Hollywood lines up for day at the office with Gervais

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The Independent Online

Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Samuel L Jackson and Ben Stiller are all to appear in it. Its award-winning creator has a new series starting on the American television network NBC this month. Is it the latest big budget Hollywood movie? No, the show that has enticed the cream of Tinseltown is the follow up to The Office - and you can't get much less glamorous than a paper factory in Slough.

In fact, Ricky Gervais's eagerly awaited new sitcom, Extras, is set in a very different environment - an actors' green room - although as frustrated bit-part players, the central characters are not a million miles away from the thwarted boss David Brent.

In the sitcom, to be shown on BBC2 this summer, Gervais plays Andy Millman, who has given up his day job to follow his dream of becoming an actor but discovers that it is harder than he thought to land major roles. Even speaking parts seem to elude Millman, who spends most of his days in a green room with other extras, discussing his envy of A-list stars.

It is a tribute to the reputation The Office has established in the upper echelons of acting circles that stars of the calibre of Law and Winslet have agreed to make cameo appearances. The actor and former footballer Vinnie Jones, Les Dennis, the comedian, and the former Eastenders star Ross Kemp will also appear.

Gervais, who is filming Extras at Pinewood Studios in Buckinghamshire, said: "In Extras I play a grumpy and sarcastic character who hates being around actors and showbiz types, preferring to lie on his couch at home watching TV. It's a stretch, but I think I can pull it off."

Stephen Merchant, who co-wrote The Office with Gervais but only made a brief appearance in the sitcom, is turning his hand to acting in the new series, playing Millman's agent. The other central character is Maggie Jacobs, Millman's best friend and fellow extra, played by Ashley Jenson, who started her career in Rab C Nesbitt and has appeared in the BBC1 drama Clocking Off and Mike Leigh's Topsy Turvy.

Roly Keating, the controller of BBC2, said: "It will be a very different piece from The Office. It will have a very different dynamic. It's a closed set, so there's an element of mystery around it. The whole set-up means it will move on from The Office, which was filmed as a mock documentary. This is done differently in terms of being a more scripted piece."

The Office won critical acclaim when it was shown on BBC America in the US, going on to win two Golden Globes last year. Mark Frith, the editor of Heat magazine, said The Office became "the TV show to watch" among the notoriously difficult to please Hollywood elite.

"They all watched it on BBC America, or tapes were exchanged. By word of mouth it became the show that Hollywood watched. One of the reasons it is so well regarded in the community is that it's a really good piece of comedy drama.

"It feels refreshing and doesn't go for the obvious laughs. It is the kind of show that actors would like as well as a mass audience. The pacing is fantastic; the attention to detail is incredible."

Gervais has a lot to live up to in the high expectations engendered by his first sitcom. In a clip from a BBC2 showreel he jokingly refers to Extras as the show "that some critics are already calling the disappointing follow-up to The Office."

But Frith believes that Gervais has a sense of humour about the project. He said: "His success is such that the important thing for him is to do something that makes him happy. I think that is his key concern."

Extras is a highlight of BBC2's spring/summer season unveiled yesterday, which also includes Sensitive Skin, a sitcom starring Joanna Lumley and Denis Lawson; The Monastery, a reality TV series in which five laymen live as Benedictine monks for 40 days, and a drama based on William Golding's classic sea trilogy To The Ends Of The Earth.

* A pilot of The Office: An American Workplace did not go down well with audiences at test screenings, but NBC has decided to go ahead with a six-part series in peak time, which the BBC has bought to show in Britain. Merchant and Gervais are executive producers on the US version, in which the Brent character has been renamed Michael Scott and is played by the American comedy actor Steve Carell.

The US series is due to go on air on 22 March.

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