Ricky Gervais flies outside of The Office for his new project, playing a dubious pigeon in Valiant, reports Charles Hutchinson.

PIGEONS were the unsung heroes of the war effort, winning Dickin Medals galore for their bravery.

From today, the computer-animated film Valiant pays tribute to the elite Royal Homing Pigeon Service, whose duty was to carry vital messages across enemy lines concerning the Nazis' plans of attack.

Valiant, it should be noted, is not a serious work but an old-fashioned, U-certificate comedy adventure for the family, voiced by the elite comedy forces of Tim Curry, John Cleese, John Hurt, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Laurie and Rik Mayall.

Ewan McGregor takes on the title role of little wood pigeon Valiant, and The Office's Ricky Gervais brings his familiar nasal sneer to Valiant's new friend, a conman street pigeon from Trafalgar Square called Bugsy.

Bugsy is very much in the Gervais comic style. "Do you mean I'm a very, very limited actor?" he says, laughing. "Well I am!

"I like to make things natural and it's difficult in films when you don't get the chance. A lot of people are brought up on soaps where they do their line and then it's cut together.

"I like to get a bit of naturalism because I just think people connect more with something they recognise as opposed to being force fed TV speak. I always try to give a bit of me or a human aspect... to a pigeon."

He had no say on Bugsy's physical features, but there is a resemblance. "Initially you have no idea what it's going to look like because you do the script first, but they filmed me doing it and they came up with that fat, mouthy pigeon with scruffy hair. No idea why! They've done me proud there, I think his legs are longer than mine," says Gervais.

"What can you do? It's a comedy part and I think it's funny. If I was handsome, David Brent wouldn't be around, would he? The fun for me is coming up with the bits and pieces adding character and the ad libs and the gags; they let me get away with murder and then kept what they could."

Gervais recorded his contributions to Valiant in four days of four-hour sessions, and it was not all plain sailing. "The first time I just went and read the script, did it and I was rubbish. I'd never done it before and I'm still mildly embarrassed being an actor, which is a terrible restriction and so I had to really warm up," he recalls.

"They were like: 'do it louder', 'do it like this', 'do it more Cockney', and I said 'look, I think you should have got Bob Hoskins' and I saw them all look at each other and think 'he's right'! But then they let me ad lib a bit more and do my own thing and I made Bugsy more of that cowardly, wise-cracking wide boy like Bob Hope or Woody Allen, because he is sort of a reluctant hero. By the end I wanted to start again. The director must have been very patient."

Pulling up the psychiatrist's chair, let's delve deeper into Gervais's embarrassment at being an actor. "There are loads of reasons really: the association; most celebrities I don't want to be associated with because they're fools; you get paid too much," he says.

"You get paid more than nurses and you don't really do anything, so all I try and do is do my best and do a few things as well as I can because it's not a thing to be proud of. It's not like coming home from a war or saving a life, it's mucking around, which is what I would be doing anyway, so I just try and muck around as well as I can."

Fame has come his way through playing a buffoon, "dancing like a gibbon", on The Office, yet fame was never his driving force.

"I just think fame is nothing," he says. "If I hadn't been in The Office I wouldn't be recognised, the writer-director doesn't get recognised, but I wanted to play the role because I knew I could play it well.

"I've never just wanted to be famous. And being recognised is the worst bit about it. I love the work, I love the creative process, the freedom, I quite like the awards and the money's good, but it's in that order. Being recognised buying pants is bottom of the list."

Not surprisingly, his dislike of this age of celebrity will pepper his new BBC2 sitcom, Extras, showing this summer, in which he will play struggling actor Andy Millman.

"He's the sort of guy who says things like 'acting's in my blood'. Yeah, acting's in your blood because it's easier than getting a proper job. It's that sort of pretension that I like to flag up, the hypocrisy."

After the Golden Globe-winning success of The Office, Gervais has expressed fears that a critical backlash could strike Extras.

"I'm surprised I didn't get the backlash for the second series of The Office - not that I think I deserved it but it's the British way," he says. "In America the more you achieve the more they like you; in England it's like 'now he's getting too big for his boots'. We love the underdog and when they win, they're not an underdog anymore."

Gervais is not a one-trick pony - witness his children's book Flanimals or his role as a cool international terrorist in Alias - but his challenge will be to lay to rest the ghost of David Brent. He is blighted by an assumption that so much of Ricky Gervais is in Brent, but the truth is different.

"Without giving too much away, I'm much more like Andy Millman than I am David Brent. David Brent is actually quite a nice bloke who tries to please people; he's desperate about his self image.

"We shot a scene of Extras, which is just like me, complaining in a restaurant, and the frustrating thing is I can't do that now because I'm famous. Before I would have kicked up a fuss; now I'm famous I can't do it. Fame has turned me into a nicer, shyer person."

Updated: 09:06 Friday, March 25, 2005