Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s series The Office, which ran for two seasons of six episodes plus two Christmas specials starting in 2001, is, minute for minute, the greatest half-hour comedy program ever made. Its influence on popular culture is massive beyond measure; besides pioneering a mockumentary vibe for the sitcom format and revolutionising the office comedy, it pretty much re-stacked the comedy deck, fomenting a “cringe humour” that has become omnipresent since.
At the show’s heart lay David Brent, played by Gervais, one of the greatest comedic characters ever created. Gervais and Merchant took the basic human quality of wanting to be liked and made it the whole character; Brent is one big vibrating human need, and without love he is nothing. His fatal flaw, of course, is exactly the same condition, because the more we seek love the more we repel it, and Brent took this concept to the extreme. He was our worst nightmare version of ourselves, each and every one of us, because there is some part of David Brent in us all.
Incredibly, Gervais and Merchant managed to bring this character into some sort of monumentally humanising catharsis by the end of the show (in the final Christmas special); it was some of the great television writing of all time. A similar arc structures Gervais’ solo revisitation of the character fifteen years on, and is no less satisfying. David Brent: Life On The Road is an hysterically funny movie that is also a desperately acute examination of one of mankind’s greatest, and most universal, weaknesses.
It is exquisite to watch a performer / writer re-visit his greatest creation again with such precision. A lot of TV-to-film late bloomers are harmless fluff (Ab Fab) or shameless cash grabs (most of them), but Life On The Road has an acute pathos. Brent is now in his mid-fifties and no longer a boss but a worker ant, a rep in a company similar to his old one but hardened by rougher people dealing with a tougher world. He’s even more vulnerable, and his dreams – to tour with a band – even sadder. But tour with a band he does, taking a running leap and achieving a life’s dream, under the pitiless gaze of a camera crew probably all too aware they’re shooting fish in a barrel.
The original songs are brilliantly awful; they’re not only full of hilarious and spot-on lyrics but the music itself is perfect, exactly what would come from the pen of David Brent. Indeed, the whole film, despite its air of improvisation, is terrifyingly precise. Gervais is masterful at portraying the exactitude of life in the smaller towns of England; what the extras are wearing to Brent’s band’s gigs are exactly what the tribes of Slough, Reading and so on might wear to pubs and clubs as banal as these.
Stephen Merchant wasn’t involved in this project but there’s no qualitative loss; Gervais fulfils the tone and mission of The Office completely, on his own. It’s his finest hour and a half as a director, and Brent remains his Little Tramp, his Inspector Clouseau, his Basil Fawlty. I laughed out loud constantly, and was moved to pieces as well. Fantastic.