The Office

Posted on August 31, 2009
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From The Guardian

I remember when I first met David Brent. I’d asked XFM’s Ricky Gervais and Steve Merchant to write some sketches highlighting the issues around exam pressure for a Radio 1 campaign I was working on in 1998. A number of the sketches featured a sweaty-palmed, socially inept man whose buoyant self-image was as sound as his leering seduction technique. We had a few complaints about those sketches, particularly the one in which the character, upon hearing of his son’s disappointing exam results, advised his sole offspring to leave the country so that he could tell his pub mates the boy had died, rather than admit his son was “totally thick”. I thought the fledgling “Seedy Boss” was inspired, but when I was told he was the blueprint for the main protagonist of a six-part sitcom I wasn’t convinced he had the legs to carry it.

Watching the first episode again last night, it struck me how ridiculously assured and fully realised it was for a debut. David Brent is so finely nuanced and delicately acted that within 10 minutes of watching him wandering amongst his flock with his crossed arms resting on his pot belly, stopping to share a catchphrase here (“Wassup!”) or inflict a light shoulder massage there, he is as real as the most brilliant of Jimmy McGovern’s inventions. In terms of truthfulness and pathos, he remains the most successful comedy creation the British sitcom has produced. And as for sheer belly laughs, even by the end of last night’s three solid hours of Brentisms, they were still coming thick and fast.

Some of The Office’s noteworthy elements – the handheld camera style, the naturalistic “anti-acting”, the absence of a laughter track – have become de rigueur for cool, intelligent comedies like The Thick of It, Pulling and Peep Show, but The Office still feels unique in its commitment to the bleak monotony of the average British working day. “We didn’t want anything sexy or cool,” Ricky said in last night’s interview. The sea of bored, distracted faces, the greyness of the soulless strip-lit set and the repetition of deadly dull punctuating images like a churning photocopier created a sitcom environment which still strikes me as unusually authentic in 2009. As well as helping us believe in what we saw, this backdrop heightened the resonance of what Richard Curtis last night called “one of the greatest romantic stories of all time”. “We had to make Dawn Tim’s only joy,” Ricky Gervais said recently and watching the show again with this in mind, the first stages of that awkward, imperfect romance felt even more poignant than they did first time around.

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