The Office: The Xmas Specials


Office

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.

The Office: s02 e05/06 – Charity/Interview


Office

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.

The Office: s02 e03/04 – Party/Motivation


Office

The funny thing is. But I’m talking, as my Dad used to distinguish it, not about funny ha-ha but about funny peculiar. I find it next to impossible to watch more than two episodes of The Office back to back but, almost as soon as I’d finished writing last week’s blog, I wanted to watch more. It’s been difficult restraining myself for a whole week. But the moment episode 3 began, I was twisting about in the same manner, alternating between laughing and whimpering in sheer embarrassment, and not always alternating.

Again, the two episodes formed something of a unit, linked as they were by David Brent’s disastrous foray into the world of business seminars and motivational speaking. In episode 3, Brent is approached by guest stars Tom Goodman-Hill and Jennifer Hennessy as Ray and Jude, representatives of a company that do business seminars and training. At first, Brent’s casual, overacting that his time is valuable, better things to do, in short being bloody rude. His tone changes when they explain that they’re not offering to do Wernham Hogg’s training but want him to do training for them, as an expert. For £300 for fifteen minutes speaking. Nice work if you can get it, and even nicer if you can keep yourself from pointing out to everyone that can’t get away far enough fast enough that that adds up to £1,200 an hour. And episode 4 shows what Brent made of it.

On one level the thing’s highly predictable. You know it will all be a disaster, that Brent will make a holy show of himself, it will fall flatter than the Nevada Desert, but it’s like Morecamble and Wise at their peak: you knew what was going, and you could even predict some of the lines, but you still laughed your head off. But Gervais and Marchant turn the screw to the point of bursting. It’s not just an absolute disaster, but a disaster pinned down and butterfly-mounted in every line, every gesture and, most of all, in every background extra.

I mentioned this in relation to Lucy Davis last week, but this week it was clear that she’s merely primus inter pares (Martin Freeman is nearly as good but his expressiins are more comically overt) but one of the greatest aspects of this show is the precision in which the silent extras, and even the more sane stars, react, without words, with only minimal expressions, emphasising the sheer grotesquerie of what you’re experiencing. Without that visual representation of your own WTF responses, the show couldn’t be as funny as it is.

And it’s not just Brent. Gareth Keenan, in a completely different manner, is only marginally better. You cringe at practically everything Brent says or does but Gareth, whose range of monstrosity is so much narrower, you would walk away from, unable to subject yourself to his witless meanderings any longer. This is particularly acute in the multi-angled compressed triangles of Tim/Rachel/Dawn, Tim/Rachel/Gareth and Tim/Dawn/Lee. On the one hand, Gareth is trying to get himself into Rachel’s knickers by the only way he knows, namely crude, oblivious and horribly real and depressing, whilst Tim’s flirtations with the eager Rachel are open and enthusiastic, winding Gareth up and depressing poor Dawn, who very evidently is interested in him far more than she lets on to herself, whilst you’ve got the orthodox triangle involving her fiance Lee, from the warehouse, who pig ignorant chauvinist pigs would look down upon and sneer at for a pig ignorant chauvinist pig.

Episode 3 is centred around Trudy’s birthday and how the risque gifts she’s been bought by her colleagues drag the episode down, or should that be up, into a rompish thing of cheap sex jokes and innuendo so blatant as to not even be single entendres. It’s pitch-perfect, whilst the scene in which Brent winds up waggling a grotesque pink vibrating dildo that he can’t work out how to switch off is priceless. Not that the motivational talk isn’t infinitely more pointed but this just had me howling.

Underlying all of this is the ongoing slide of the series towards the moment of inevitability. I said last week that the series’ one true flaw is that it’s difficult to the point of impossibility to imagine how this David Brent could ever have gotten to the height of Branch Manager. I quoted the Peter Principle, that every man is promoted to the level of his own incompetence, and judging by that it is possible to see Brent as a decent salesman, hard-working and focussed, promoted to a level he’s genuinely unsuited to, and between egotism over having his abilities recognised and the subconscious fear of being found out, he’s constructed this elaborate monster of not just adquacy but brilliance to hide from himself that he is a five foot man in a six foot bog.

Brent’s performsance is sliding rapidly. He’s getting worse. Neil can see that as plainly as we can. He just isn’t up to it. And every little thing that Neil says or does is being challenged in a display of petulance that would embarrass a four year old. It’s going one way. Brent is not only being given ample enough rope with which to hang himself, he’s simultaneously building the scaffold. The pond water may be turbid and murky, but we can see through it clearly enough.

The Office: s02 e01/02 – Merger/Appraisals


Office

Here we are again: I couldn’t wait any longer.

When writing about The Office‘s first series, I commented that I could not watch more than two episodes at a time because the series was too intense in its portrayal of David Brent, manager and monster. This time round, I nearly had to stop after just one episode. Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant have taken their writing to another level, or perhaps the more appropriate word is depth, both in terms of excrutiatingly accurate detail and the moral level of the series, and Gervais’ performance as Brent, supported briliantly by the rest of the cast, down to those who are only there to try to keep from looking aghast at what they’re seeing, makes lasers look blunt.

Of the two episodes here, the underlying ‘story’ is of the integration of the ‘Swindon lot’ into Slough branch and Brent’s attempts to impress on them how wonderful he is, leading to extended scenes of toe-curling horror, not to mention introducing from the start the main point of the series as will be seen by the final episode.

It starts in a moment of surreal genius that is not simply funny for funny’s sake but underlines another character development. At the end of series 1, Tim Canterbury (the glorious Martin Freeman) was promoted to Senior Sales Rep, deflecting him from his intention to quit and go to university to study Psychology (a deflection we quite quickly see was what he was hoping for). Tim’s at his desk, working. Gareth Keenan (McKenzie Crook) arrives and, for no apparent reason, starts singing ‘Mahna Mahna’. He’s quickly joined by Ben and, seeing something going on where he’s not the centre of attention, Brent. Throughout, Tim looks bemused. He’s trying to act more grown-up, be responsible and serious, and this is going on around him, in an office, a workplace. He’s the (in his own mind) adult, wondering what the hell he’s doing surrounded by children.

I’ve started with Tim so let me continue (both episodes are beautifully constructed and detail-dense that you could spend three times the length of the programme on the subtlety of practically every line). Tim makes sure he’s ok with receptionist Dawn Tinsley (Lucy Davis, who does more with background glances and expressions than most actresses do with a mountain of dialogue), after the embarrassment of asking her out and being turned down, but then, in his superior role, starts actually like a bit of a twat to her, reminding her of her duties. When she says she’s bored, nothing to do, and suggests winding up Gareth, he reprimands her.

But Tim is Tim. I’ve read several condemnations of him calling him the worst character in the series, for his evident assumption of superiority to everybody and his sarcastic put-downs and whilst you can see him that way, remember that he’s working for David Brent, and alongside Gareth. There are strains of pond-life that would be entitled to think themselves superior to that pair. In comparison, Tim, though in many ways he hasn’t grown up either, is the adult in the room. But he can’t keep it up. After putting down Dawn in that disappointing manner, he picks up his diary, crosses back to her and, still in his serious mode, tells her that he and she have overlooked a scheduled work item. He has twenty minutes set aside for winding up Gareth with Dawn. Her grin says it all.

I could go on for hours yet about what this episode, and the next, say about their relationship but I need to give time to Brent. It’s two weeks since the end of series 1. Swindon office has been closed down and six former members there have been transferred to Slough, starting more or less today. Enter Patrick Baladi as Neil Godwin, formerly manager at Swindon, Brent’s equivalent, now Regional Manager and Brent’s superiorl, a factual distinction that Brent tries to wave away by dissimulation that now reminds me of Boris Johnson (oh God).

Neil’s suave, intelligent, composed, popular and above all competent. He is the Anti-Brent. He is the adult in the room. He is going to be the series’ villain, by virtue of being, like Jennifer Taylor-Clark, the serious character. Baladi has the difficult job of being a normal, sensible, popular but business-minded manager, and David Brent’s nemesis. He spends much of episode 1 in slow, but carefully-concealed realisation of just what Brent is. A lot of that is disbelief that someone so lacking in any of the essential requirements of his job could ever have reached that level.

Which brings up a point that the audience needs to consider. The Office is styled as a mockumentary, a fly-on-the-wall depiction of a paper business, showing the gloom and generally depressing and soporific effects of working in an office on a job that is in no way fulfilling save for its pay. How does someone like Brent get that far to begin with? No doubt it’s san example of The Peter Principle, that every man is promoted to the level of his own incompetence, but in this series, Brent is so extreme…

I’m avoiding writing about his performance, aren’t I? Circling it, like Indians around a wagon train. It’s horrific to the nth degree, and none of the so-called Swindon lot can believe what they’re seeing and hearing. And Brent, with his unique combination of thick and thin skin, redoubles his efforts to convince them that he is a great boss, a chilled-out entertainer, an inspiration to them all, the longer they sit in shocked silence. They laugh at Neil’s jokes, not just out of familiarity with him but because he’s relaxed, genuinely amusing and commands respect. Brent’s feeble and clixhed material falls flat, and the longeer it does, the more he blames his audienc e. it’s not a good start.

And it gets worse when he tells a horribly racist joke. This gets him carpeted by Jennifer and Neil, which he attempts to shrug off as her having no sense of humour. The Swindon lot include one black guy and one woman confined to a wheelchair. Brent hasn’t the faintest idea how to talk to either. His assumption that Oliver (Howard Saddler) is part Jamaican leads not another hideous embarrasment when he starts advocating Jennifer smoke ganja, and of course another carpeting.

This leads to a prolonged period of Brent in the background, sitting in his office, seething, that little half-bared expression on his face. A chance for contemplation, for self-assessment? No way. Just a prelude to a demand to know who complained about him that reveals it was two women, not Oliver, and exposes him to challenge when he tries to pretend that because the ‘black guy’ wasn’t offended by a racist joke, it was ok. Do you wonder that this is a difficult episode to try to get through? Yet, in amongst the cries of horror and despair at what you’re watching, the whole thing feels real instead of being an exaggeration, the writing is pointed, spare and accurate, the performances rock-solid and the damned thing is still funny.

But, as if all of this has not been enough, there’s an ending striking like a cobra from a different angle. Tim’s buzzing. He’s been complimented by Jennifer. He’s back on level tracking with his friend Dawn. One of the Swindon lot, Rachel (Stacey Roca) is a bit of a cracker, and she’s showing signs of being interested in him, even though Gareth has ‘claimed’ her. He starts dancing with Dawn, a mock waltz, nothing meant by it, just as her fiance Lee comes up from the warehouse to take her home. And Lee slams Tim up against the wall.

A moment of crunch. Tim tries to be cool and collected about it but Dawn has shot off after Lee, and Gareth is still there, not to mention everybody else and the floor resolutely refusing to open up and swallow him… Yes, series 2 has started, and it’s not going to get any lighter.

The second episode continues the underlying themes. It starts with Dawn leading Lee to apologise to Tim, with a bottle of no doubt cheap wine, for his behaviour. Tim tries to brush it off, unable to handle confrontation even when the other guy is backing down. Or is it Lee’s evident, and bone-headed assumption that Tim is no threat?

It’s staff appraisal time and some of the interviews are horribly funny. Brent is his usual, supposedly wise philosophical self with Tim, who, irritated by the banality of the process and refusing to let Brent bracket them as guys in their thirties, exposes that he’s reading these wise sayings off a crib sheet, Confucius via Brent. Keith (Ewen Macintosh) comes into his comic own, a mountain of a bloke, round of face, big round glasses, moustache and goatee, jaws in perpetual motion, working on chewing gum that must have lost its flavour sometime around the foundation of the Protestant Church, with no interest in anything. His totally uninterested exchanges with Brent on the Q&A are hysterical, all the more so for Keith being the exact antonym of hysterical: even Brent has to concede defeat. And Dawn reveals that her true interest in life is in art, her ambition to have become a children’s illustrator having slowly retreated until instead of being an illustrator who did reception work she now tells people she’s a receptionist. Typically, Brent is more concerned with badgering her to make him her Role Model, and pays only lip service to her ambition, whilst calling them ‘doodles’ and effectively saying she’d never succeed.

But it’s with the ‘Swindon lot’ that the episode once again enters the bathysphere and heads unerringly for the Tuscarora Deeps. They’ve only been there a week so he can’t appraise them but he gets them together to chat over how they’re adjusting. no-ne wants to come out and say to his face that they despise him,, but they don’t respond to his self-portrayal as the entertainer, nor ro the ‘chill’, ‘laid-back’, ‘have a laugh’ atmosphere. They’re used to working hard. Here in Slough, they’re bored.

The response is, in hindsight, inevitable. Thus challenged, Brent invites them all down the pub to get to know him as he really is, not that they haven’t already got his number. It’s a disaster, which Brent blames on them not making the effort, and storms back to the office. He interrupts a game in reception of French Cricket, Neil having the bat. Everyone, including Gareth, is clearly having exactly the kind of fun he’s failed to create. Petulantly, he orders everyone back to work, sneering, calling it ‘pathetic’. Which very speedily leads to a confrontation with Neil in his office, trying to discover what problem Brent has with him, being calm, professional as non-confrontational as he can be, but at the same time making it plain that he will not put up with Grent – or anyone – speaking like that to him in front of his staff. Trapped out on a limb of his own building, already half-sawn through, Brent is reduced to silence. Gervais’s expression is tight and resetful.

And as soon as Neil has left he’s out there, lying like a Prime Minister, spreading poison, claiming he was the victor in that confrontation (after carefully checking no-one’s heard what was really said), and that Neil was slagging off Gareth and Tim, calling them rubbish, when it’s the ‘Swindon lot’ who are shit. Two episodes, only.

There’s still more to this episode. The new girl, Rachel, quite clearly is interested in Tim, checking with Dawn, of all people, if he’s available. Lucy Davis once again says more with her silenvce than with words, though it’s the audience who read it, not Rachel, who later invites |Tim to join her and a couple of mates afterr work, to which he responds enthusiastically.

I let Gareth off very lightly in relation to episode 1 because, by that time, I couldn’t go on but here he gets a scene that will live forever in infamy when it comes to discussing the relationships between men and women. It starts in the kitchen, where Rachel has just made herself a cuppa. Gareth approaches and asks her out after work, an invitation she politely declines, saying she can’t, she’s going out with Tim. That’s the last point at which the horror is kept at bay. Because Gareth asks if he can come too and, when refused, goes on to explain that if she doesn’t have it off it Tim, he’d still be interested. Rachel, unable to believe her ears, resoponds as if she’s taking Gareth’s ignorance seriously and, no, I can’t go on any further. It’s a miracle of male attitudes that, thanks to Crook’s splendidly unaware portrayal, becomes excrutiatingly funny instead of excrutiatingly offensive. That bit above when I talked about the floor not opening up and swallowing Tim? It’s just the same here, though this time it’s the audience wanting several floors, one below another, to open up and swallow Gareth. Who even comes back for one final egregious comment in front of someone else who’s checking if there’s still any milk left…

You may be thinking, how on earth an episode 2 top that, or rather bottom that. Oh, ye of little imagination. Remember me mentioning the woman in the wheelchair, Brenda, played by Julie Fernandez? We get Brent at the pub moving her chair backwards and forwards and sideay so he can pass, without aword, acting as if he sees the chair only. That’s nothing. Earlier on, there’s a fire drill, everyone out, don’t use the lifts. Oliver’s assisting Brenda but is overruled by Brent and Gareth. Together they lift her wheelchair down a couple of flights of stairs. It’s hard workl, sweaty and achey. So, what the hell, it’s only a drill, there’s no fire. So they leave her, on a quarter landing, between flights. On her own. In her wheelchair. It isn’t funny. But then it wasn’t meant to be.

The Office, series 2. When things start to get darker.

Sunday Watch: The Office s01 e05/06 – New Girl/Judgement


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I have never seen the American version of The Office, except for a couple of cl;ips, mostly from YouTube. There are some things about it that I think I would enjoy, especially the relationship between their version of Tim and Dawn. Then I watch even five minutes of the original and I could never accept the American show as an equal. There is both ice and poison at the heart of The Office, and it is those two factors that make it the work of genius that it is.

Most of it is David Brent. By episode five the audience is conditioned by expectation and dread to almost freeze the momenmt he appears, insinuating himself into the background of a scene that has nothing to do with him, but walking forward to pull everything about him, the only worthwhile subject of anything, the natural centre of gravity and attention. And you watch in absolute fascination, pre-cringing about what he’s going to say next, oh God, he didn’t, no, oh fuck, I would die.

And Brent’s not the only monster, just the King of Embarrassing Beasts, a tragic figure when contemplated from afar, with an objective head, all thoughts of which flee the moment he is near you and you’re in a permanent state of pre-wince. There’s Gareth Keenan, an Empty Space incarnated in awkward flesh, full of firm, in-command opinions that vanish in a flash to be replaced by polar opposites, a walking talking classic no-hoper that imagines itself as capable of anything, especially the having of any woman he sees even as he’s rejecting them as slags or loose women, and you don’t go there.

Even Tim Canterbury, the sane one, the intelligent one, the fish in concrete, the one I identify with inescapably, is in his own way a monster. Tim is out of place. He doesn’t like his job, he is understretched by it, he doesn’t like the people he works with, with one sweet exception, he is offended by the OTT laddishness of Brent and his mate Finchy, and Gareth, the hanger-on, with their crude and sexist language and attitudes, their sheer boorishness. And most of all he doesn’t like himself, for his inability to act, to go, to do something better, something fulfilling, because Tim’s self-confidence is solely based in the knowledge that he is better than everyone else at Wernham Hogg in Slough and shot through with the fear that, in another context, where he might not be the only one who can snap and snide at the likes of Gareth, come out with sardonic digs that go over the heads of everyone else, he might be out of his depth.

I said I identify with him.

And then there’s Dawn, who is sweet, and nice, and likes Tim, likes his compsany, but who is engaged to and living with a jumped-up thug, a warehgouseman with no more anbition than to shag and pint it up, and bang her up. Tim is evidently superior to Lee, amd Dawn knows that, but she’s with Lee, and she can’t yet imagine herself out of that, any more than she can get away from Wernham Hogg or the dead-end of being a Receptionist. She’s not a monster, except towards herself, taking the path of least resistance. Always keep tight hold of nurse, for fear of finding aomething worse.

These two episodes finished The Office‘s stupendously brilliant first series. The first, ‘New Girl’, split itself into two phases, the first where Brent, in the face of the threatened down-sizing, decides his importance is such that he has to have a secretary. He interviews two candidates, one a bloke, the other a decently pretty blonde woman, Karen Roper. You know exactly what’s coming and it’s as horrifying as you expect, though only Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s imagination extends to Brent toying with a football and accidentally elbowing her in the face.

The second phase is the regular Wednesday night down the club, drinking till one o’clock, pinting it desperately, birding it with equal energy, fearful of loneliness, of insignificance. Gareth pulls a woman who makes all the running, he being unable to respond – she’s a loose woman, remember, and he doesn’t want to catch knob-rot (he is so much the charmer) – until he discovers she’s here with her husband, and he isn’t going to get involved in a threesome, well, maybe two birds. There isn’t, if you stop squirming long enough, an original word in there but bloody hell, Gervais and Merchant and McKenzie Crook get every moment spot on, like a butterfly pinned to a slide, only without the beauty.

And behind all of this is Tim, determined to quit, go back to University, study philosophy, and it’s not because he asked Dawn ut and was turned down in front of everybody else, and anyway it was just as friends, not girlfriends. Already we know he won’t do it, because he hasn’t done it, he’s going to do it, which signals he isn’t going to do it, he’s waiting for a face-saving reason to just do nothing. Always keep tight hold of nurse…

But it’s the final episode that’s the stunner. Gervais and Merchant have the courage to cut down on the comedy and allow the underlying horribleness of the situation to dominate, in a manner that is all the more pertinent in 2021 than in 2001. The time has come to decide the branch’s future. Downsizing will take place. Despite Brent’s public insistence that he will save everybody’s jobs, jobs will be lost. But…

The big but is that Jennifer Taylor-Clark is being promoted. Her job is open. There are two candidates for her replacemenmt and these are the two managers of the regional branches at Slough and Swindon, David Brent and Neil Godwin. And by a 5-2 majority, the Board has voted for Brent. Of course, if he accepts the job, and 5-2 is practically a landslide, and it’s a 71.4% majority, Slough will be shut down, its staff reduced and merged into Swindon.

It’s good news and bad news and Brent just can’t imagine why no-one is celebrating the good news or, as Malcolm outs it, the irrelevant news. Tim is indifferent, Dawn wants to be made redundant, to be kicked up the backside into doing something career-wise, Gareth is in tears at breaking up the old team, unwillingly aware that the limited and pathetic powers he has are wholly derived from Brent and that without him he is exactly nothing.

Don’t eworry though, there is a happy ending. Slough will survive. Everyone will keep their jobs, and Tim will be promoted to Senior Sales Clerk, with the prospect of taking Brent’s job in, maybe, three years, just the excuse (Lucy Davis’ ambiguous look at this news is genuinely unfathomable). Why for? Well, Brent only told them to stick their job up their arse, and now Swindon will be down-sized and merged into Slough. Hip hip hoorah for David Brent!

It’s about as unbelievable as a 45p coin, of course, but Slough has been saved, not by Brent’s hitherto unguessed at altruism but, as Malcolm has ferreted out, because he failed the medical due to High Blood Pressure. Faked, of course, just for the occasion, or so Brent claims. Heh heh.

I think I might not leave it so long before turning to the second series.

Sunday Watch: The Office – s01 e03/04 – Quiz Night/Training


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Oh God! Is it any wonder I cannot watch this series at all often? Between the bleeding-edge sharpness of the writing and the pitch-perfect acting from everyone, not in the least Ricky Gervaise as David Brent, the series as a whole is a masterpiece of comedy of embarrassment, but episode 3, ‘The Quiz’ has to be some sort of masterpiece, a thirty minute encapsulation of everything Gervaise and Stephen Merchant wanted to do, and it will be hours yet before my toes have uncurled themselves sufficiently for me to walk further than the kitchen for coffee.

The episode is built around the twin themes of Tim’s thirtieth birthday and Werneth Hogg’s seventh annual Quiz Night. It starts with a miracle of miniaturism: it’s Tim’s birthday, his Mum’s woken him early (Tim lives at home with his parents), so he’s come to work early, when no-one’s around (except the mockumentary camera crew), and the first person he speaks to is the cleaning lady. Martin Freeman’s brilliantly-judged air of artifcial brightness about everything throughout the episode, from Dawn’s genuine friendliness and sympathy, to Brent’s compulsive need to thrust himself into every scene that is about someone else, to Lee (Dawn’s chauvinistic boyfriend from the warehouse) and his gift of a giant inflatable erect cock and conversation about marying Dawn on the cheap, living with his Mum and Dawn popping them out), Tim starts from a position of lack of expectation and, except in one moment of rapidly-spoiled triumph, is resigned to having a completelky unsatisfying day among people who don’t understand him.

Tim’s the ‘good guy’ in the series, the sane one, though I’ve seen him described as the overlooked villain. He’s basically the square peg in the round hole, more intelligent than he needs to be for his job, which occupies too little of his time, with more complex tastes than those around him. Yet he’s also ineffectual, lacking the will to change his circumstances and, as his best friend in the office, Dawn, who he secretly loves but cannot admit his feelings to (that’s another reason I can’t watch too often, because in many respects and that one of them, Tim is me to a frightening degree), Dawn observes that he’s thirty but he (still) gets his kicks pretending Gareth is gay: the scene is killingly funny even so.

Dawn likes Tim. Their relationship is mildly flirty, underpinned less by the bedrock of sexual attraction than by the way he is both clearly the sane one, and he takes her seriously. Lee is a lout, with horizons so limited that they don’t extend past the next bus stop. Lee doesn’t just expect the drabbest of lives, a dead-end job,m no proper home, his wife popping out babies non-stop, maybe a part-time job as a cleaner in the future, he positively ses it as fulfillment. As long as he can go out on the bevvy with his mates whenever he wants, get his end away without having to try (though you know he will, endlessly) and have his Mum as a built-in babysitter, life is going to be pretty rosy for Lee, and the idea that Dawn may want something slightly different is her getting her way all the time. There’s one eay, and it’s Lee’s, and he can’t imagine anyone wanting anything else. It’s easy to see why Dawn feels this attraction for Tim – easier than seeing how she sticks with her fiance.

But it’s not all about Tim’s birthday. At the heart of everything, because he cannot stand the thought that he s not central to everything, is Brent. It’s Quiz Night. Hang the fact it’s Tim’s birthday and Dawn is trying to organise after-work drinks for him, it’s Quiz Night and nothing else counts. He and |Finchy are the undisputed kings of Quiz Night. Finchy – Chris Finch, played with extraordinary strength by Ralph Ineson – is Wernham Hogg’s chief salesman. He’s Brent’s best mate, and instantly we know that Brent is the hanger-on, clinging leech-like to the stronger personality that he recognises he cannot equal. Finchy is the uber-Brent, vile to the core, filthy, racist (even before he comes on stage he tells a horribly racist joke that even disturbs Brent, and not just because Brent doesn’t understand it until it’s explained to him).

Finchy is unrepentant, genuinely smart, and very competitive. He and Brent are a team, but he’s clearly carrying Brent. But the Quiz ends in a dead-heat between them and the Tits, Tim and young Ricky, the college graduate whose previous appearance on Blockbusters and casual reference to Dostoevsky winds Brent up into an increasingly pathetic attempt to upstage him.

But it’s the ending that strikes home. Ricky wins the tiebreak against Finchy. Finchy gets in Gareth’s face about the rules of the tie-break even though he didn’t get the right answer. Burned by his defeat he starts having a go at Ricky then claims that he and Brent win and win the prize if he can throw Tim’s shoe over the building, which he does. It’s insane, but with that peculiar plausibility that the series maintains. Tim, on his birthday, has a shoe forcibly pulled off, thrown over the building and is left to go looking for it, in the dark, on his own.

After that, how could any succeeding episode match it. It’s no slur on ‘Training’ that it doesn’t. It sensibly doesn’t try to and so it’s another gem in its own right. It’s Training Day with a professional trainer, Rowan,a sterling guest star appearance by Vincent Franklin, who underplays his role with incredible skill, focusing his performance onto trying to get things to go according to plan, and increasing frustration leading to utter resignation as David Brent insists on trying to run things himdself. He is the Leader.

Mixed into this is some unspecified argument between Lee and Dawn involving postponing the marriage. Everyone assumes he’s dumped her, or she’s dumped him. Even Tim, though at first he’s trying to be helpful, being empathetic and understanding and exactly what Dawn needs to help calm her, unlike Gareth.

It’s an interesting question. Is Tim being a friend because someone he likes is upset and he wants to help, or is it all and only some machiavellian plan to ultimate win her for himself? Of course Tim likes Dawn and doesn’t to see her upset. Of course he wants her for his girlfriend. Between those two poles the question lies. Having been there myself, I know how fraught it can get. I lost a very good friend because of it: I was being supportive with no intention of trying to get involved until she was back on track but she thought I was only doing it because I ‘had an agenda’. So naturally I’m sympathetic with Tim and see only the best in him.

Of course it’s all going to blow up in his face, especially when Lee and Dawn reconcile without Tim knowing. Both strands come together. Brent ruins the training session, turning it into an acoustic guitar concert (he goes home to get his guitar). Tim loses patience, stands up, says he’s quitting, leaves the room. Comes back and asks Dawn, in front of everybody, now that she’s broken up with Lee, if she’ll go out for a drink with him after work. Dawn says she’s not broken up with Lee. Has to backtrack, day it was meant as a friend, leaves the room again. I felt every second of that exchange, though I would never have exposed myself that openly, not even to the woman in question.

So, as I said last time, The Office is too intense for more than two episodes at a time. I’ll rest up for a few weeks before tackling the end of series 1. This is too much.

Sunday Watch: The Office – s01 e01&02 – Downsize/Work Experience


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.