He’ know for being brash, outrageous, and for his controversial stand-up routines that take a pop at every taboo in society.
Yet in a candid interview with the Daily Mirror, Ricky Gervais, who turned 60 last June, reveals a softer side, telling how his partner, novelist Jane Fallon, is his ‘soul-mate’ and the inspiration for his latest heart-warming TV series.
The pair have been together since 1982, after meeting at University College London. They shared a flat above a brothel in King’s Cross, which was then a run-down area full of drugs and prostitutes, and lived a modest lifestyle for many years before both became successful in their forties.
Gervais’s most recent hit show, After Life, is a heart-warming depiction of grieving widower Tony, who is seen struggling with his mental health after losing his wife to cancer.
The show has won legions of fans for its sentimental portrayal of Tony’s marriage, shown in flashbacks through home video clips as the couple laugh and play practical jokes on each other during happier times: a relationship based on his own with 61 year-old Fallon.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been lonely,” he says. “I don’t think I’ve ever suffered from depression or despair like Tony. I’ve seen it – you don’t get to 60 without seeing most things. I’ve lost both parents and a sibling, and all my pets and some friends.
“But the ultimate for me would be losing my soulmate. That’s the worst thing that could happen to me. So, it’s an imagination, a fiction, that stems from that.”
Given the subject matter of After Life, one can’t help wondering if Gervais thinks about death constantly.
Speaking on Zoom from his London home, with dozens of trophies and awards clearly on display on shelves behind him, he says he doesn’t – because he believes in living life to the full instead of obsessing about what happens when the end comes.
But the comic does admit to being a bit of a hypochondriac – though Jane does her best to reassure him when he gets paranoid about his health.
“I’m not the sort of person that goes around going, ‘I think I’m going to die one day’,” he says.
“All I know is that I want to die well. I am pro quality of life, I’m very pro assisted dying. But death is what it is. It’s the circle of life.
“For 13 and a half billion years we don’t exist, then we have about 80 years, then we die, never to exist again. That’s it. The only thing you can do is make your 80 or 90 years – if you’re lucky – the very best they can be. I don’t think that much about death.
“Having said that, if I wake up and I’ve got a lump, I say to Jane, ‘That’s cancer.’ She’ll go, ‘No, it isn’t. Don’t you remember you hit yourself with a broom?’ Or I’ll go, ‘Oh, my heart rate’s up.’ She’ll go, ‘You’ve just had three cups of coffee and ran up the stairs.’ Or, ‘Jane, I’ve got bowel cancer.’ She’ll go, ‘We had beetroot last night’.”
Now on its third series, After Life has been watched by a staggering 100 million people across the globe, according to Netflix.
Fans have followed Tony from the beginning of the series which saw him contemplating suicide before realising he couldn’t leave his beloved dog Brandy behind.
For animal lover Gervais, who regularly campaigns about animal welfare issues, that is a vital part of the story.
“I made the dog as important as anything on the planet,” he says. “That dog metaphorically and literally saved Tony’s life. And they do, it’s true. I’ve met lots of people who got a dog after their partner died, or their kids got them a dog after their partner died, and it changed them.
“They were happy again, you know? A pet is a member of the family. We put down our cat in March, and I was devastated. So I can’t imagine a dog dying. It’s the only spoiler I do – the dog does not die!”
Born into a working-class background in Reading, Berks, Gervais took a while to hit the big time.
He worked various jobs including an office manager – which was to become the inspiration for his first hit TV series, The Office – and even had a stab at pop, releasing two singles as one half of new wave pop duo Seona Dancing. There was, even more strangely, a brief spell as a manager for band Suede before they hit the big time in the early 1990s.
In the 2000s Gervais won comedy slots on The Eleven O’Clock Show, but it wasn’t until he turned 40 in 2001 that had finally achieved proper success when he co-wrote (with Stephen Merchant) The Office, the first British mockumentary which saw him play cringe-making boss David Brent.
Since then he has had TV hits with Extras, Derek, and Life’s Too Short, had a foray into films with Cemetery Junction and The Invention of Lying, and sold out huge stand-up tours including Animals and Humanity, the latter of which was signed by Netflix as part of a rumoured $40 million deal.
Yet despite being known as Brent for so many years, followed by his money-making stand-up, Gervais is now equally well known for After Life and his work highlighting animal cruelty and poaching – another sign that he has a softer side than his brash persona might suggest.
I ask whether After Life has made people see him in a new light, having previously been quite a provocative and divisive figure.
“Everyone sees you differently,” he says. “Some people were surprised that I could act, because they thought playing Brent was just mucking around. They don’t realise that’s acting. Brent was having a midlife crisis. He wanted to be so loved, he had problems, so yes, that was acting. But you’re bits of everything you do. I’m in every character I do.
“Some people think that I’m harsh and uncaring, and other people think I’m soppy and only care about animals.
“Actually the thing that people say most to me now is, ‘Thanks for everything you do for animals’. I’m probably more famous for liking animals than any one role I’ve done.”
After Life has always been – and it’s particularly true of this series – about small kindnesses that we can do for each other to make life easier during tough times.
Although littered with the sort of outrageous jokes you’d expect from Gervais as Tony loses his temper with irritating people around him, at its core it is about love, friendship and kind gestures.
Dave Benett/Getty Images)
So, it’s no surprise when Gervais sums up what he believes is the meaning of life.
“We’re stuck with this and there’s nothing you can do about it,” he says. “So make your life the best you can possibly imagine. That’s all you can do, it’s the point of living.
“To me, making the best of it is be as happy as you can be without hurting anyone else. That’s it. Oh – and get a dog.”
AFTER LIFE season 3 launches on Netflix globally on JAN 14