HANDBAGS AND GLADRAGS: Twenty Years of The Office

It’s sometimes easy to forget that one of Ricky Gervais’ earliest credits was as music advisor for legendary BBC Two drama This Life. That series was something of a scandalous cult hit for the BBC, a flat share drama set amongst a group of twenty something solicitors that made huge stars of its cast but which also courted controversy for its sexually explicit content and use of strong language.

If anyone had told you that the credited music advisor of the series would be just as big, if not arguably bigger, than its cast which also included a pre-Walking Dead Andrew Lincoln or a pre-Pirates of the Caribbean Jack Davenport, you might have been laughed out of the room. 

Yet, that was exactly what happened. Four years after This Life ended on a cliffhanger that would take until a ten year later reunion to be resolved (to a mixed response at that), Gervais would become one of the biggest names in British comedy. Along with Stephen Merchant, the two would create not only a series that would be remade throughout the world, inevitably ending up in the US, they would also change the visual language of scripted television comedy itself. 

The Office’s documentary format of single camera set-ups and and talking head monologues would become the de rigueur manner that many sitcoms would opt for as a way to be produced, moving away from the stagier set-up of a studio with accompanying audience and into something more approaching a mini-feature film. 

The Office itself owed less of a debt to feature films and more towards the ‘fly-on-the-wall’ documentary, itself an early style of reality television that became something of a mini-phenomenon in the UK and would launch short term celebrity careers for some of its contributors, a factor that the final episodes of The Office would explore to a devastating degree. 

Many of these series took as their titles the location where they were taking place and was a prime example of how British broadcasters approached the developing reality television phenomenon before Channel 4 bought the UK rights to Big Brother, a legitimate game changing television event that turned the genre into something of a more grandiose one where competition became a factor.

Gervais and Merchant as writers and directors recreated the fly-on-the-wall type of show so well that if you didn’t know you were watching a fictional comedy when the series premiered you might have been forgiven for thinking that you were watching the latest in a genre that had given television schedules the likes of Airport and Driving School

Debuting in 2001 and running until 2003, but being a British series it’s a duration of only fourteen episodes which might seem like a drop in the ocean compared to the near 200 episode run of the US version (which effectively ran out of steam in season seven but which limped on for another two seasons), the series in some respects almost feels like a stop gap of sorts between the launching of the cinematic brand of comedy shows that were inspired by it and the peak-sitcom period it debuted in; US juggernauts Friends and Frasier were still on the air and sometimes it feels as if the studio bound sitcom passed away somewhat when both those shows came to an end. 

Certainly there would still be studio bound sitcoms flying the flag for the genre and still capable of achieving high ratings such as the Chuck Lorre double bill of Two and a Half Men and The Big Bang Theory. Say what you want about those shows (and many have), but they were considerably big hits for CBS in the US and Channel 4/E4 in the UK where the latter is still rerun to this day, and yet, even though Gervais and Merchant’s series was given a wonderful US equivalent with its own meme inspiring moments, great cast of main and supporting characters, iconic set-pieces and moments of genuine pathos, there is something inherently darker about the original series that feels like one of a kind and very British.

Perhaps its most iconic moment, nothing can sum up the power of The Office’s ability to make the audience cringe more than David Brent’s impromptu attempt at dancing for Comic Relief in the iconic ‘Charity’.

That it was pastiching a particular brand of British reality television and the manner in which its ‘characters’ became famous has made it remain a prescient piece of work. You could see that theme ricocheting into Gervais and Merchant’s next series, the even darker masterpiece Extras which explored the perils of fame in the UK to an even more devastating and pointed extent, but which amazingly managed to give its characters a happy and upbeat ending right at the very last moment. 

A similar thing happened with The Office which couldn’t help but want to give its characters a chance to walk off into the sunset with their heads held high; Brent meets the woman of his dreams, gets to tell Finchy to ‘f**k off’ to satisfying effect, while whole books could be written about the moment Dawn went back to Tim thanks to a well chosen gift of oil paints and accompanying note which must surely rank as one of the most poignantly romantic moments in the history of British television. 

And yet, those moments of catharsis can make it easy to forget just how much The Office could fall into the pit of cringey horror. The US version also managed to indulge brilliantly in moments of cringe, but the original Office almost falls more into the realm of comedic horror film with its rawer portrayal of social embarrassments and life failures. 

Laughs do come thick and fast in the series, and as a piece of comedy it still retains a terrifying power in its ability to make one want to recoil into themselves whenever the spectre of embarrassment and things going wrong raises its head, but where US comedy has a gloss to it, and one that comes quite naturally, the invoking of television series such as Airport, Driving School and the long list of fly-on-the-wall series that were all over the British television schedules during the late 90s and early 2000s cannot help but give the Gervais and Merchant original recipe a squirmy and genuinely uncomfortable quality that has never been diluted with the passage of time.

Admittedly, being a series of the early 2000s means that some scenes have not aged well and which play problematically today. Tim’s frequent torments of Gareth still have moments of genuine fun, but there is also the inclusion of homophobic slurs and jokes related to the homosexual experience that Tim and Dawn use as a way of getting at Gareth that feel a little offensive, but then again one could argue that the series is also functioning as a time capsule of what passed for jokes during the period.

That’s not to say it was alright. In fact, it was never alright and cannot help but add a factor of squirm that was never intended, but unfortunately such comedy and moments cannot be changed. The series was, of course, one very much of its time.

It remains one of the most important comedy series of its era, launching the careers of Gervais and Merchant, not to mention Martin Freeman and Lucy Davis all of whom went on to bigger projects, while the series itself became the Star Trek of comedies, spinning off in multiple ways, albeit in the form of international remakes which proved that social embarrassments, uncomfortable working environments and unrequited love and lost dreams all translate no matter where you are in the world. 

It still remains a wonderful piece of work and arguably the best thing that Gervais and Merchant have done together. From its humble beginnings as a Monday night series on BBC2, to having its final episodes become a massive event on BBC1 as a Christmas broadcast, right down to all those remakes, the tale of The Office is one of a little series that went big and ended before it ever got too far ahead of itself. It remains a potent and strangely powerful piece of work that even when giving audiences a cheering conclusion full of moments we all waited to see, it did so without ever selling out or losing sight of what it was that made it brilliant to begin with. 

Not bad going for a series that came from This Life’s music advisor. 

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