Ricky Gervais: Where did it all go wrong?

He's an international giant of light entertainment, an A-list celebrity and multi-millionaire whose every venture seems to turn to showbusiness gold. And yet...
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There is an episode of Extras in which Ricky Gervais's character Andy Millman, the star of a successful sitcom, walks past a homeless man who asks him for money. He checks his pocket for change, discovers he only has a £20 note, and agonises over whether or not to give it to the down and out.

As with much of Gervais's comedy, there is something in this sketch which feels very close to the bone, even more so following recent criticism that tickets to his show at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe were too expensive at £37.50 a pop.

Coming down on the side of good, Gervais announced at his Fame gig on Sunday night that he would donate profits from the performance to Macmillan Cancer Care. It is not clear how much of the £300,000 takings the charity will eventually receive, after the costs of the performance are factored in but it is the latest in a series of donations made by Gervais to the charity.

The donation has not, however, stopped critics from questioning whether the title of "King of Comedy" that Gervais bestowed upon himself in his spectacular show at Edinburgh Castle is still deserved.

It was not just his ticket price that was held against Gervais, but also the fear he was stealing audiences from other Fringe shows which could not hope to match his comic extravaganza.

In an eye-catching piece of self-referential comedy, at the start of the stand-up show in which he played to 8,000 people, Gervais arrived on stage wearing a crown and robe, against a backdrop of his name in lights, with fireworks going off on either side of him.

His comic offering was somewhat more prosaic, described by The Independent's comedy critic Julian Hall as "perfectly solid and enjoyable stand-up". Hall pointed out: "The Fringe this year has proved that, where stand-up is concerned, there are comics, younger but more experienced than Gervais, that are pretenders to the stadium comic throne."

A billboard at the end of Edinburgh's main shopping thoroughfare, Princes Street, which read: "Ricky Gervais At Edinburgh Castle Is Sold Out – What A Pointless Billboard", was also viewed by some as an example of irritating smugness.

Colin Fox, the leader of the Scottish Socialist Party and chairman of the Edinburgh People's Festival, welcomed Gervais's decision to donate his profits to charity but said: "The whole festival circus has moved away from its roots which were to provide for the people by the people. Here's a stand-up charging £37.50 for a single ticket, considerably beyond the pockets of many people. He seemed to epitomise the direction the festival had taken which was not in keeping with its origins."

The mixed reception Gervais received in Edinburgh is not the first time the comic has stirred up controversy. Forced to ad lib on stage for several minutes while Sir Elton John was delayed at the Concert for Diana earlier this summer, he resorted to that old chestnut the David Brent dance – made famous in a scene from his hit comedy The Office.

The critics were quick to ponder whether his comic genius was running dry. But in an interview with the London radio station Heart FM, Gervais robustly defended himself. "After the Diana concert, there was one guy, who works for a tabloid, and he wrote that the crowd booed.

"They didn't boo, they loved it. People love it when something goes wrong and I was standing there and they demanded I do the 'robot dance' and it was funny.

"But this guy wrote, 'He's rubbish, everything he's ever done is rubbish and it's all over for him'. That week, I got nominated for four Emmy Awards, sold 100,000 DVDs of Extras and signed up for two Hollywood movies. So bring on the backlash ... I want him writing about me every day."

There was a sense of déjà vu about his performance at the Concert. Two years earlier at Live 8, the crowd had also bayed for Gervais to perform the dance, which involves strutting around like a baboon. On that occasion, Gervais courted controversy by announcing on stage: "Bob Geldof and Richard Curtis have just been on a conference call with Tony Blair and George Bush and they've agreed to not double but quadruple aid, so the concert's over!" After a pause, he added: "Only joking. They haven't! We can carry on!" prompting Curtis to criticise him for "using world poverty for a gag".

Gervais is also tipped to be one of the presenters, alongside Jonathan Ross, of a proposed day of BBC programmes devoted to combating climate change, provisionally titled Planet Relief. But even joining the fight against global warming is not unproblematic. At the weekend, the editor of BBC's Newsnight, Peter Barron, warned: "If the BBC is thinking about campaigning on climate change, then that is wrong and not our job."

It now seems hard to believe that success came relatively late to Gervais. Born in Reading in 1961, he studied philosophy at university in London. After a brief career in a pop band, he ended up running the entertainments at a student union. He also managed the indie group Suede – before they were signed up by a record label.

His break came when he was asked to present a radio show on fledgling music station Xfm, where he hired Stephen Merchant as an assistant, giving birth to one of the most successful writing partnerships in British comedy.

Early forays into television were hit and miss, including guest appearances on The 11 O'Clock Show which led to his own chat show, Meet Ricky Gervais.

On 9 July 2001, British comic history was changed forever, when the BBC broadcast the first episode of The Office. Based in the Slough branch of Wernham Hogg paper merchants, the comedy mimicked a fly-on-the-wall documentary. But its real brilliance lay in its ability to capture those little moments of everyday life familiar to all office workers. Gervais himself took centre stage as office manager Brent, to whom the adjective most commonly applied was "cringeworthy".

It was such a critical and ratings triumph that the Americans soon decided they wanted a slice of the action. It was remade as The Office: An American Workplace. That did not prevent the original from having a strong following on the other side of the Atlantic and, in 2004, Gervais won the Golden Globe for best actor in a TV comedy, while the series won best comedy.

Gervais has joined that elite league of Brits who have made it big in America. Last year, he became the first guest star on The Simpsons to write the episode in which he appeared, "Homer Simpson – This Is Your Wife" – although he claimed afterwards that all he had done was put down "a load of observations on an email and they made it look like a Simpsons script".

In a bizarre twist, at next month's prestigious Emmy awards, Gervais is pitted against Steve Carrell, star of the American version of The Office, for his own performance in Extras – the BBC2 follow-up to The Office – which aired in the US on HBO.

The anticipation surrounding Extras was huge, with fans and critics uncertain whether Gervais and Merchant could repeat the success of The Office. They were not disappointed. Baffling expectation, the comedy duo came up with something completely different – moving from the mundane office environment to the more surreal world of a bit-part actor, Andy Millman.

The stroke of brilliance was to ask the truly famous to cameo in the series, then imagine them as distorted versions of themselves. So, in the first series, Hollywood comedy star Ben Stiller became an earnest actor-turned-director obsessed with the horrors of war, Kate Winslet in a nun's costume revealed a filthy mouth, while Les Dennis bared his heart as a cuckolded comedian starring in pantomime. In the second series of Extras, Gervais moved on again. This time, Andy Millman had progressed to become the creator and star of a hit sitcom, who found it difficult to live up to the high expectations that accompanied his new-found fame.

Somewhere in this hectic schedule, Gervais found time to create Flanimals, a bestselling series of children's books based around a fantastical menagerie of creatures, which has been turned into a cartoon series by ITV. He is also set to star in Hollywood romcom Ghost Town, about a dentist who develops the ability to connect the dead with the living.

But as fame has been heaped upon him, has Gervais lost the ability to connect with the ordinary man and woman in the street that made The Office so powerful? Tim Arthur, comedy editor of Time Out, believes that Gervais continues to be funny precisely by basing his comedy on what is going on in his own life.

"In this country if anyone gets successful – particularly someone like Gervais who has an ego to match his success – it tends to wind people up. It's something we should celebrate that we have a comic who is recognised on both sides of the Atlantic.

"I think he's as funny as ever. I don't think he has ever been a brilliant stand-up, but what he does have is mass popularity.

"The fact that he managed to sell out the Edinburgh Castle gig in no time at all shows his popularity with the public hasn't waned at all. It's undeniable that people do genuinely love him.

"His comedy hits home with the ordinary person. In The Office people recognised bits of their own life. But he's such a massive star now that it's a whole different level.

"His humour comes from his experience. The argument is whether or not people can relate to it. He's always made his comedy on the last thing he's been doing. Now the experience is drawing on the last few years, which have been this incredible rollercoaster. There's nothing worse than someone really famous who says 'I'm just like you'. It would be totally disingenuous."