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.