David Brent: Life on the Road is released this weekend here in the UK. It isn’t the first spin-off from Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s BBC series, The Office, nor will it be the last but it does provide one with an excuse to ponder on the original series now that it’s a terrifying 15 years old.
The Office was first broadcast on BBC2 on the 9th July 2001, which is exactly what you do to a new comedy programme you’ve not got a lot of faith in. Sticking a new series on in the summer when most people are on holiday or engaged in big sporting events (though 2001 was a quiet year in that respect) was a way for schedulers to sneak out programmes they didn’t think would be a hit in the autumn when, traditionally, the big comedy shows would litter BBC 2’s schedule. 2001 though had The Office and World of Pub go out in the summer; the latter would vanish into the ether (which is a pity as it’s wonderful) and the other would go onto arguably being the most influential comedy programme this century so far.
Set in Slough, The Office centres round the daily life of a branch of Wernham Hogg Paper Company and the office staff going around their daily lives at work. Gervais himself plays Brent as part monster, part pitiful loser, part tortured soul who manages his staff in a way which isn’t horrible. Brent may be a monster, but that’s because he’s unable to manage people or do things right – but he’d not be that bad to work for. I’ve worked for a couple of Brent-like figures myself and while they may well be wankers, they’re not bad people (even if they’re socially useless).
Brent’s staff consists of Martin Freeman’s Tim, Lucy Davis’s Dawn, and Mackenzie Crook’s Gareth (the office tosser which seems to be an essential component of all offices). The ‘will they, won’t they’ aspect of Tim and Dawn’s potential relationship provided much of the soap opera element, but as a whole The Office is a parody of the BBC’s fly on the wall programmes which seemed to be everywhere in the late 90’s and into the early 21st century. Indeed there’s a few programmes that have been lost in the praise for The Office that are worth mentioning. The first is People like Us, a series centred round Roy Mallard (a pre-Operation Ore Chris Langham), an interviewer who was socially inept and useless at his job. In tone People Like Us and The Office are cousins, and with the last episode of People Like Us being broadcast only a fortnight before The Office, it seems the BBC thought the same too.
The other companion as it were for The Office is Marion and Geoff, broadcast in 2000 and starring Rob Brydon who is also socially inept, unable to see what’s around him, but is yet a decent bloke at heart. In the early 2000’s this seemed to be a thing in British comedy.
So The Office was released in the summer of 2001 with one assumes: minimal expectations. It quickly became a hit with BBC 2 who scheduled in a quick autumnal repeat and announced a second series for autumn 2002, front and centre of the BBC’s autumn schedule – much to the annoyance of the League of Gentlemen whose third series was broadcast around the same time and somewhat lost in the blitz of hype that surrounded the second series of The Office. Yet the tales of Royston Vasey were never set for mainstream audiences, but David Brent was. From the off Gervais and Merchant created relatable tales of modern mundane office life which millions of people could watch and think ‘I’ve worked for someone like him’, or ‘I’ve fancied the secretary too’, or ‘I’ve always wanted to put that wanker’s stapler in some jelly’.
The second series was a phenomenon. Any potential challengers were gone and Gervais – once a comedian struggling to find an audience on Channel 4, was suddenly the biggest name in British comedy before becoming the biggest name in world comedy. So universal was the concept he created, that his programme had versions made around the world yet none – not even the American version (which is that rarity, a decent American version of a British comedy) – managed to capture the lightning in the bottle of not just the original two series, but the Christmas specials which closed the series in 2003. Here Gervais doesn’t just give Dawn and Tim the ending the country hoped for, but he also partially redeemed David Brent while millions of people tuned in on Boxing Day and the following night to see what happened. This series which had been sneaked out in the height of summer was now at the core of the BBC’s Christmas programming in 18 months, which is simply extraordinary.
Was The Office any good or does it stand up 15 years later?
Yes, it was good. Gervais does overwhelm at times with the mugging to camera, not to mention there’s an overuse of Brent’s ‘oh, look, he’s crazeee’ schtick which reached a nadir with the dance in the Red Nose Day episode, which like Trigger falling through the bar in Only Fools and Horses, has been so overplayed that coming back that scene in context removes any comedy it once did have. Overall though it holds up well; Tim and Dawn’s arc is at times touching, funny and although the ending isn’t reflective of how reality often turns out, was fitting. Gareth is a fitting foil to Brent and even sadder than his idol, but it’s Brent who Gervais and Merchant fine tune into a fine comic creation who still chugs on Steve Coogan’s Alan Partridge character, so like Partridge, Brent now finds himself in a film released at the tail end of summer.
The Office is a flawed gem. It does stand up as barring some contemporary references it’ll be a classic for decades to come. True, Gervais’s career since has failed to hit the same heights, his stand up is at best patchy, while Extras was self-indulgent nonsense though I do have some fondness for Derek, the sitcom he did for Channel 4. It’s unlikely in this age where programmes are tested to an inch of their lives that something like The Office can ever cross from the depths of BBC2 to BBC One before becoming a global phenomenon. The BBC is far more cautious and conservative in 2016 than it was in 2001 for one, but also how television has fractured in the digital and internet age means we’re probably never going to see something like The Office again.