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I TALK TO Ricky Gervais

"I decided on that ending because it sums up what the series was about. It's uplifting. It's positive."

For the first time in his career, Ricky Gervais has agreed to a third series of his hit Netflix series After Life, but as the five-time I Talk Telly Award-winning show, set in the small fictional town of Tambury returns today on Netflix, it will be for the final time.

Gervais returns as local newspaper writer Tony, whose life is upended after his wife, played by Kerry Godliman, dies from cancer. After contemplating suicide, Tony instead decides to live long enough to punish the world by saying and doing whatever he likes.

Series two saw Tony trying to become a better friend to those around him, whilst still struggling with immense grief and following the death of his father, series three sees Tony add to his grief whilst deciding how far to take his friendship with Emma, the nurse who looked after his dad.

The series also stars Jo Hartley, Tony Way, Diane Morgan, Ethan Lawrence, Ashley Jensen, Tom Basden, Joe Wilkinson, David Earl, Peter Egan and Penelope Wilton with guest stars including; Tim Key, Dave Hill, Wendy Albiston, Ricky Grover, Ben Hull, Cole Anderson-James and Kate Robbins.

Days before the third and final season arrives on Netflix, I caught up with Ricky Gervais to discuss the characters he loves writing for, the decision to stop at three series and (without spoilers) the way After Life ends.

I never thought I’d ever see "Ricky Gervais" and "third series" in the same sentence. What's changed with After Life?

Well, they're slightly shorter episodes than even your average sitcom. 25 minutes, 26 minutes. With all the other stuff, I'd do a series two and I'd also do a special which was like an hour, so it's only really an hour-and-a-half more.

The reason why I thought it had legs is that it's not just in one place. It's not just one workplace. It's a whole world. There are more characters. It's about bigger issues. It's about life and death and love and grief so there were some things I wanted to tie up.

And Netflix pay more and more every season!

Does that mean you now slightly regret not doing a fourth series?

Well, yeah. But it's OK. It's all good because I'm well in there. They said I could either do a fourth series of this or the first series of a new thing so it was a no-brainer.

You want to start again and I think 18 episodes of this is just about perfect. It's different now because it's always there. People keep discovering it. Now, there are still people just starting. There are people rewatching it five times, ready for season three.

It's got its own little - well, big cult. That's the other thing. It's crazy how it grows and it grows because Netflix grows. Netflix are now at something like 220 million subscribers worldwide. That's mad. That's mental. When I think back, The Office got two-and-a-half million or something and I was over the moon!

I'm proud of it. I can't wait for it to go out. I love the fact that it's there forever. I love the fact that it'll outlive me. I love the fact that people will be watching it who aren't born at the moment.

But I want to get on with a new thing. I've never done this, where I've had one safe job all my life. Starting again, that's the thing that gives you that adrenaline rush. Wondering if it'll work.

Did you ever wonder if After Life would work?

Oh absolutely! When I first started this, I thought "Is this going to work? Are people going to laugh at a man who's suicidal because his wife dies of cancer? That's not funny, is it?" - and then it clearly did resonate with people.

They like seeing things they haven't seen before. And they like seeing themselves in things where they haven't seen that before.

I realised after the first season - and I think I've said this to you before - that people would come up to me on the street and say "I lost my brother a week before" and wanted to tell me their story.

And on Twitter now, there's a whole universe of people telling their own story and I retweet it or like it because I'm proud of them. It's hard. It takes a lot of courage to come up to someone and say "I just want to say I cried because I lost..."

21 years ago with The Office, for example, there wasn't social media so you didn't really know the reaction the show was getting. Have you ever let the way people have reacted to After Life, influence your decisions for series two and three?

I'd usually say no. Two years ago I'd have said no. And I was militant. I'd say things like "A camel is a horse designed by committee" but all those people telling you about things does inform you a little bit.

After the first season went out, I didn't know where it was going to go. I didn't know there was going to be a second. And I realised because people were grieving and saw themselves in it, they liked the fact that they were angry like Tony. I couldn't have him just snap out of it because that would be insulting. They liked it because it was real.

The one big thing that affected me, was therapists would come up to me and say "I use this in my grief counselling. They really identify with Tony. They love him. Please don't have him kill himself." so that did affect me. That was a no brainer. I couldn't have that ending.

So yeah, for the first time ever, I did listen. I always use feedback for marketing and when I'm doing live work, I do provocative tweets because I'm fishing. At the beginning of Supernature I say "What's the one thing you should never joke about?" and everyone said a different thing and that became my setlist.

I do listen. I do listen to feedback and you get a feel. It was never really meant to be an exploration into grief. That was a jumping-off point. He was grieving as an excuse for him to act as he did. And then when I saw that everyone identified with that part of it, all the write-ups said 'It's a show about grief' - 'I've never seen it before. It's a grief com' and I guess it is. But I didn't sit down and go, "I want to write a comedy about grief."

It's about life, isn't it?

It's about life. And that's it. It's about one part of life. Everyone's grieving, it just doesn't usually make it into a sitcom.

What I loved about this series, is that it's even funnier. Would you agree?

Oh thank you! I think it's because you know them more. The funniest person you know isn't a stand-up comedian. It's your grandad, or your uncle, or your neighbour, or you can't wait to see that barman - he's so funny. Because you know them! You know them so well.

Now you've known them for a few hours, you can't wait for that person to bump into that person. And I do it on purpose. I couldn't wait for Brian to talk to the postman. So it's lovely creating that world.

I sit there and go "I wonder if they can bump into so and so" - well of course they can!

And as the series has gone on, you're right, we do know the characters more, and they'll all been given more space and more dialogue. Was that always the plan?

No. I had the core characters after series one, but the news stories. I think about those each series. I didn't know that I was going to have Kate Robbins in as a Jackie Collins style character. And then that makes me think if Kath can go there. Maybe Kath's lonely. Maybe she's dating! One thing sparks the next. It's a chain reaction.

But you're right, it all comes from characters and situation. And I made the situation one of the characters. I made Tambury a character. I loved creating that world where everyone knows each other and they pop up again.

Some people will probably never notice, but the new girl in the office, Coleen, played by Kath Hughes, she was actually in series one. So when she says "I used to work in the mini-mart" she's the girl sitting on the floor. Played by Kath Hughes. She had one line. She killed it. And I remembered her. Then when I came up with Coleen, I knew who would be perfect for that.

The swinger in this series, says "I work at the crematorium" and he's in series one! Played by Steve Brody. I like the fact at the end when dog shit man bumps into Tracy-Ann Oberman. It makes it feel like real life. You bump into people you didn't think you were going to bump into.

Who are your favourite characters to write for?

I really like writing for Brian Gittins. I really enjoy that. Ratty and the Nonce. Although they're a whirlwind. There's no narrative there. They're like Shakespearean fools. They come in, they cause devastation and they leave.

I really like writing for Anne. You can't believe what a joy for a writer it is, to write those heavy, wordy, philosophical things which you worry might sound pretentious. Will people think I'm getting above my station? But then you hand it to Penelope Wilton and she makes it sound amazing. And real. And honest. And I go... I'm going to get the credit for that!

I think those scenes are my favourite. Especially the moment in this series when she's talking about angels.

That's another thing where the real world had an effect because I did want to get a thing in there about key workers. So I did slip "a little bit of politics" as Ben Elton would say. But not too much.

The local news stories appear to get kinder and less about poking fun as the series goes on. Was there a reason for that?

It's because, at the beginning, Tony is going through the seven stages of grief. And we hit the ground running. He's going through anger, denial. He tries to lash out. He tries to turn himself into a psychopath so that he doesn't feel pain.

But he's not a psychopath. He can't pretend to be something he's not. He fails at that because he's nice to the dog, he's nice to the new girl, he's nice to the old lady - so we know that he was a nice bloke once. And he's testing his friends. He wants to be left alone and that doesn't help him.

He tries everything. Anger. Violence. Drugs. Drink. They don't work. The one thing that works is trying. Having a go. Sharing. He learns all these lessons from people.

The very first person he's laughing at with the five cards. He says "I lost my wife. But still. You can't feel sorry for yourself. You've got to keep going." and he suddenly feels spoilt. He thinks, that guy's got nothing and yet he's happy.

So he starts thinking, from episode one, and it eventually gets to him by episode five and six that you can't have what you want, but second best is carrying on, carrying your burden and making the world a slightly better place.

When I was writing it, I heard this wonderful thing about grief. One of those greetings cards or Athena posters or a tweet - one of those things, right - and it was really great. It said 'Grief is like a backpack. It doesn't get lighter, but you get better at carrying it.' And I thought - "Fuck. Oh my God, that's brilliant." Of course. It doesn't get away. You just get better at coping with it. You negotiate with the world. All we're trying to do is feel better.

It takes a long time to realise that that, is helping people. It's the shortcut to everything. It makes everyone feel better. Someone being dependent on you saves your life. I got that from It's A Wonderful Life when he's going to kill himself and the angel jumps in and he has to save the angel. And he goes "No, I saved your life" - I love that! So that's what I was trying to do.

When did you know how After Life was going to end?

Writing it, I didn't have an ending. Then I had three. And then I wasn't sure. One of them was taken off the table straight away because of the thing I told you, I couldn't have him kill himself. Will he won't he with the nurse?

I wanted people to know all the way through and realise at the end, that this is a love story between a man and his wife. The big theme was hope. What was there for him? If you lose everything, is life still worth living? And I always wanted the answer to be "Yes it is."

That ending, I decided on that ending because it sums up what the series was about. It's uplifting. It's positive. It basically says - and I'm happy to explain it to everyone who asks - we all die. But not today. And that's the reason for setting it at a fair which I made 500 years old - because that fair will still be going in 500 years time or whatever.

It basically says that life goes on. Life goes on. Whether you're involved or not, life goes on. And I think that's joyful. I think that's hopeful. I don't think it's morbid that there might not be a heaven - I don't think there is - but I think that's what makes life so much more precious. That it's finite. It's all we've got.

All those things that look like fears and anxieties and worries and things wrong with life - I don't think being finite is what's wrong with anything. That's what makes it special. Life is finite. A comedy series is finite. It's what makes it good.

After Life is available now on Netflix


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