'We often deal in taboo...' - Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant
The creators of 'The Office' are to unleash a new sitcom, shortly, about a dwarf actors' agency. But, says Gerard Gilbert, don't mention the 'M word'
Sunday 06 November 2011
To a disused RAF base on the outer fringes of west London to watch Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant direct their first BBC sitcom since Extras.
It's called Life's Too Short, and it is Gervais who seems to be doing all the directing, constantly cajoling the cast and leaping from behind the monitors where both men sit, while Merchant looks on, occasionally conferring. The silent partner, you could say, although that downplays the thoughtful yin he provides to Gervais's voluble, sometimes thoughtless, yang.
"We see eye to eye on 95 per cent of things", says Gervais over lunch in his trailer. "When we first met, if we spent an eight-hour day writing, seven hours of it would be saying things we loved and things we hated, so if you drew a Venn diagram there'd be a big chunk in the middle. So we have a simple rule – one veto and it's out."
BBC2's Life's Too Short stars the Star Wars and Harry Potter actor Warwick Davis as a fictionalised version of himself, the dwarf owner of an agency for small actors (Davis actually runs such an agency, called Willow after the 1988 film that George Lucas specially wrote for him). The joke is that Davis keeps bagging the best roles for himself, and in the scene being filmed several of his diminutive clients have assembled in his office to complain. It's a tricky role, because, as in The Office, the conceit is that this is a documentary about the fictional Davis's life, and like Gervais's David Brent, Davis has to play off the other actors while simultaneously acting up to the camera.
"Just do it bigger than you ever think you need to," Gervais instructs him, unintended puns about size always a danger. The comedian was recently upbraided by disability groups and fellow comedians for Tweeting the word "mong" and posting photographs of himself posing "monged-up faces". So perhaps he's not the best person to ask about the acceptable term for a short person, but here's his reply anyway: "You can say dwarf if they are a dwarf ... if they suffer from dwarfism", he says. "Little Person is the approved term. Midget is the offensive word ... it's the 'm' word."
Warwick Davis later tells me he doesn't mind "the m word".
The idea for Life's Too Short came from Davis after he was badgered by – and turned down – various documentary-makers keen to shadow his family and work life. But he thought the idea had comic potential, and took it to Gervais and Merchant, whom he knew from having appeared on Extras.
"I wanted to work with someone smaller", cracks Gervais when I ask him why they agreed to take on Davis's idea (Merchant is 6ft 7in). "No, there's loads of reasons really. We knew that Warwick was a great actor, and it was an interesting ownership of this subject. We often deal in taboo and people's angst about how to deal with difference", he continues, before seeming to contradict himself. "When people see the whole series they'll realise that it was nothing to do with being short, we don't really play on that. It's as much about being a dwarf and the politics of being a dwarf as The Office was about selling paper."
Either way Gervais and Merchant have fun with a short person's day-to-day difficulties, and although the script is all their own, they've incorporated some of Davis's stories.
"The first thing he told us", says Gervais, "is that he goes shopping with his wife, who's also a little person, and they say 'I'll meet you in Dolcis'. She's already in there when he walks in, and the staff always go, 'She's over there.' The real Warwick Davis goes, 'Thank you very much', but this Warwick Davis says, 'Who's over there? Why do you think I'm with her?' He won't let it lie.
"The other story he tells, which we've included, is that when he goes shopping he often has to go and get a broom and knock stuff off the shelves because he doesn't want to have to go and ask for help."
Life's Too Short is a BBC co-production with HBO, and will also be shown in the United States. HBO also makes Curb Your Enthusiasm, and last weekend British viewers of the sitcom could have seen Ricky Gervais playing a distinctly unflattering version of himself. Gervais seems to flow with ease between the two countries, while Life's Too Short contains cameos from such Hollywood stars as Johnny Depp, Liam Neeson and Steve Carell as well as British stars Sting and Helena Bonham Carter.
"America is our mecca of comedy and we've always embraced it", he says. "Our original Office – although we didn't make it for America – strangely took off there. All my favourite shows have been American."
Merchant believes old differences in taste are eroding. "I think there's a more direct trade between the two countries in terms of audiences," he says. "That's largely due to the rise of the internet. You can access stuff in a way you couldn't before. The rise of The Office was because the internet."
The Office celebrated its tenth anniversary this summer, and for many television critics the sitcom was something of a watershed in the evolution of the British sitcom. Laughter tracks were out, and the fourth wall was broken, as Brent spoke to the supposed documentary camera. In some respects it was the first British meta-comedy, paving the way for everybody from The Thick of It and Peep Show to Miranda Hart's own mugging to the camera.
"The Office gets cited – before Office and after Office – but it doesn't change anything in the real world", says Gervais. "I imagine it got people thinking that 'oh, maybe we don't need a laugh track' but we didn't invent that. Larry Sanders didn't have that. We didn't invent the fake documentary – Spinal Tap did that. I suppose if The Office did have one thing that was different, it was that it was such a slave to realism."
"If you were to look at the stats, it wouldn't compare with Only Fools and Horses," says Merchant. "They were getting 15 million when we were getting six. Everyone has an opinion about it although they might not have watched it."
Ten years is a short time in comedy, thinks Gervais. "It's a bit premature ... you think of Fawlty Towers lasting the test of time for 30 years and we're going 'yay ... 10!'." But, Merchant adds, "It is a long time because it seems like The Office never went away from us. Personally I feel that I manage the estate of The Office every day; there's always something. If it's not the American remake, it's 'can we use this clip for this quiz machine?' Yes, it's never really gone away."
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