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Why Ricky Gervais went underground in leafy Hampstead

PUBLISHED: 15:33 24 October 2008 | UPDATED: 15:33 07 September 2010

In character with the Extras office team

In character with the Extras office team

Photo by Adrain Myers

He keeps his privacy in Hampstead closely guarded – but comedian Ricky Gervais gives Ham&High reporter Tan Parsons a rare glimpse into his inner world. This is going to be disgusting, says Ricky Gervais. Hampstead s most famous resident is about to d

He keeps his privacy in Hampstead closely guarded - but comedian Ricky Gervais gives Ham&High reporter Tan Parsons a rare glimpse into his inner world.

'This is going to be disgusting," says Ricky Gervais. Hampstead's most famous resident is about to dunk a coconut slice into a steaming cappuccino before chomping down on it with his teeth.

He is right, it is a bit disgusting - pieces of coconut crumble on to his desk and coffee drips from his mouth on to his serviette.

You might expect a man with his CV to be a little more self- important, more concerned with his appearance, but there is no hint of vanity, no guardedness as he enjoys eating his cake.

There is no security guard or agent present, just Gervais, sitting in his no-frills office in Hampstead, being himself.

With his television creations The Office and Extras, Gervais, 47, has become something of a global star, and on October 24 Ghost Town - the first Hollywood film in which he plays a starring role - hits the cinemas.

When he moved to Hampstead with his long-term girlfriend Jane Fallon last year, the funnyman rubbed several of his new neighbours, including former Heath and Hampstead Society chairman Martin Humphery, up the wrong way.

They were annoyed because he was digging under his home to install luxuries including a swimming pool, a gym and a virtual golf simulator. Since then he has kept a relatively low profile at home, and I ask whether he has made any new friends in his street.

"I wouldn't say I was neighbourly because I keep myself to myself and I always have," he says.

"It's nothing to do with being famous. I don't mean I'm not neighbourly, I just respect my neighbours' privacy."

It was a conscious decision to move to Hampstead and buy a house with a garden, he says proudly, and he quickly decided that he would make his home his castle. "If there was ever a nuclear war I'd never have to leave it to go to the gym or go for a run," he says. "I think we built down and created about an extra 1,000 square feet. We've got a pool and a gym - big boys' toys."

Since The Office, he has always been at pains to point out that he is still a normal bloke - that fame has not gone to his head. But with a debut Hollywood movie in the bag and rumours that he might even host the Oscars, surely there must be a temptation to give in to the trappings of a Hollywood lifestyle? After all, he now lists Robert De Niro, Samuel L Jackson and Ben Stiller among the people he has worked with.

I ask if he is in danger of becoming a movie star, but he says no. In America, where said danger lies, he is better known as a writer-producer-director. There, he is most famous for being the creator of The Office, which soon had its own spin-off American series starring Steve Carell.

He tells me that when his co-writer Stephen Merchant was asked if fame had affected Gervais he replied: "No, he's always been a cocky git."

"Joking aside, and some people don't get it, but it's faux arrogance, it's faux cockiness," says Gervais. "But I am confident, I know which side my bread's buttered on and I know what I'm good at."

But he does not deny that success has changed him: "Fame has made me more discreet, quieter in public. I used to muck around and tease my mates. Now I wear a baseball cap and keep my head down. I'm not in an ivory tower. I come to work and I write and I vacuum up. I take care of business."

At the end of a typical working day he cannot wait to get home, have a play in his underground leisure complex and stick on his pyjamas. Tonight he is going to watch The Restaurant followed by Ultimate Fighting Championship.

"Sky Plus is life-changing," he says. "That's changed my life more than fame has. I live a normal life. I couldn't be any more normal, I think. Except that I like to squeeze my friends' heads. And that's fairly abnormal."

An accusation often levelled at Gervais by his closest friends is that he is pathologically annoying. When asked to sum him up in one word, colleague Karl Pilkington chose this description over more familiar insults like "fat" and "scruffy", the annoyingness being most apparent. Or as Pilkington put it: "Jack the Ripper might have been scruffy, but you wouldn't say: 'Jack the Ripper - he's a bit scruffy'."

Gervais clearly wants to be seen as a regular guy who has not lost touch with everyday working people. As if to illustrate the point, there is a tap at the door and a worker from the office downstairs appears and coughs nervously.

He is running a marathon for Cancer Research and wants Gervais to sponsor him. The funnyman agrees before signing an autograph for his wife.

"I paid him to come in and do that so I look really good," Gervais jokes afterwards. "In a minute someone's going to come up and say, 'I think my baby's ill', and I'm going to bring it back to life."

Despite his joking I get the distinct impression he quite fancies the idea of being a holy man. He makes a point of being polite and signing autographs. "I've led my life trying to be a nice guy. And then you think, just one slip and it's all over," he says.

I ask what it is like living in Hampstead, and being the area's most famous resident. The question pleases him - knowing it will annoy his close friend, Jonathan Ross.

"I enjoy it here. It always looks lovely, clean and vibrant. It's eclectic, eccentric, bohemian. It's leafy. I couldn't be happier so close to the Heath, I love nature. I love art but nothing competes with the real thing. It's like a small town here. It's idyllic."

He would love to have a dog to walk on the Heath, but says it would be cruel leaving it at home when he is away. "We go and covet other people's dogs instead," he says. "I just walk up to a dog and start playing with it. I absolutely love animals. If I owned one it would be a labrador or maybe a retriever. They are like mates."

His only complaint about the village is that as a non-driver he feels further away from the places he needs to get to in his work.

"I suppose I wish Hampstead was in Bloomsbury, but that would ruin it," he says, breaking into his distinctive ape-like laugh.

As we talk he loosens up, extending his legs and putting his feet on the desk very much in the manner of David Brent - the hapless boss he played in The Office.

His mannerisms and intonations are also those of Brent, but there is a gentleness to Gervais in real life that is reassuringly different from his on-screen personas.

He seems to be taking his transition to American audiences in his stride, but there is still a sense that he cannot quite believe his luck, or the fact that people like David Bowie and Robert De Niro are happy to send themselves up for the benefit of his storylines.

In his new film Ghost Town, Gervais plays Bertram Pincus, a New York dentist who is irritated by people and not afraid to tell them so. After having an operation during which he dies for several seconds, he develops the ability to see ghosts.

But there is little chance Gervais will visit the cinema himself to see Ghost Town - partly to avoid being mobbed, but also because he does not care for people rustling their popcorn and answering their mobile phones in the auditorium.

So would he consider completing his underground lair with a cinema? He dismisses the idea: "When would I watch that? There's nothing better than a couch and a big telly."

Ghost Town is out in cinemas from tomorrow, and Extras: The Special is released on DVD on November 3.

tan.parsons@hamhigh.co.uk

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