Stephen Merchant: The sidekick

The Ricky Gervais phenomenon couldn't have happened without him, and now he's brought his unique brand of drollery to the big screen

When Stephen Merchant was a film student graduating from the University of Warwick with a first-class degree he may have dreamed of the rave reviews he would one day receive.

If so, then "Giant Albatross Hopping on Stilts" (Daily Mail), "Immense Exclamation Mark Made Flesh" (The Independent), "A Giraffe with Sideburns" (The Daily Telegraph) is probably not quite what he had in mind.

Yet he has achieved global fame, first for his work on the small screen and now, perhaps, for his debut on the big one. Cemetery Junction, the movie which Merchant has co-created with his writing and directing partner Ricky Gervais, was released this week. The reviews of a feel-good comedy drama set in Seventies Britain have been mixed: "Too many fathers-in-vests and too many tired gags" (London Evening Standard). "Entertaining, as far as it goes" (The Guardian).

Gervais has claimed to be unworried by the reception given to the latest project from the team that gave us The Office and Extras. "I don't care what anyone thinks of the film. I've had the money and I've spent it," he joked to the BBC. He's not really that ambivalent, of course, and Merchant, who describes himself as the more cautious of the pair, is far from one to take success for granted. "I'm always half-expecting people to turn round and say: "Right, you've had your moment, Merchant. That was it. You blew it all? Well I'm sorry – no more."

That insecurity is no doubt the result of a childhood that, though it wasn't the stuff of a Frank McCourt misery memoir, was hardly spoiled. Merchant's mother was a nursery nurse, while his father was an insurance salesman, selling door-to-door just like Freddie (Christian Cooke), a character in Cemetery Junction who hopes that such a job will enable him to make money and broaden his horizons. The film was originally titled The Man from the Pru, a reference to the Prudential insurance company.

Merchant, now 35, was a shy boy who excelled at school in Bristol but was embarrassed by his gawky physique. Understandably his childhood heroes included John Cleese and Stephen Fry, actors who express themselves with wit and intelligence and who stand at six-and-a-half feet but use their height to comic effect. At 6ft 7in, Merchant is the same height as the England footballer Peter Crouch, though he still winces at the reminder of playing school sports in his spectacles.

Based in north London, he likes to scoff at the notion that he lives in opulence derived from the riches generated by The Office. Even so, the story of his career has, in spite of his unremarkable beginnings, been one of almost unrelenting success. A straight-A student at school, his time at Warwick was marked not just by his first-class honours degree but by his performances on the university radio station where his stunt-based show was likened to the work of Rob Newman and David Baddiel, the stars of mid-Nineties television comedy. He was only 22 when Gervais hired him to work as his assistant at the independent rock station Xfm in London, and the following year the pair were presenting a Saturday afternoon show together.

"Steve wasn't interested in punk," Gervais said recently in response to a comment by Merchant that his more famous companion has "that punk-rock sensibility" in being more provocative in his approach to comedy. Though this is a reference to the intuitive caution that Merchant also exhibits in relation to money, he is, by his own admission "obsessed with music", from The Velvelettes to Frank Zappa. He spends his spare time strumming the guitar. If he lacks Gervais's punk instincts it is probably in part an age thing, Merchant being 14 years younger than his writing partner and having grown up in an era when dance music was in the ascendancy. Though elements of Merchant's upbringing have informed Cemetery Junction, the Seventies nostalgia trip is more influenced by Gervais's working-class adolescence in Reading, where the traffic interchange that gave the film its name actually exists.

In spite of his towering presence, Merchant has largely been happy to take a lower profile role in his partnership with Gervais. The earliest glowing reviews of The Office were all about Ricky – "Hilarious and Unsettling by Turn" (The Independent on Sunday) – which is not surprising given that he had the starring role. Merchant's on-screen contribution was in the form of the Oggmonster, the lofty mate of Mackenzie Crook's Gareth character. Gareth himself was given a version of Merchant's pronounced West Country accent, which he doesn't like, claiming it has "an association with dimness".

When the success of The Office led the pair back to Xfm in late 2001 it was to present The Ricky Gervais Show, which was produced by the madcap Karl Pilkington.

Gradually though, Merchant has become more visible. He has shown that he is more than a writing talent with a succession of other cameo roles, most notably that of the inept agent Darren Lamb in Extras, the follow-up to The Office. Though his character was subsidiary to Gervais's starring role as the flawed comedy actor Andy Millman, Merchant's depiction of the hopeless Lamb, with his empty contacts book and childish incomprehension of the mechanics of the showbiz industry, won him a British Comedy Award for Best TV Actor in 2006.

By then, the fame of Gervais, and, to a lesser degree Merchant, had crossed the Atlantic. They were the executive producers of the American version of The Office and Merchant cut his teeth as the director of one of the episodes of that show. They had gathered Golden Globe and Emmy awards to add to the Baftas they had won in Britain.

Merchant and Gervais, along with their production sidekick Pilkington, had also turned themselves into the unrivalled stars of the iTunes podcast chart. The recordings, also called The Ricky Gervais Show, were of a three-way unscripted discussion, usually inspired by Pilkington's bizarre observations on the state of the world. After breaking the Guinness World Record for the number of downloads, the trio have since recorded a succession of audio books, the latest being The Ricky Gervais Guide to ... the Earth.

The almost constant presence of Merchant in Gervais's writing schedule, despite the latter being a fully-fledged Hollywood comedy actor, is obvious testimony to the younger man's creative talents. The Harry Potter actor Daniel Radcliffe, who worked with the pair during an episode of Extras, gave an interesting insight into their relationship when he commented: "Ricky is obviously much more of a showman, but you almost get the sense that he wouldn't be able to do that without Stephen."

When Merchant went back to radio once again, three years ago, it was with his own name in lights. "The Steve Show" on BBC 6 Music was two hours on a Sunday afternoon when he had the chance to introduce listeners to new artists. When he left last year to concentrate on making feature films, his colleagues posted a tribute on the BBC website. "Our man's off to glamorous Tinseltown, where the Hollywood execs will puzzle over what on earth he is talking about with that Brizzle accent! Bon voyage Stephen."

The former film student is finally making movies. Merchant has a further cameo role in Cemetery Junction, where he plays a "bore". In an interview three years ago with The Daily Telegraph he said, "I can't bear a bore, someone who dominates a party. It exhausts me. When I talk to a bore I feel the life draining out of me. I don't want to have to compete."

Clearly he considers Gervais neither boring nor as competition. Their long working relationship shows a deep mutual respect, though, whether or not Cemetery Junction is a success, Merchant can hardly expect compliments from his co-director, who is an incessant mickey-taker. On-screen, the Bristolian is a "Big lanky goggle-eyed freak" (David Brent), and off-screen he's "an upright lizard being given electric shock treatment" (Ricky Gervais). Better to let Stephen Merchant write his own epitaph. "Lanky funnyman," he says. "That's what I'd push for."

A life in brief

Born: 24 November 1974, Bristol.

Family: Son of Ronald John Merchant, an insurance rep, and Jane Elaine Hibbs, a nursery nurse. His father had a walk-on role in The Office as Gordon, a caretaker. His younger sister called Alex was the art director for The Office.

Career: After a stint on Radio Warwick as a student, Merchant joined XFM in 1997 as Ricky Gervais' assistant. After leaving XFM he continued to work as a stand-up comedian before achieving huge success as co-creator of The Office. He again collaborated with Gervais for Extras, in which he played inept agent Darren Lamb, for which he won a British Comedy Award. His latest collaboration with Gervais, Cemetary Junction, is in cinemas now.

He says: "I'm not comfortable acting because I can't remember my lines and have to write them down and hide them around the set. I find it difficult to walk and remember lines, which is why I'm sitting down a lot in Extras. It is fun, but I'd prefer to be sitting round the house in my pants."

They say: Looks like "an upright lizard being given electroshock therapy." – Ricky Gervais

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