‘It’s stifling, that feeling of falseness’

Ricky Gervais talks to Ed Barrett about The Office and offices.

Ed Barrett

Topics Culture

In the opening scene of The Office, David Brent interviews an applicant for a forklift driving job while telling porkies to his warehouse manager on the phone. This echoes an incident from Ricky Gervais’s own life when, as a school-leaver, he attended a recruitment agency. The interviewer phoned a ‘friend’ and proceeded to lie his head off in order to get Ricky a job. As he fibbed away, he winked and made ‘Pinocchio nose’ gestures with his thumb and forefinger.

‘This guy was supposed to be his mate!’ Gervais recalls. ‘And I was meant to be impressed by this man lying to a friend! It’s the arrogance of people who meet someone and want to take the short cut. They go: “I’ll be honest – you’re going to like me because everyone else does, so let’s cut the bullshit and start liking me now”.’

Once upon a time, Ricky Gervais was just a short bloke with a Reading accent. Then, a few years ago, he became the short bloke from The Eleven O’Clock Show. Now he’s the short bloke with a few million in the bank, a shelf full of Baftas and Golden Globes, and a reputation as a comic genius.

But the hype about this cult comedy series tends to obscure the reason why it has touched such a nerve – the grim reality of office life. I talked to Ricky Gervais back before The Office reached the giddy heights of its current fame – and his memories of the real world of office work were all too fresh.

As he recounts his tale of the recruitment agency, Gervais switches seamlessly into Brent mode, clicking his fingers, drumming on the desk, picking up the phone and putting it down again – a bag of futile nervous energy. This effortless transformation begs the obvious question: how much of David Brent is there in Ricky Gervais?

‘Well’, he replies, snapping out of character, ‘he’s that part of all of us that wants to be liked and thought of a good bloke, and also wants desperately to win at Trivial Pursuit. Most of us manage to keep it under control, though’. Yet Gervais can’t bring himself to condemn his alter-ego completely. ‘David Brent’s not a bad bloke, but he’s full of contradictions’, he says. ‘Part of him regrets missing out on the Eighties and thinks he could have had his own business and owned a Maserati by now. But he also wants this Californian thing – a big commune. He doesn’t know if he wants to be head of the mafia or a guru. He wants to win, but if he was a bit more honest and vulnerable, and occasionally admitted he was having a bad day, people would like him more.’

If David Brent had a coat of arms, its legend would probably be: You don’t have to be mad to work here, but it helps. Indeed, in his hands, this well-worn slogan becomes a full-blown management philosophy. The result is a tyranny of forced hilarity, and resistance is futile. Brent’s partner in comedy crime is Chris Finch, an obnoxious and slightly menacing sales rep from up north. Between the two of them, they keep up a relentless barrage of badinage. No opportunity for zaniness is knowingly passed up, to the exasperation of the long-suffering staff. Needless to say, Brent has no inkling of how others see him: ‘He’s got such a massive blind spot, he just wouldn’t believe someone was slagging him off. If you got fed up with him and threw him in the fountain, he’d come back in and say: “See what the lads did? They’re mental! They love me here!”.’

One reason the Brent character took off was because he is all too familiar, and the same goes for the setting. Gervais wanted something universally recognisable – a million miles from the hot-desking, video-conferencing, feng-shuied fantasy office of the media’s imagination. The location is telling too: the demographically important but anonymous and largely ignored Thames Valley. ‘Everyone thinks of England as London, Birmingham, Manchester, and so on’, Gervais agrees. ‘But most people live anywhere but. Anyway, it’s the only accent I can do….’

The Office, in other words, is a fairly typical picture of working life as it is lived by a very large number of people. ‘Jobs, not careers’, is how Gervais puts it. ‘White collar’ may once have meant respectability and ‘prospects’, but now it just means a desk or a headset. A call centre in Newcastle is not much different to a credit card centre in Brighton: the product is irrelevant and the regional differences are fast disappearing. One striking thing about the paper merchants in The Office is that nobody actually mentions paper, unless the subject is unavoidable. ‘Nobody cares!’ laughs Gervais. ‘You never talk about the product, or how proud you are of your work, you talk about people: “You’ll never believe what that Pete Gibbons said to me last night – idiot!” or “So-and-so’s got a pay rise…”.’

Although offices are changing, they are still places where people of different types and ages are thrown together – unlike pubs and other institutions, which are becoming increasingly segmented. And some features of office life are simply modern variations on an old theme. Yesterday’s union rep is today’s health and safety rep, or serial sponsored marathon-runner. The pipe-smoker with leather elbow-patches who used to do cryptic crosswords has been succeeded by the paunchy Eric Clapton fan who runs the quiz night. The spindly bloke with the sweaty white shirt and bicycle-clips has given way to the lycra-clad Greenpeace activist who smells of mildew. Smokers gossip in the street instead of in the coffee room. Xeroxed joke sheets are now emailed jpegs.

Even the open-plan office itself, that symbol of openness and team-building has been divided up into personal territories, each customised with pictures, novelty mouse mats, charity stick-bugs, trinkets and, of course, ersatz barriers like the wall of box files that is erected between desks in one episode of The Office. ‘I’m not an anthropologist or sociologist’, admits Gervais, ‘but I don’t think open plan offices are natural. I imagine that the first thing you do when you’re thrown together with 30 people that you might not care for, is build a wall.’

Gervais was drawn to the subject of offices by precisely this random – and frankly misanthropic – way in which they draw together people of different ages who have nothing in common. Yet for all their personal quirks, there is something instantly recognisable about the dramatis personae of The Office. This is entirely intentional, as they were deliberately typecast. (‘It was a case of: “You know those type of people that….”’)

So David Brent was ‘the type who tells you he’s popular instead of just getting on with being popular, and who you have to laugh with just because he’s the boss’. Tim is ‘the normal bloke, stable and a genuinely a good laugh – what most of us like to think we would be like’. Gareth, the humourless assistant to the manager who insists on calling himself ‘assistant manager’, is the obligatory Territorial Army soldier (‘the type who really thinks he could survive after the bomb because he can skin a mouse’). And Finchy is the hard-drinking bore who inspires teeth-gritting hostility within seconds of his arrival.

Mustn’t grumble. That’s an order, by the way – the great unwritten rule of office life. Criticise the job too much and, by implication, you criticise your colleagues as well. Complaint may be expressed only in coded form, via the strained jocularity of the novelty sign or the humorous email circular with its jokey complaints about the drinks machine that’s never fixed or the ever-diminishing lunch ‘hour’. Timid, cringing, and, let’s face it, pathetic.

There’s nothing wrong with having a laugh, but this isn’t really a laugh at all. ‘It’s stifling, that feeling of claustrophobia and falseness’, muses Gervais. ‘When they start teaching people how to enjoy life, there’s something a little bit odd about that.’ And official fun invariably has a coercive element, as Brent’s laugh-a-minute tyranny shows. It reminds everyone who’s in charge. Jokes are barbed with references to lateness, or light-hearted threats of the sack. It can go further, with the management-led pillorying of those deemed not to be pulling their weight through ‘Wally of the Week’ boards, dunce’s hats and ‘humorous’ forfeits.

Joking can be a serious matter. In one episode of The Office, a full-scale investigation is launched when a pornographic picture featuring David Brent is emailed around the office. No wonder he is careful to point out that his officially sanctioned material is kosher. (‘”Does my bum look big in this?”’ he chuckles, reading a cartoon on the wall: ‘It’s OK, it’s not sexist – it’s the bloke saying it.’) Politically correct codes of conduct keep everyone walking on eggshells: anyone could take offence at anything, and someone usually does. And when they do, there’s no sorting it out between yourselves: it’s straight off to personnel for an official warning. Disciplinary sanctions cover everything from fighting to farting.

‘I’ve done nine-to-fives and there’s nothing wrong with them’, Gervais says, ‘but you don’t live to work: you live for the evenings and weekends, and have other ambitions’. Those are the words of a man who can remember the days when people could work for the money and shoot off at five to get on with their lives. Those days are long gone. Today you are expected to buy into the job, and treat it as part of your lifestyle. David Brent, a man of his time, ‘would never admit that his job’s rubbish’. Dress-down days, works outings and charity events all help to promote an image of a relaxed regime, but they also help to blur the distinction between work time and your own. Today you must arrive early, leave late, and take the job home with you.

People are a company’s greatest asset, as Brent would no doubt say. That doesn’t mean the company cares about its employees, though. When the bottom line is threatened, all talk of the ‘team’ goes out of the window. (‘It’s a very special boss who puts his head on the block for anyone.’) People are assets that must be made to work for you. That means using their untapped talents to the max. It means coming up with ideas, making sacrifices and volunteering for extra duties. It means away-days and seminars, flipcharts and brainstorming sessions. ‘Nobody’s got anything to say, but you get emails saying you must attend’, says Gervais. ‘No I won’t – I’m going to the beach!’

In the end, are we all destined to let the bastards grind us down? Nobody starts their working life as an office ‘type’, but most people end up as one. Is there a mysterious law at work, through which we grow into our allotted roles and become enmeshed in the petty politics of office life?

‘Everyone picks up symptoms’, declares Gervais. ‘It doesn’t matter if you work for a paper merchant in Slough or ICI or NASA, if someone who hasn’t been there as long as you gets a bigger desk, you’re going to mention it.’ Look no further than Tim, who came for a week and stayed for 10 years. He ends up indulging in a magnificently petty feud with Gareth at the next desk. As Gervais says: ‘You can be in an office and someone won’t lend you their stapler, and within two weeks, when they ask to borrow yours, you’ll go: “No, you wouldn’t let me borrow yours”….’

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