Ricky Gervais's ballad of Reading jail

With their new film Cemetery Junction, Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant wanted to create a classic British tale of smalltown escape. Ben Walters goes on set and hears how they left irony behind

The pavement outside Victoria House, an imposing interwar office building on Bloomsbury Square in central London, is cluttered with bins, bikes and bus-stop signs from the 1970s. In the square, men in pale-blue dinner jackets, extravagantly frilled shirts and bravura sideburns stroll in the July sun, talking on their mobile phones. In a bar deep inside the building, women with elaborately waved hair stroll past clusters of tan leather chairs, walnut-wood tables and chrome deco lamps, cordoned off behind yellow crime-scene tape to keep them spotless. Large flatscreen monitors show images from the film shoot underway in the ballroom next door. The monitors aren't needed to hear the piercing hoot that is Ricky Gervais's laugh.

  1. Cemetery Junction
  2. Production year: 2010
  3. Country: UK
  4. Cert (UK): 15
  5. Runtime: 94 mins
  6. Directors: Ricky Gervais, Stephen Merchant
  7. Cast: Anne Reid, Christian Cooke, Emily Watson, Felicity Jones, Jack Doolan, Julia Davis, Matthew Goode, Ralph Fiennes, Ricky Gervais, Tom Hughes

Gervais and his writing and directing partner Stephen Merchant, with whom he created The Office and Extras, are five weeks into the seven-week shoot of their first feature film together, Cemetery Junction. Set in Reading in 1973, it focuses on three teenage mates deciding what to do with their lives: Bruce (Tom Hughes) is a disillusioned tearaway, Snork (Jack Doolan) is a clown with a romantic streak, and Freddie (Christian Cooke) is already on course for a comfortable suburban existence he isn't sure he wants. Today's scenes are set around the annual ball of the insurance company for which Freddie works, and to which he ill-advisedly allows Bruce and Snork to tag along.

"There's only one social faux pas in the movie, unlike The Office, where there was one every 30 seconds, but it's a big one," says Gervais, wearing the black T-shirt and trousers that seem to be his on-set uniform. He heads through to the ballroom to shoot the ensuing falling-out. "A few home truths are shouted at each other. Best friends arguing. Should be fun."

When, with the scene in the can, the three leads sit down together, their rapport seems to continue after the cameras have stopped rolling. Doolan was cast early and participated in workshops with other hopefuls, including Hughes and Cooke. "Within five minutes, in my head it had to be the three of us," Doolan says. During the month it would take Gervais and Merchant to make the decision – "the hardest month of my life," according to Cooke – the trio spent a lot of time together. "The night before they called us back, we all met up at Tom's house and went over a couple of scenes," Doolan recalls, "so when we went in for the final meeting, we came as a package. It was impossible for them to split us up, really." Hughes reiterates the importance of their bond: "If you don't believe they've been together since they were four, you don't believe the film."

Like The Office and Extras, Cemetery Junction is a story about aspiration and self-realisation. "I don't want to mix aspiration up with blind ambition," Gervais insists later. "Ambition is risible in many ways, but aspiration is just acknowledging that there's something more and you'd like to try it. It's something lots of people have beaten out of them until they're embarrassed or think it's wrong. A lot of that comes from fear, thinking they're doing it for your own good. There's a line that's put in there affectionately that my mum said to me when I was 18. I said, 'I'm going to France.' And she said, 'What do you wanna go there for? There's parts of Reading you ain't seen.'"

"Aspiration is the common link in our work," agrees Merchant, who sports an unflattering moustache for his walk-on role as one of the ball-goers. "We aren't fighting political injustice. We weren't raised in a brothel with a crack addiction. The thing that unites us is the upper-working-class/lower-middle-class world we come from, which was about keeping up with the Joneses, either making something of your life or growing old with a sense of resentment. That was what we saw around us, from family members unhappy with their lot to schoolteachers saying, 'What makes you think you make it in comedy? You'd be better off working down NatWest.'"

Still, Gervais is keen to establish distance between Cemetery Junction and the sitcoms for which he and Merchant are best known. "We embraced the uncool in The Office and Extras," he says. "That's what was funny in them. In this one, we've left irony behind. It's straight down the line. We're trying to do a British Rebel Without a Cause, Saturday Night Fever, with some funny bits, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid set in Berkshire, that sort of thing. There's a glamour to it, there's a cool to it. It doesn't have to be depressing to be real."

Everyone agrees that the pair had a strong conception of the film they intended to make from the off. "They're very clear about what they want," confirms Felicity Jones, who plays Julie, daughter of the insurance company's reptilian boss, Kendrick (Ralph Fiennes), and, to Freddie's chagrin, fiancee of slimy company man Mike (Matthew Goode). "There's no indecision. Or if there is, they'll go off to the loo together and come back having resolved any differences."

Goode also has no complaints. "We're waiting for the shit to hit the fan but no. It's just roses. I would love to be the one person not hanging out of their arse, but I am. There's one big rope leading up to Gervais's reccer, and we're all trying to get inside 'cos he's so fantastic, and so's Stephen. A lot of people say, 'Absolutely, British film', then they go off and suck Hollywood's cock. Or Satan's cock, really, if we're honest. So it's really nice to see someone stick to the gumption of making British films."

Goode is also in awe of Fiennes. "The moment he walks in the room, the temperature goes down a couple of degrees. He's quite smooth and intimidating." This is confirmed when, a little later, Fiennes arrives, also sharp in black tie, as the three lads huddle for a joint breakfast television interview. Looming over their shoulders, at first unnoticed, he seems both avuncular and somehow menacing. Emily Watson, playing his wife, cuts a more ethereal figure, gliding through in blue chiffon.

Lunch brings the peculiar spectacle of around 100 extras in various combinations of pastel polyester and facial hair patiently queueing for the buffet. You can't help wondering if Gervais and Merchant have any self-consciousness dealing with the situation. "It's not awkward," Gervais insists. "It's not like we walk into a room thinking, 'Have they seen us?', like a scene from Dawn of the Dead. Obviously, we exaggerated how sad most extras are. A lot of them are doing it just for a laugh, or a little adventure. There are very few that do it hoping Steven Spielberg will give them the lead in his next movie."

Merchant's small role sees him seated on a table with background artists. "They're such a random bunch," he says. "A retired bank manager, a housewife from Putney. It's like being at a very strange dinner party with an arbitrary collection of people, none of whom seem to know the host. One of them told me he'd been inspired to become an extra after seeing the show. I was a bit confused by what aspect it was that he found appealing. Maybe he thought he could offend Samuel L Jackson or something."

Although the idea for Cemetery Junction in fact predates Extras, the series turns out to have been a useful training ground. "This is the kind of film we imagined those people were making," Merchant says. "We used to spend a lot of time on the spoofy little clips from the films being made by Orlando Bloom or whoever, making it look cinematic, getting the lighting right. In a way that's what we're doing today. And working with stars primed us to be able to explain what we want in the way you need to when you're working with great actors like Ralph."

In the afternoon, a five-piece band in pale blue suits takes to the ballroom stage to play Tie a Yellow Ribbon. The directors hunch over a monitor watching the performance; at the end of the song, Gervais applauds while Merchant delivers some direction. A little later, Gervais's longtime foil, Karl Pilkington, appears in period sideburns and moustache for his cameo. He'll only be on screen for a matter of seconds, but still manages to spoil the take by cracking up. Gervais howls, walks over and claps Pilkington on the shoulder.

By the time I catch up again with Gervais, the film is done and dusted ("It turned out better than I imagined"), and he and Merchant have completed a script for their next project: a sitcom featuring Extras guest star Warwick Davis as a version of himself, which Gervais describes as "a cross between Curb Your Enthusiasm and One Foot in the Grave. But with a dwarf. Now that we've got this nuanced coming-of-age-drama out of our system, it's great to go back to comedy." The pilot will shoot this summer under a title that seems like a no-brainer, but could apply just as well to The Office, Extras or indeed Cemetery Junction: Life's Too Short.

Cemetery Junction is released on 14 April

avuncular : dobroduszny, ojcowski

chagrin : smutek, zmartwienie, rozgoryczenie

cluster : kupa, pęk

cluttered : zagracony

cordoned off : odgrodzony kordonem

disillusioned : rozczarowany

done and dusted : zapięty na ostatni guzik

ensuing : następujący, dalszy, późniejszy

ethereal : eteryczny

foil : tło; kontrast

frilled : z falbankami

glide : ślizgać się, sunąć

gumption : spryt, rozsądek

hoot : gwizd; pohukiwanie

hunch : garbić się

ill-advisedly : nieprzemyślanie, nierozsądnie

imposing : imponujący, okazały

intimidating : zastraszający, onieśmielający

keep up with the Joneses : starać się dorównać otoczeniu pod względem statusu majątkowego i społecznego

loom : wyłaniać się

menacing : groźny; uciążliwy

no-brainer : banał, prostactwo

piercing : przeszywający

rapport : dobre stosunki

reiterate : wielokrotnie powtarzać

reptilian : charakterystyczny dla gada

risible : śmieszny

slimy : oślizgły, śliski

spoofy : parodystyczny

streak : skłonność

stroll : przechadzać się, spacerować

tag along : przyłączać się

tearaway : zabijaka, narwaniec

unflattering : niepochlebny

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