In the words of Andy Williams, half a century ago, where do I begin?
When The Office, and especially the second series, was around twenty years ago, I confidently gave it as my opinion that this was the Fawlty Towers of our generation, and nothing since has given me any reason to question that opinion. Everything about it, the writing, the acting, the direction, the attention to detail, the facial expressions in the background, the brilliance of the way the cast react to the constant presence of the ‘mockumentary’ cameras, the willingness to permit silence and inaction to heighten the pitch and even the trick of the format when Tim Canterbury removes his microphone in the last episode, these are all fundamental aspects of the sheer brilliance of the series from start to this inglorious, almost operatic ending.
When I compare the show to Fawlty Towers, though the two are chalk and cheese, I’m only recognising the decision by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant (who plays a cameo role in episode 5, demonstrating the horrible realisation that Gareth Keenan is not unique) to limit their story to two series of six episodes each, twelve episodes overall, in tribute to John Cleese and Connie Booth’s original work. Both series refuse to push their luck by going on until the inevitable decline arrives, and indeed The Office has an extra reason for not doing so: how can you maintain the intensity of something like this? It’s already at a pitch such that by the end of each episode I have to massage the palms of each hand, to try to smooth out four crescent shaped indentations, caused by my fingernails digging in.
When I was at school, we studied plays in English, almost invariably Shakespeare, but we did also do Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, which was the occasion for discussions of the definition of tragedy. As defined classically, Tragedy is the fall of a great man from a high place: Lear, Hamlet, MacBeth. The word has long since ceased to be used so strictly, so it is appropriate in modern usage to describe The Office as a tragedy, David Brent’s story a tragedy. He’s neither great nor in a high place, but then neither was Willy Loman. What we’re seeing over the final two episodes is the inevitable working out of a fate that dervies from David Brent’s nature: his illusions, his thin-skinedness, his unwarranted self-aggrandisement.
Episode 5 centres the series upon the BBC’s Children in Need Day. Brilliantly, the series was scheduled to broadcast this episode in Children in Need week, with Wernham Hogg’s contribution to the event running like mercury through the episode. Now I’ll admit that I don’t watch Children in Need, nor Comic Relief, because I am allergic to the combination of schmalz and contrived wackiness. The latter was on display in the episode, it’s essential childishness emphasised by Tim’s efforts to rise above and ignore it – I really did sympathise with him – and it was the perfect vehicle for Brent to flourish in his inimitable way. At least we hope it’s not imitable.
Inevitably, Neil Godwin showed up and out-performed him, dressing as John Travolta and doing a quite impressive Saturday Night Fever dance together with Tim’s girlfriend Rachel and putting Brent’s nose so far out of joint that no carpenter in the world could have straightened it out again. This led to the infamous Brent Dance, which no words, except possibly anthropoid, can describe.
You have to congratulate Patrick Baladi for his performance as Neil. He is, in the show’s terms, the villain, as double-dyed black as any Sir Jasper, and on top of that he’s smooth, calm, controlled, intelligent, competent and sensible, a combination of characteristics that ought to have us loathing him like any proper audience. You’d hate someone that slick in real life. But Baladi plays him straight, decent and reasonable. He’s got David Brent to deal with.
And that showed the show’s supreme versatility. So far it’s been a highly-polished farce, and not just Brent. There’s Gareth, there’s Tim, there’s Keith dressed as Ali G, even Lucy’s contributing, selling kisses for a £1 and having to endure not just Finchy’s crudities but the idiocy of Gareth’s other infantile mate. Tim pops in a quid but doesn’t want a kiss, but Dawn insists. It’s a sweet moment, not passionate but lasting that noticeable few moments longer than such a thing should, but it’s one that plainly rocks both of them, in ways that throw off both their balances.
Then, without stripping a gear in any way, the show shifts tone and content effortlessly. Neil and Jennifer are here for a meeting with Brent, abut a report he promised to have done. Of course he hasn’t even started it, instead he’s been dreaming up game shows of quite startling banality. He’s trying to shuffle the blame off, what’s more important, feeding starving children or writing a report? There’s no doubt as to which is more important to Neil or Jennifer, who have everything in proportion. The inevitable happens with stunning speed. Brent gets a Verbal Warning: three of these and he’s out. He invites all three at once with the infuriating sneering inability to see even the trees, let alone the wood.
So they come back and they offer him a generous Redundancy Package. For once, David Brent shows a moment of perception. Are you inviting me to take this, or are you ordering me to take this? It is, of course, the latter. And he emerging from behind his desk to reveal he’s wearing a Norman Collier chicken outfit that he quite naturally mistakenly thinks is Rod Hull.
It’s only where everything has been going this series, and Brent’s anger at this rejection is, again typically, directed at its timing, not the fact of it in the first place. He doesn’t care, he’s got other irons in the fire, that lot out there will mutiny.
No, they won’t. Episode 6 deals with Brent’s last day, but there’s a second and no less significant falling out to be negotiated, and that is Tim and Dawn. Watching it aroused an awful lot of personal feelings: not only is Martin Freeman an absolutely brilliant actor but in terms of his relationship with Dawn he is acting out far too many of my own experiences for real comfort.
So: Dawn, who has never been happy in her job at Wernham Hogg, hands in her notice. She and Lee are going to the States for six months, to stay with Lee’s sister in Florida. The news hits Tim. He’s already broken up with office hotshot Rachel, because he’s still too emotionally fixated on Dawn. This has reduced Rachel to tears and leads to a moment when Gareth decides to go over and ‘clear up (his) mess’. For once, Tim isn’t joking when he pleads with Gareth not to do it, he’s genuinely fearful, though he needn’t be. Gareth barely gets to speak Rachel’s name before she tells him to fuck off (a first use of the f-bomb in the show, and demonstrating that it’s sparing use, in situations where no better response can be called upon, can making it hilarious).
Then comes the moment. We’ve already had the hint, from Dawn’s reaction to Lee’s blythe confidence about how she can get a job as a receptionist out there, that her future might not necessarily be the dream she’s pursuing. Then Tim, doing an interview to camera about Dawn’s leaving, suddenly breaks out, heads to reception, draws her into a waiting room to talk, and removes both his and her microphones. The screen goes utterly silent. We see them talk, or rather him talk, voluably. Then Dawn hugs him. Tim comes out and goes back to his desk. He’s fumbling about his clip-on microphone, to restore it to place, but first he holds it to his mouth and simply says, in that especially cheerful voice we use when we’re pretending to shrug off devastation, ‘She said no, by the way.’
But it all comes down to Brent. HJe’s being his fatuous self all episode, ‘moving on’, giving more of himself to a wider world. Not just Slough, but Reading, and a whole host of places known only to inhabitants of the Thames Valley. He’s also being interviewed for the trade paper, by Olivia Colman, no less, and trying to dictate every word instead of answer any questions.
And this is the scenario for the retuern of Ray and Jude, the Management Consultants. Not to discuss further engagements but to bin him off. It’s the ultimate, the crash of crashes, and it gets the other profanity, a serious cry of Fucking Hell! torn from Brent in a moment of complete rock bottom despair. Then he throws them out, the journalist included.
It’s also a moment of extreme terror for David Brent. When Neil and Jennifer arrive with the Redundancy Package Agreement, a generous one, Brent has nothing left but a plea. An abject plea. Please don’t make me redundant. Is he finally beginning to see himself as others see him? Please, don’t say its definite. Don’t take my job.
Again, that the show can encompass the farcical actions, conversations and behaviours we have curdled over and make something like this in virtually the same moment, and to do it in just twelve episodes, six hours of film, shows the level at which it has operated.
The final moment goes to Dawn, sat on Reception, looking into space. The phone rings. Slowlky she drags herself back from wherever she is, picks it up and answers, ‘Wenham Hogg.’
How do you top perfection? You do it by offering up another ending. Next week.