Where do I start?
It’s twenty years since Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant brought The Office into the world and I, like millions of others, watched it with my mouth hanging open in an unpredictable mixture of shock, embarrassment and horrified laughter. I was instantly convinced that I was in the presence of greatness, that just as everyone regarded Fawlty Towers with awe as one of the greatest comedies of our times, so too would The Office be seen as one of the undisturbable greats. Given the way Ricky Gervais has conducted his career since, it’s not quite worked out like that, but you should always be ready to draw a line between the work and the creator, and The Office is still a work of genius. Not just because of Gervais and Merchant, but because of everybody, to the least important background figure: sometimes people just get it right.
When it comes to sitcoms on a Sunday morning, my usual aim is three episodes at a go. The Office is so intense that that’s just not on. When the series has your toes curling and your eyes fervently wishing to look somewhere else after the opening scene, you can’t manage more than two at a time.
As everyone ought to already know, the show takes the form of a mockumentary. It’s supposed to be a BBC documentary, a fly-on-the-wall look at life in a medium-sized office. The company is Wernham Hogg, the branch is situated on the Slough Trading Estate, the company manufactures and sells paper, and the theme music was the inspired resurrection of Mike d’Abo’s unforgivably overlooked Sixties song, ‘Handbags and Gladrags’.
The form is followed immaculately. We simply watch the men and women of Slough Branch going about their daily business, intercut with headshot interviews in which they explain themselves. Four figures stand out. In ascending order these are the receptionist, Dawn Tinsley, played by Lucy Davis, Sales rep Tim Martin, a first starring role for Martin Freeman, team leader Gareth Keenan, a similar debut for MacKenzie Crook, and Branch Manager David Brent, Ricky Gervais himself.
David Brent is one of those utterly perfect creations. Basil Fawlty is an obvious example. So too is Alf Garnett. We believe in them completely, no matter how little we want to. They are monsters, monsters from whom we would run, as far and fast as our little legs can carry us if we met them in real life but whom, safe by means of the glass screen between us and them, we watch. Ricky Gervais was born to be David Brent. After twenty years I’m still not sure if that really is a compliment.
The first series introduced its underlying theme, its narrative purpose, quite quickly. Jennifer Taylor-Clark (the lovely, dark-haired Stirling Gallagher) drops in from Head Office for a meeting for which Brent has conspicuously failed to prepare. The company can no longer justify keeping open branches in Slough and Swindon. One will have to take over the other. There will be redundancies. Brent here, and Neil at Swindon, are effectively thrown into competition to see which branch will live to absorb the other.
We already know which manager will be best, even though we haven’t met Neil, and won’t in series 1. It’s enough to see David Brent to know all we need to know. We don’t even need to get to episode 2, in which he lies to Jennifer about firing a non-existent worker, can’t bring himself to apologise for a wholly unjustified accusation made against Tim and pretends to fire his best mate, Finchy, over the phone by dialling the Speaking Clock. We don’t even need to get to episode 1’s hideous final scene when, to impress new temp Ricky Howard (Oliver Chris) with a practical joke, he ‘fires’ Dawn for stealing (post-it notes, of all things). We only need the opening scene to paint a picture of a monster, an empty, hollow man, with qualities or abilities, without the ability to understand a single thing about other people, desperate to stand out because he is a total absence, determined to come over as fun, clever, with-it, intelligent, cool, popular but revealing in every word his complete inaptnress for everything.
David Brent is pathetic. And a monster. He is horrifically embarrassing. You laugh at him in nervousness, you cannot believe what he says and does and you wait in terror for what he will say and do next because you know that whatever it is it will be worse, that it will dig ever deeper the pit into which he has not so much fallen as flung himself into, dioing a triple-salko on the way down, under the impression that he is rising skyward as a beacon in the darkness.
Of course you can’t make David Brent the sole focus of a sitcom: the paper on which the script is printed out would start to crisp at the edges and burn is shame before anyone could read a line. You have to build a world round him and that world has to be simultaneously the absurd exaggeration Brent is and recognisable and realistic. Brent is a real figure, we’ve all met David Brents, he’s just an overload of all their characteristics and no relieving factors. But by making his environment mundane and straightforward, carefully measuring the degrees by which its characters mix eccentricity with human dimensions, Brent is anchored and thus more convincing.
There’s Gareth. Gareth is Brent junior in that he’s equally detached from reality, and convinced of a superiority over those around him that is laughable as the aims at glory that mark his little life. With his pudding bowl haircut, his semi-whining pretence at authority, his complete lack of any sense of humour, Gareth is in his way a monster, except that he will never possess the capacity to harm anyone.
Besides, he has to sit next to Tim. Tim is, of all things, sane. Or as sane as anyone can be, working under Brent and alongside Gareth, whose ‘authority’ he refuses to acknowledge exists in the same Universe. In his own way, Tim is every bit as off balance as anyone else but that’s because he’s been driven to it by the combination of his boredom with his job, his lack of drive to find anything better and the need to torment Gareth that stems from just knowing him. His habit of putting Gareth’s stapler into a jelly is a magnificantly surreal touch.
And then there’s Dawn. Dawn has the dificult role, the straight role. Dawn’s underworked. She clearly hasn’t been at Wernham Hogg anything like long enough to go mental in any way. She expects the office to function like an office, and Brent to function like a manager and tends to wander round with this look of disappointment and disbelief in her eyes at the way it and they don’t. Dawn’s at her best when she’s flirting with Tim, in the most mild manner there can be. You see,
And then there’s Dawn. Dawn has the dificult role, the straight role. Dawn’s underworked. She clearly hasn’t been at Wernham Hogg anything like long enough to go mental in any way. She expects the office to function like an office, and Brent to function like a manager and tends to wander round with this look of disappointment and disbelief in her eyes at the way it and they don’t. Dawn’s at her best when she’s flirting with Tim, in the most mild manner there can be. You see, Dawn’s engaged, to Lee in the warehouse. Lee’s a monster in his own right, we will see in later episodes, but he’s a much more real monster, not an eccentric.
Tim likes Dawn and is attracted to her. Dawn likes Tim, enjoys his gentle company. There’s more to it than that, but not yet in this first two episodes. But without words, indeed inarticulately in an episode 2 scene where Lee is waiting for Dawn, Martin Freeman nails it by his inability to thoink of anything to say to Lee. Tim’s in love. Tin’s a loser. And Martin Freeman is for my money the most real actor I’ve seen in the last twenty years. He is solid and believable no matter who or what he is. And that started here, as Tim. There’s a scene, not in either of today’s episodes but much later, where he is so believable that he will become me in a moment of recognition.
But that’s not for today. I’ll be back at Wernham Hogg from time to time. David Brent will be waiting, a monster preserved in aspic. A bit like Gareth’s stapler, really.