The BBC has always been a champion of comedy, producing classic hits such as Blackadder, Fawlty Towers, The Two Ronnies and Only Fools and Horses.
However, by the turn of the century great comedy was harder to come by, with many shows becoming formulaic. That was until 2001, when The Office first aired and gave British TV humour the rejuvenation it needed.
Created, written and directed by comedy geniuses Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, the show’s premise couldn’t be any simpler: a documentary team spends a few days in an office, based in Slough, to record the daily routines of its staff. Whilst there, they meet an array of characters, including the delusional, fame-hungry manager David Brent, played by Gervais.
The show’s mockumentary style was influenced by This is Spinal Tap (1984) and, due to the casting of relatively unknown actors, viewers are led to believe they’re watching a genuine documentary about real people working in a real office. That’s not unusual in itself, but the unique approach to comedy, focusing on awkward situations rather than traditional jokes, gave it an authenticity that was able to convince audiences.
If I’m completely honest, I thought it was real when I first flicked it on and couldn’t believe what I was seeing. It wasn’t until I researched the show online that I discovered it was fake, which is a testament to Gervais and Merchant’s attention to detail in crafting the realism.
The main character, Brent, was played to perfection by Gervais, who supposedly based him on a former boss. His embarrassing desire to play up to the cameras at any opportunity was so cringeworthy it had people both laughing and squirming as he stumbled from one blunder to another. For many, it reminded them of their own superiors at work. Anyone who’s seen BBC Three’s documentary The Call Centre will know there are lots of “David Brents” out there.
He wasn’t the only character to draw such awkwardness from the workplace. Brent’s assistant, the creepy and narcissistic Gareth Keenan (Mackenzie Crook), was an oddity to behold. He prided himself on his service in the Territorial Army and tried to use his position as “Team Leader” to boss other employees around, despite the fact his title didn’t mean much. He too finds himself with his foot in his mouth on many occasions.
Luckily, the audience is represented by two normal characters, in the form of sales rep Tim (Martin Freeman) and receptionist Dawn (Lucy Davis). Their view of the office is much like our own, questioning how it could be true, except they actually have to live in it. One highlight is Tim constantly glancing at the camera when something ridiculous happens, as if to say ‘Are you seeing this? This is what I have to put up with.’
The show wasn’t all about the comedy though. The creators clearly knew that to sell the reality they would need real moments of emotion and heartache. One of the best scenes is from series two, when Brent is told that he’s being made redundant. Gervais’ tearjerking performance is exceptional and gives a depth to the character than no-one really expected.
Though it only lasted for two six-episode series and two christmas specials, The Office resonated with audiences as they drew comparisons with their own workplace. It even connected with foreigners, who went on to develop their own versions, from America to Israel.
Gervais and Merchant have since gone on to bigger and better things, but their debut sitcom will go down in British comedy history.
Next month, we head to Albuquerque and get cooking as we look back at one of the more recent shows to take the television world by storm, Breaking Bad.