Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant: Office party

The comedy that defines the decade is going out with a bang. In an exclusive extract from a new book, the creators of 'The Office' talk to Ben Thompson
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A Lot of it is watching the clock, or watching someone else" - Ricky Gervais rolls his eyes distractedly, pushes out his lower lip and blows upwards in a time-honoured sign of boredom - "Doing this ... I think those are the things people recognise first, beyond particular characters or lines."

A Lot of it is watching the clock, or watching someone else" - Ricky Gervais rolls his eyes distractedly, pushes out his lower lip and blows upwards in a time-honoured sign of boredom - "Doing this ... I think those are the things people recognise first, beyond particular characters or lines."

Sitting in an anonymous West End edit suite in the summer of 2002 (the notice board on the wall is covered in Post-it notes, but the stapler is not - yet - set in jelly) with his co-writer and directorial accomplice Stephen Merchant, Ricky Gervais is trying to work out what it is about their subtle, complex and emotionally gruelling sitcom The Office that strikes such a powerful chord with so many people.

"I suppose it could be anywhere," Gervais continues, of The Office's unglamorous, home-counties location. "There's something quite generic about that type of open-plan office, about a paper merchant's, middle-managers, about the age group, about Slough."

"We're not just a couple of media types laughing at people stuck in Slough working in an office," insists Stephen Merchant, who seems worried about being thought of as snobbish. "It doesn't matter if you're an international playboy," he continues, somewhat more inscrutably, "if you're not enjoying your life."

"I imagine surgeons and people who work with NASA," Gervais muses, "going: 'Why has he got a bigger chair than me? He's only been here six months.' You can't help it, you pick up symptoms. You compare yourself to your neighbour, not someone who lives 10,000 miles away ... If a country sinks, it's not as bad as your boss who's a twat."

The English wit Charles Lamb (1775-1834) was obliged to work as a clerk at East India House to support his sister, who suffered from periodic bouts of violent mental disturbance. "You arrive late, Mr Lamb," his colleagues would greet him censoriously. "Yes," would come the great man's retort, "but see how early I leave." The poetic expression Lamb gave to the dissatisfactions of his working life - "I had grown to my desk as it were, and the wood had entered into my soul" - will ring a bell with anyone who has ever done a job they don't like, but it might also have made a good motto for The Office (if "You don't have to be crazy to work here, but it helps" hadn't got there first).

Do Gervais and Merchant subscribe to the view that a crucial ingredient in most great sitcoms is people being stuck in a situation?

"It's not just being stuck," Gervais insists. "It's knowing you're stuck." Gervais (who did a philosophy degree at University College London before a lengthy stint as entertainments officer at the University of London Union, managing an early incarnation of Suede, doing the music for This Life and earning sundry other distinctions at the university of life) waxes metaphysical. "To be the dissatisfied Socrates or the satisfied fool ... that's the dilemma: do you trade happiness for wisdom?"

And what would their answers be to that tricky question?

Gervais points at Merchant: "He's a dissatisfied fool."

When the first series of The Office emerged, with minimal fanfare, in the summer of 2001, portents of the hoopla to come were thin on the ground. This was a low-budget BBC2 début, written and directed by a pair of virtual unknowns, in which nothing very much seemed to happen in the first couple of weeks. And yet those little somethings that did happen - such as a pornographic e-mail being doctored to feature the boss's face - seemed to capture the atmosphere of contemporary working life with a precision that was as hilarious as it was excruciatingly painful.

As the growing numbers of people tuning in each week to the goings-on at Wernham Hogg paper merchants found out, the boss - regional manager David Brent, played by the series' co-creator Ricky Gervais - was a classic comic creation. Striving manfully to hide his predatory intentions behind politically correct platitudes, somehow balancing heartfelt concern for the welfare of his workforce with appalling self-interest, Brent miraculously retained just enough humanity to leave a question mark over his designation as "the boss from hell".

If there is a comedic equivalent of the alchemist's magic formula, it's the capacity to make an audience empathise with someone even as they behave in an indefensible manner. And, as The Office went through a frenziedly acclaimed repeat screening and started to rack up well-deserved British Comedy Awards and BAFTAs, the bulk of the attention was naturally focused on Gervais.

Yet it's not so much as the star of the show but as the hub of a perfect ensemble - alongside heroically gormless acolyte Gareth (Mackenzie Crook), tortured but acerbic Everyman Tim (Martin Freeman) and Dawn (Lucy Davis), the inscrutable receptionist for whom Tim's love should perhaps always have remained a secret (even from himself) - that he's earned his place alongside Captain Mainwaring and Rising Damp's Rigsby as one of the true sitcom immortals.

While office manager David Brent's almost psychotic tactlessness plainly originates from a dark recess in Gervais's twisted mind, the extent to which his gullible right-hand man Gareth Keenan derives from the personality of Stephen Merchant has been somewhat less well documented. In fact, Brent's delusional sidekick sounds so like Merchant that Mackenzie Crook often finds himself getting half the credit for the Saturday-morning radio show Gervais and Merchant co-host on indie radio station XFM.

When Crook, a Londoner, went to audition for the part, they asked him to "try it in a West Country accent". Merchant grew up in Bristol, just down the M4 from the Gervais family home in Reading. "We think there's nothing funnier than a man from Reading onwards towards Bristol trying to be taken seriously," the latter explains compassionately. It is this despotic duo's apparently random but actually very clearly thought out attention to such details - rigorously enforced throughout every aspect of the show, from script to casting to direction - that makes The Office's unique brand of Thames Valley naturalism so uniquely engrossing.

"When we first started," Merchant admits, "we didn't know anything about casting. We just knew we had to get the best naturalistic actors ever. 'I tell you what we should do,'" Merchant remembers himself and Gervais thinking. "'We should get people who aren't actors - we'll get real people to do it!' But the thing is, real people can't do it. In fact, most actors can't do it.

"The most flattering thing for us," he continues, "is when people think it's improvised." Getting actors to say lines as if they're doing it for the first time is a fairly precise science. "We keep on top of them," f Gervais grins malevolently, "almost to the point of embarrassment. It's not necessarily that they're doing it wrong, just that sometimes there might be 10 ways to do something and we want number seven."

"Because we've acted it all out together in the writing room first," explains Merchant, "it's kind of like we know how every word should sound." That level of preparation must be quite a challenge to the humble performers. "When you're asking someone who's twice as good an actor as you, 'can you go up at the end of that sentence, because it's funnier?'" Gervais grimaces, "that's where it gets tricky."

"I don't know what the cast's opinion is of us as directors," Merchant muses, "I would imagine it's like we're pretending."

Gervais affects a world-weary thespian grimace: "... So now the fat bloke who thinks he's an actor is telling me how to say my line."

Martin Freeman - whose pivotal role as the sensitive cynic awash in a sea of mediocrity gives The Office's audience the vital element of someone to identify with - mentions a running joke he and Ricky share about the latter's lack of formal acting qualifications. Endeavouring to capture the spirit of this friendly on-set banter, Freeman describes "waving my certificate from Central drama school in his [Gervais's] big fat face".

But when it comes to assessing the actual performance of The Office's untrained leading man, Freeman will not hear a word against the burly thespian neophyte. "You don't need to be taught to be an actor," he insists. "It's all about being an observant person: paying attention to other people, and paying attention to the shit that's in your mind." He laughs. "And there's enough shit in Ricky's mind for all of us!"

Ricky Gervais's offscreen persona is an entertaining blend of bluff common sense and fairly advanced neurosis. Asked in an Evening Standard questionnaire what he might say to tourists on the streets around his Bloomsbury home, Gervais responded: "Either move faster or get out of my way." In the course of a nervy appearance on Room 101, he revealed that he couldn't bear to enter a pub or restaurant before the person he was meeting had arrived, and would rather circle the venue shiftily several times than go in and wait on his own.

"The thing about Ricky," says Lucy Davis fondly, "is that there are so many tales you can tell where, if you know him, you'll roar along, but if you don't, you might go 'oh'." As if to underline the truth of this observation, she then embarks on a fond reminiscence of the time Gervais tried to blind her on set with an aerosol deodorant.

"I don't smoke," insists this self-styled "grumpy old man from Reading". "I don't do extreme sports." He leans forward conspiratorially in his seat. "My only risk," he proclaims with a daredevil flourish, "is cheese ..." Gervais grins, somewhat goatishly. "I'll have a healthy pasta meal with half a pound of Parmesan."

In fact, this nutritional maverick seems to have embraced Gustave Flaubert's dictum that "You must be regular and natural in your habits like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work." Eschewing the unfettered hedonism and egotistical promiscuity which is the general run of comedians' private lives, Gervais has lived with the same woman (This Life producer Jane Fallon) since he met her 20 years ago. So - lacking any of the customary priapic or narcotic-based pointers as to the roots of his comic genius - it's going to be necessary to delve a little deeper into the "shit in Ricky's mind".

"A clown running around in trifle is only so funny," Gervais announces, back at the Fitzrovia edit suite where he and Merchant are putting the finishing touches to the second series. "But a man whose wife has just left him falling over in some trifle, that is absolutely hilarious ... because that's where the darkness comes in."

His voice gets slightly louder, which is one of two signals Gervais tends to give when a comic extrapolation is under way. (The other is a mildly hysterical laugh, in the manner of the much-loved Carry On star, Sid James.)

"Oh, his wife's left him, and he's covered in custard, and there she comes with her new boyfriend," Gervais laments.

"That's real bad luck, mind," chips in Merchant, archly. "And who left the custard there anyway - do you think it was the boyfriend? I never liked him."

"Nerd!" barks Gervais damningly.

"Loser!" Merchant snaps back.

What initially seems like the rambling of an impenetrable double act is actually a kind of character shorthand. Rather than obvious TV comedy precedents - like Alan Partridge or Victoria Wood - The Office's inspirations are, Gervais claims, largely cinematic.

The flashes of almost unbearable emotional acuity with which The Office is illuminated have such unlikely starting-points as the final scenes in The Bridges of Madison County - "When you think she's going to maybe go and pursue this other life and then realise she isn't" - or the fact that in Billy Wilder's The Apartment, Shirley Maclaine says she noticed Jack Lemmon because he was "the only man who ever took his hat off in the elevator". ("There's no exposition!" Gervais enthuses. "Don't expose things completely!")

Of every eight hours he and Merchant spend working on The Office's scripts, "Six will be spent talking about films, and what worked and what didn't." Lots of people manage to while away their working days talking about films without coming up with ideas for award-winning sitcoms, though. So how did these two "total chancers" (their own phrase: Merchant introduces himself in similarly unflattering terms as "a lanky, bespectacled West Country oik", and Gervais's pre-Office employment record was bulked out by spells as a traffic warden and singer in a doomed New Romantic pop group) come to hit upon such a paragon of televisual perfection?

The Office was originally developed from a 20-minute film of the David Brent character (then known, more generically, as "Seedy Boss") which Gervais and Merchant had recorded for the latter's BBC production training course in the summer of 1998. During the three years it took to get the show on to the screen, with the painstaking attention to detail both felt was requisite, Gervais's career threatened to take off in another direction.

He graduated from Channel 4's Eleven O'Clock Show - the same little-lamented launch pad which also gave the world Ali G - to presenting his own late-night chat show, Meet Ricky Gervais, in which he managed to offend more or less everyone by bombarding his guests with bigoted opinions (eg. on Comic Relief's annual contribution to global charity: "What did they do with last year's?") without letting anyone know that these were intended satirically.

One of the keys to The Office's success, as opposed to Meet Ricky Gervais's relative failure was the skilful way it employed the omnipresent docusoap format. The idea of having its central character followed around by a camera crew came about not so much as a response to what Gervais calls "the Zeitgeist of documentaries being made about everything", but because, he insists, "doing it that way gives you more access to people's emotions and how they behave".

"At no point in the life of The Office has it ever been a spoof documentary," Ricky Gervais reiterates forcefully. "It's been a fake documentary - not so much faking a genre, but because we wanted you to watch it as if David Brent was real, and that seemed the best way to do it. We liked the fact that he is a normal person who, when given his platform, thinks, This is it: I'm a philosopher! I'm the next Jane f McDonald! [genetically modified star of BBC TV's The Cruise] ... but he opens his mouth and he blows it." Gervais pauses. "When someone says: 'You should meet Ted, he's the funniest bloke you'll ever meet', I can guarantee you that he won't be - he'll come up with one of those buzzer things in his hand and go [Gervais makes irritating buzzer noise] and you'll go [he winces] 'Isn't he great?'"

The feeling of embarrassment he describes has become ever more familiar over the last few years as traditions of British reserve have been washed away by reality TV's exhibitionist floodtide. In the early summer of 2002, The Office even spawned its own docusoap spin-off series - The Real Life of the Office - about a Swansea car-hire firm whose boss made David Brent look like Albert Schweitzer.

Needless to say, Gervais is delighted by this development, and quotes verbatim from a newspaper review of the profoundly disturbing programme which resulted. "If Ricky Gervais was watching, he'd probably have been flattered and saddened - flattered that he got everything right, and saddened that it changes nothing."

Gervais pauses. "But I love the fact that The Office changes nothing," he insists. "And all those people in offices who used to do impressions of Harry Enfield will now be doing impressions of David Brent." It's often those who are most clearly the subject of satire who feel most compelled to embrace it. "Of course the blind spot is dangerous," Gervais nods sagely, "and by definition, you don't notice it."

As to the exact nature of Gervais's own blind spot, it might be a kamikaze instinct for saying the worst thing imaginable in any situation, just to see what will happen (an unexpected trait, this, in a man who claims his only adrenaline surge comes from risks involving the excess consumption of dairy products).

Thus it was that in the autumn of 2001, going up to receive a British Comedy Award live on primetime ITV, Gervais decided it would be a good idea to "run the risk of offending everyone in the country". Accompanied to the podium by his producer, Ash Attalla, who is in a wheelchair, Gervais says: "Aah, look at his little face," before adding that Attalla "wants to make it clear that he is not a competition winner". Attalla makes a "wanker" hand gesture. After a momentary but very awkward pause, while a roomful of comedy professionals decides whether it is appropriate to find this funny, everyone laughs.

Did they plan this beforehand?

Not specifically, admits Attalla, "though Ricky warned me he might say something".

Did his long-suffering producer think it was funny?

He seems to have done. "I've worked with Ricky for four years," Attalla notes indulgently, "and he's still more obsessed by my wheelchair than anyone else I know."

But what about Gervais himself - does he never worry about the moral impact getting away with this kind of thing might have on him?

"My mum," he remembers fondly (his mother died two years ago), "always used to say, 'The worst thing that could happen to you when you go to the bookies is that you win'," Ricky flashes his incisors, "but I never really agreed with her."

The amazing thing about the second series of The Office is that for all the factors conspiring to spoil it - not least everyone going on about how great it is all the time (one overwrought correspondent to internet comedy forum Not The BBC even complains that the show is undermining the quality of debate, because everyone keeps comparing everything else to it inappropriately) - The Office actually manages to surpass expectations. Like the music of The White Stripes, it proves that even in our grievously over-mediated culture it is possible to do something which is so great that all the hyperbole and overkill which inevitably ensue can do nothing to diminish the joy of it.

There are a couple of episodes in the second series where Ricky Gervais seems to be getting too big for the show: leaving behind the naturalistic environs of Wernham Hogg for his own private world of loneliness and humiliation. But the whole thing is brought back together so seamlessly in the end - when it is made agonisingly clear just how desperately David Brent needs his job - that you can't help wondering if this internal detour was a kind of controlled explosion of the Gervaisian ego (which must have burgeoned to some extent, amid all the "genius-of-our-time" hyperbole).

A vital and often overlooked element in The Office's overall impact is the way the show's visual language complements its underlying story line of inadvertent emotional disclosure. It was director of photography Andy Hollis (a veteran of Chris Morris's endlessly mutating film stocks and Spaced's seemingly insatiable yen for Hollywood parody) who helped directorial novices Gervais and Merchant to get the best out of their new "situmentary" hybrid.

"I think after the pilot, they realised it was never going to be possible to get everything from one take," Hollis explains, "but when we had a cutaway shot of people reacting, we tried to justify it as though it was from the same position. And we never had big set-ups - we always tried to make it look as though it was cobbled together from lots of different bits of pieces of film in the hope of telling one story.

"As a rule," Hollis continues, "it's my job to stop the audience noticing where the cameras are, but in this case we made a point of letting them know, so the actors could play to them. And that helped us get everyone's reactions across. The beauty of The Office is you get to see the whole of people's faces, rather than just square on, like in a normal TV programme."

There are two particular moments in the second series when content and delivery harmonise with eerie precision. The first is in the magnificently gruesome fire-drill episode, when David Brent insists on unnecessarily carrying a wheelchair-bound, formerly Swindon-based employee down the fire escape in the hope of impressing everybody, then tires of the physical effort required and abandons her in the stairwell. In a scene whose subliminal echo of the heroism of 11 September office workers trying to get their colleagues out of the World Trade Centre is just as clear in Brent's mind as it is in ours, his betrayal seems all the more absolute. And the camera pulls back as if almost unable to look.

This idea - that there are some things which are so terrible or so private that they should not be broadcast for the idle diversion of strangers - is just about as close to heresy as it is possible to get on 21st-century TV. And it recurs in the final episode of the second series, when Tim makes a second, doomed formal play for Dawn's affections. Heading into closed conference to face his romantic destiny, he unclips his microphone, and for nigh on a minute there's no sound. At first those watching at home feel cheated, and then they realise that by way of those few moments of silence, a little bit of lost humanity has been restored to them.

This is an edited extract from 'Sunshine on Putty: The Golden Age of British Comedy from Vic Reeves to The Office' by Ben Thompson, to be published by Fourth Estate on 1 January, price £15. To order a copy, call 0870 8001122. The last ever episodes of 'The Office' will be broadcast on 26 December at 10.15pm and 27 December at 9.50pm on BBC1