by Allan Fish
(UK 2001-2003 440m) DVD1/2
Free love on the free love highway
p Ash Atalla d/w Ricky Gervais, Stephen Merchant theme song “Handbags & Gladrags” by Mike d’Abo performed by Fin
Ricky Gervais (David Brent), Martin Freeman (Tim Canterbury), Mackenzie Crook (Gareth Keenan), Lucy Davis (Dawn Tinsley), Ralph Ineson (Chris Finch), Patrick Baladi, Ewan Macintosh, Oliver Chris, Stacey Roca, Stirling Gallacher, Joel Beckett,
True greatness in television comedy is not appointed lightly. So many popular series have drifted along in their own complacency for far too long, not realising the damage they were doing to their own posterity. Despite the undoubted quality of Father Ted and Spaced they didn’t quite join the likes of Fawlty Towers and Blackadder in the halls of the almighty and, ever since Edmund and his cronies climbed over the trenches in November 1989, British TV had searched for such a giant. When The Office arrived on BBC2 it was hardly to a chorus of trumpets. Indeed, viewing the first episode might have lead one to believe it was not a comedy at all, and that very factor was part of the masterstroke. It so uncannily mimicked those TV documentaries that were then in vogue showing the behind the scenes life in hotels, airports and whatever, that it just seemed like another cringe-making peer into areas we weren’t supposed to see. It wasn’t until some time into that first episode that you realised, many guffaws later, that what you were seeing unfolding could be greatness.
On the surface, Gervais and Merchant’s baby was about the day to day lives of a group of people working for Wernham Hogg Paper Merchants in Slough in industrial England. What it was really about was a close up examination of our aspiration failures, of the tedium of office life in general, of the desperately trying to reach Friday in one piece mentality that so many go through each week. The boss who thinks he’s a comedian, the receptionist stultified by her cultureless warehouse boyfriend finding escape in her brief moments of fun with a fellow office worker who is crazy about her but cannot say so, the jobsworth Team Leader who thinks the company rests on him and who compares everything in the workplace to his other life in the voluntary Territorial Army, not to mention the monotone, overweight, seemingly comatose finance operator who somehow thinks he’s god’s gift to women and life in general. For those who have worked in such environments, it can be a little too close to the bone, indeed many have found it almost unwatchable because of it, because it is too accurate (the staff training day and the nights out at the immortal Chasers in particular). But there are belly laughs here to overcome anything, and performed with such natural brilliance by a perfect cast.
There’s Gareth, played by the inimitably cadaverous Crook, a loser for all time who relishes his position and doesn’t realise just what an annoying little (expletive deleted) he really is. Macintosh’s Keith is either pure comic genius, or just one of those lucky flukes, either way he’s imperishable, particularly in the immortal appraisal sequence. Then there’s Davis’ Dawn, the personification of the soul-mate in purgatory, her bored stares alternating with longing glances at her soul-mate, the most empathetic character in the piece, Tim, wonderfully played by everyman Freeman. With his Olliesque double takes, his sense of mischief applied just to get through each day and his long-thwarted love for Dawn, he’s the real hero of proceedings and, even for the most anti-romantic sort, that final kiss gets a rousing cheer. However, final words must go to the real star of the show, the immortal Gervais as the truly awful David Brent, with enough immortal moments to push Basil Fawlty to the all-time title, forever embraced by the nation as a classic piece of what Vida Hope (in The Man in the White Suit) once called “flotsam on the flood tide of profit.” Pure genius, it led to an okay American remake and a follow-up series, Extras, with enough moments of genius of its own (and Kate Winslet talking about one-eyed trouser snakes and how the Holocaust means a surefire Oscar for an actress; could Gervais see into the future?). Now, who put Gareth’s stapler in the lemon jelly?