroft returning to his old stomping ground – the Isle of Man.

Truth Time

Mindhorn is less harrowing character study, however, and more hilarious comedy, so before you can say the character’s catchphrase: “It’s truth time”, Thorncroft is returning to his old stomping ground to reprise the role for the benefit of a crazed criminal who thinks the character is real.

Trouble is, the bad guy – played by Russell Tovey, and calling himself ‘the kestrel’ – is the film’s weakest character. Indeed, at times, it feels like we’re being encouraged to laugh at his mental deficiencies, which makes for uncomfortable viewing.

The plot is also pretty pedestrian, with motives confused and unclear. It mirrors those terrible TV mysteries from back in the day. But the film would be much more satisfying if Thorncroft/Mindhorn was given something a bit more substantial to investigate.

Far better are Richard’s interactions with people from his past. Essie Davis – so memorable in The Babadook – is terrific as the former co-star with whom he’s still in love, while Steve Coogan is wonderfully acerbic as an acting rival who takes every opportunity to rub his success in Richard’s face.

But best of the lot is Simon Farnaby – the film’s other writer – as Clive, a stuntman who spends most of the film making weird Dutch jokes at Thorncroft’s expense, and boasting about his own sequel prowess. Their verbal sparring provides many of the film’s funniest moments, and I’d happily watch a spin-off that’s just the pair of them trapped in a lift.

Is Mindhorn Good?

Mindhorn is a movie that’s packed with laughs. Many of them at the expense of Bergerac star John Nettles. But the film also features a couple of brilliantly judged cameos, and one of the most hilarious action sequences committed to film – in slow-motion, no less.

Richard Thorncroft is a genuinely brilliant comic creation; a lovable loser whom you root for in spite of his many, many, many flaws. And the fact that he can shift into Mindhorn mode means you are getting two inspired Julian Barratt performances for the price of one.

The result is the best British comedy of the last few years; one that pokes fun at its subject matter while at the same time paying lovingly affectionate homage. The joke quota is so high that it pretty much demands repeating viewings. And the characters so marvellously rich that it’ll be a comedy crime if they don’t return for a sequel.

Chris Tilly
FANDOM Managing Editor in the UK. At this point my life is a combination of 1980s horror movies, Crystal Palace football matches, and episodes of I'm Alan Partridge. The first series. When he was in the travel tavern. Not the one after.
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