You have an ending, one that you might say was a perfect ending. The one thing you must do is leave that ending intact. Not just intact but inviolable. Don’t tamper with it, don’t change it. The Office ended with David Brent losing his job, and all possibility of Tim and Dawn getting together, which anyone with half an eye, ear and mind could see was a far better relationship that Dawn and the boorish Lee, crashing and burning. It was perfect. And at Xmas 2003, Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, and Anil Gupta and Ash Atalla, diced with death. They tacked on another ending. They risked blowing it with two 45 minute specials, formatted as a follow-up documentary by the BBC, this time with on-voice interviewers teasing out all the updates since we were last at Wernham Hogg. And it was superb.
The two specials followed the classic structure of Set-up and Resolution. Part 1 was a kaleidoscope of things built upon three strands. The first of these was obviously David Brent, now a sales rep, on the road, and in the evenings doing pointless and soul-destroying personal appearances at completely the wrong venues, building his ‘career’ as an entertainer. And whinging at how he was set-up by the BBC, who ignored the hours of good things he did and showing only the embarrassing moments.
He hasn’t changed, not essentially. And he’s still calling in at Wernham Hogg whenever he feels like it, strolling back into his Kingdom as if he is still King, resisting all attempts to educate him, full of resentment at his dethronement, petulant hatred towards Neil and just awaiting the call to return, that he knows will eventually come. Even though, after the documentary, he sued Wernham Hogg, successfully, for Unfair Dismissal (and blew £42,000.00 of his award on making a record and a video for his own single, a cover of ‘If You Don’t Know Me By Now’ that reached no. 113 in the charts, which the special shows in full, leaving you wanting to stick your fingers not only in your ears but your eyes as well).
Yet for all that he’s a silly, vain, self-deluded, pompous and self-centred little man, the one time we see him at actual work he’s easily making a sale, supporting the notion that Brent was once a decent to good salesman, only to have been promoted above his level of competence.
The second strand is, of course, the office. Things have changed, there are new faces, though only one is of significance. It’s the same, however, just a lot quieter, busier, more professional and, can we say it? It’s boring. Gareth is still the manager, and he’s a bit less of an idiot, more professional, and obviously competent enough, if only as a contrast to Brent, that he’s kept that job for nearly three years. Instead of humour, he prides himself on discipline. Of course Brent patronises him, and this time Gareth is more independent. It’s too much to say that Gareth has grown up, he never will. But he’s attracted a certain amount of gravitas, even if it’s only just enough to be noticeable.
And then there’s Tim. Tim’s a Head of Department now. He’s still Tim in all his respects, alone, considerably more intelligent than everyone around him but too undriven to do anything about it. Yet the job is stifling him even more. Without Dawn, he has no outlet for his frustrations at the meaninglessness of his job. The new receptionist, Mel, is similar in appearance but she’s a dumb blonde, and I don’t mean that in the traditional sense. Mel is dumb as in dull, tedious, unimaginative and flat. Tim still tries to pull practical jokes on Gareth, such as stealing his keys and locking him in his office, but without someone to back him up, to play along and share, even they give no satisfaction.
What’s worse is that, instead of Gareth at the next seat, he’s got Anne. Anne (played superbly by Elizabeth Berrington) is about six to seven months pregnant and completely self-absorbed, talking about nothing but herself and her unborn son. Tim is in silent but obvious despair, obvious that is to everybody except her. Anne is an interesting addition, adding an amoral streak to a self-centredness that makes her into a female Brent. The scene where she painstakingly explains – and demonstrates – the exact Kama Sutra position she and her husband (poor sod) adopted to ensure she conceived is an out-and-out masterpiece. Martin Freeman was always fantastic in his facial reactions, but this time he’s all but operatic.
And the third strand is, naturally, Dawn and Lee. They’re still in Florida, living rent free with Lee’s sister. They’ve long overstayed their 90 day visa, illegally, and intend to stay forever. Without rent, their lifestyle is dirt cheap and short-term, cash-in-hand jobs, and Dawn as an unpaid babysitter. I haven’t previously praised Joel Beckett as Lee, but given more time onscreen here, you really do appreciate his generosity in so convincingly casting himself as an all-round, 100 carat, small minded, limited and horrible monster. There is literally not one redeeming factor about him.
The interviewer asks if they’ll be returning to England at Xmas and, when Dawn explains that the cost will be prohibitive, offers the BBC to arrange it for them. Free flights: Lee’s onto it like a shot. They can go to the Wernham Hogg Xmas Party. So too can Brent, though in a fit of bravado after hearing Neil is going to get married next year, he pays for two tickets, one for his ‘girlfriend’.
The news that Dawn will be coming back comes as a both welcome and unwelcome shock to Tim, who’s spent a lot of time claiming that his feelings for her lie in the past. He won’t ask her out again. Or maybe he will, but no he won’t. She’ll have to ask him. The chances of that…
It’s all bits and pieces, pointing towards that Xmas Party. As for David Brent, it’s quite clear that his life is slowly disintegrating, even to the point where you fear that this unbreakable trajectory will only lead to madness. Part 1 ends on a disaster of a disastrous personal appearance, a parody of Blind Date, with other minor celebs like Bubble and Howard Brown (look these up). It’s a nadir that proves, once and for all, that Brent has nothing to offer. It’s a dream-breaker, and even he, the poor sod, realises this. The camera stays on him, silent in a darkened and empty dressing room. It’s the bleakest moment, bereft of any comedy. You know he deserves it, every lingering moment, but you can’t help feeling sorry for him.
And so to the second Special, the one that truly is the last, at which all things will resolve, in whatever manner the natures of all the people we have seen shall dictate. Character, as it always must, will ultimately win out.
It’s getting nearer to Xmas and Brent still doesn’t have a ‘girlfriend’ for the party. He’s afraid of losing face in front of Neil, who can’t help twisting the knife, gently, every time he sees Brent, which is still far too often. To help his mate, Gareth sets him up on Internet dating. I really don’t want to say too much about this: from entering his personal characteristics, and those of the women he wants to meet, online, to checking through the prospects of those profiles sent to him, to actual first meetings, at every stage Brent is as gross, inept and horrible as you know he can be, and I can’t bear to go into any detail about any part of it. Just bear in mind that this is all a preliminary to what will occur.
It’s also a demonstration of how truly empty David Brent really is. Things are going from bad to worse for him at every turn, or to better put it, from worse to even worser. He brings his dog, Nelson (after that great hero, Nelson Mandela) into work, causing a great disruption to the business, which is finally too much for Neil, who bars him – and Nelson – from the office, unless he has legitimate business in being there, and by appointment only.
But what about Tim, and Dawn? Neither are comfortable about meeting each other again. Tim is still explaining his non-feelings about her whilst both Gareth and Big Keith warn him off trying to get off with her again. I really felt for Tim in those circumstances. I used to fall in love with girls, and later women, who were never going to respond to me. I know what that’s like, from the inside. As for Dawn, she is, characteristically, less open about it, though she lets slip the crucial information that she’s given up her hopes and dreams of being an illustrator: other priorities. She might have convinced herself, barely, but that makes one. Tim at least believes in her, especially after she almost carelessly doodles a simple portrait of him, on a piece of paper.
Well, no. Lee’s dismissed the thought utterly, and Gareth is equally convinced there’s no point in it. But first she arrives to see everyone, and is surrounded by friends eager to greet her and catch up. Tim, poor Tim, is forced into the background but, the moment people tactfully part to let him get close, he’s wisking her away into Gareth’s office for one of those wind-up sessions they did so well. Instantly, they’re back in sync, mentally, the way they always have been.
We don’t really need the mini-interview with Tim after that, the classic one in which he spills his thoughts about offices, and spending more time with the people you work with that family and friends, people with whom the only thing you have in common is that you walk the same bit of carpet for eight hours a day. Well, yes we do, because it’s an astonishingly penetrating and perfectly worded moment, but we don’t need Tim to tell us that Dawn was a ray of sunshine in his life, nor to not say that he has no equivalent now, and for nearly three years.
So finally we get to the Party, with twenty minutes left to match that ending in series 2 and justify this addition, great though it has been to date. Brent arrives alone, joking with Finchy, telling Neil he told his date to come along later. Dawn is dressed up, Lee is Lee, laughing, joking and playing darts with his old mates from the warehouse. The party, at which Big Keith, jaws still masticating the perennial chewing gum, is the DJ, is flat. A bore. Brent might say it out loud but it’s still true.
Even the moment when Anne, asking or rather demanding one of the warehouse guys put out his cigarette near her unborn son and getting a crude and disparaging response that sends her off crying, a rude and unjustifiable but nevertheless satisfying comeuppance, is no more than a prelude. But the moment shifts and things take off by the simplest and most natural course: Keith puts on ‘Merry Xmas Everybody’ and it all kicks off.
Everything up to this point has been awkward, embarrasing and wince-inducing in the best tradition of The Office, and you expect it to lead up, or down, to another hideous moment. But this is what Gervais and Merchant have been playing you to achieve. Not immediately. First we must watch Brent downstairs, in Reception, waiting for his date, Carol (Sandy Hendrickse), who he has never met before and who is late. Is she going to stand him up? No, in fact. She arrives, a tall, dark-haired, slightly nervous but reasonably attractive woman. He takes her upstairs but, after showing her off to Finchy and especially Neil, they go into a side office to talk. And talk. And talk. Initially about David Brent, but Carol seems interested in him, and she laughs. And we see them but not hear them, chatting away for ages. It couldn’t possibly be…
Tim and Dawn have been talking, but their time is up. She and Lee can’t stay, flight back tomorrow, early on, gotta leave. This is the final moment. For all they say about being friends, keeping in touch, we know it’s ending right here. They combine for one last wind-up of Gareth, until Lee, overhearing, blows it for them by telling Gareth what they really mean. A flat moment on which to end. And he takes Dawn away with him, and this is the moment that Tim Canterbury stops reminding me of me and becomes me, because he leans forward to watch her walk away for every last second that he can, and there are very few moments in which television has been me to that extent and this is by far and away the most powerful, and I am blinking away tears and thinking of the first girl I ever fell in love with.
So, that’s it. An ending bitter-sweet. It’s ameliorated somewhat when Brent and Carol say goodnight. She’s briefly interviewed after. She liked him. She thought he was funny. She’d go out with him again. And as we’re reeling from this, Brent goes back to the party, joining Neil and Finchy. Neil jokes about Brent not having brought his dog and Finchy automatically wisecracks about how she’s just gone home and, oh my word, we see a look of distaste cross David’s face, and he responds by telling Finchy to ‘Fuck off’, in disgust.
He’s still Brent, of course, this isn’t an overnight conversion, as the special’s coda demonstrates, but we have sudden reason to hope that, however much of a disguised cliche it may be, the love of a good woman might actually turn this monster into a human being. If he does, genuinely, think about her, instead of himself.
We’re never going to know but there is one thing left and it’s that great glorious thing we’ve rooted for over all this show. Wernham Hogg has had a Secret Santa. Tim has swapped his with a colleague, for a name we don’t know but which satisfies him: obviously Dawn. Lee has hustled her off before the Secret Santa presents are distributed but she’s got hers. With Lee asleep in the taxi, she opens it. It is a box of oil paints. There is no name, just the portrait of Tim that she doodled, across which he has written, ‘Never Give Up!’.
A sudden wave of sentimentality, neither cloying nor naive, washes over us. A little later, we are back at the party. Brent, Gareth and Tim are talking. In the crowded background, a face appears from the exit door. It is Dawn. With a serious expression on her face she walks up from behind them and puts her hand on Tim’s shoulder. He turns to look at her, his face concealed from us which, for a second, I thought was an error but, on reflection, not even Martin Freeman could have found that expression. She pulls his mouth to hers and kisses him, soft and long. Gareth, missing the point spectacularly, warns Tim to watch out, she’s Lee’s bird, and Dawn breaks off to simply say, ‘Not any more,’ and turn back to kiss him again. Then she puts an arm round his waist and the two turn and walk towards the exit.
It’s a Tolkienian eucatastrophe of the highest magnitude, for all that it’s a moment that’s personal to two rather ordinary people. Which is why it escapes being a banal wish-fulfillment moment, a cheap nod to sloppy sentimentality. That’s precisely because Gervais and Merchant recognise not just the power of a happy ending but its improbability, and therefore just how brilliant it is to bring one home, seamlessly, within what The Office had been.
So that’s what the changed the perfect ending for, one more perfect yet, and one that defied the inexorable momentum to set us free, on a high. This really was the end. After this, all the people who’d been so sharply defined in our imaginations could be set free to go into their repective futures, with our confidence behind them that it would work out. For Tim and Dawn, certainly. For David and Carol? Less certainly, but you could fill in the future for them with optimism.
The Office isn’t just a perfect comedy, a perfect exploration of human beings in their infinite ordinariness, it is a work of art. Like Fawlty Towers before it, it was better than we deserved and better than we could ever dare hope. It’s American equivalent is a different beast entirely. I’d like to see it, but watching the pure uncut smack that is the original makes me think it would be almost impossible to adjust. Maybe one day.