“You can fleece a sheep many times, you can only skin him once.”
Ricky Gervais is explaining why he and partner Stephen Merchant don’t ever put their man in the field Karl Pilkington in genuine danger on his trips as An Idiot Abroad, back tonight for a second series. It seems fans can’t get enough of Pilkington’s pale English skin and permanently furrowed brow in alien environments, but his biggest admirer remains Gervais, who says of the man sitting next to him:
“I’ve never met anyone like Karl. Wherever he goes, he’s going to have a unique perspective and say things no one has ever said or thought. I think he’s a comedy genius, even though he doesn’t know it. And I always have his best interests at heart.”
Pilkington has been sitting quietly between Gervais and co-writer Stephen Merchant until this point, when he feels the need to point out the risks involved, unusual though they may seem:
“It was only when I got back I discovered dolphins attacked people, at least when you’re with a shark, you know you’re in danger.”
A spontaneous, bizarre, deeply comedic and mostly X-rated debate ensues between the trio about the stigma of reporting a dolphin rape, whether victims in tight Speedos are asking for it, until Gervais kindly realises, “You won’t be able to use any of this, sorry.”
Back on track, it’s clear that the success of An Idiot Abroad relies on Pilkington keeping his truculent persona intact, and remaining resolutely unchanged by his surroundings. But as Schrodinger proved with his cat in a box, the very act of observing something will change its behaviour. So how can we be sure we’re getting the real reluctant traveller, and not a clever made-for-telly creation?
“I can’t let that happen, because I would end up killing myself,” explains Pilkington. “I mean, if I was doing that land dive and thinking I had to do it because I was being filmed, I’m being paid by Sky...” his disgust at the prospect is convincing.
Gervais is even more vituperative on the topic: “I’ve never been like that either. These people that would change their personality because they think they’re on telly so they have to - it’s ridiculous. How desperate are you? There are these people that live their life like an open wound who do anything, it’s celebrity-f***ing-enema. Karl’s too secure and smart for that. He’s come to this late in life and he wouldn’t do anything that he’d be ashamed of.”
Merchant, the quietest, benevolent prefect in a room of naughty schoolboys, adds, “He wouldn’t do these trips unless we were forcing him to do it, so in a sense, the whole thing is a grand experiment and he’s the cat in the box. Not dead yet.”
Gervais clarifies: “We don’t know, we haven’t opened the box. It's Schrodinger’s Deal or No Deal.”
What’s next for Pilkington - does acting on the big screen beckon? Apparently not:
“I can’t act,” he explains. “I went to a casting session in Shepherds Bush once, my agent sent me. I couldn’t do it. The part was a gay gardener who walked dogs. I had no experience.”
Gervais jumps in like Basil Brush, cackling in glee and disagreeing: “That’s not being an actor, you don’t have to have done that. I’ve seen ghosts, have I, and run a museum? I invented lying? I don’t think that’s an issue.”
However, his admiration again comes through for his long-time friend: “Karl is about being himself, not someone else, and I think it’d be strange for him not to use what he’s been given – which is that anything he says is brilliant – whether it’s hilarious, profound or genuine.”
Pilkington does admit being changed by his trips abroad, but only with a fresh appreciation of his more usual surroundings:
“One thing that’s come out of this is, I’ve realised, most of the world’s the same. You’ll have a Starbucks, a nutter, a woman with a kid screaming. The world is the same, although it might not have been ages ago, so it doesn’t matter where I go. If people travelled more, they’d realise how good it is here.”
So with all these comforts, an assurance of television wealth, the patronage of a clearly impressed Gervais to guide and buffer his way to a Homer-Simpsonesque middle-age, why is Karl Pilkington still grumbling?
“Because that’s me,” he reflects. “I’m born here, and English people like a moan. I’ve been to Africa and seen people starving, and then I get back home, and there’s no milk in the fridge, and I say to Suzanne ‘What the ****’s been going on?’ Nothing changes.”
An Idiot Abroad returns tonight, at 9pm on Sky1 HD.