Book review: Ricky Gervais, The Story So Far

by Michael Heatley

For all his vocal dislike of the cult of celebrity, Ricky Gervais has never been shy about giving interviews. Not, admittedly, too many of the vacuous Heat-style dissections of every minute scrap of trivia in his life – but he’s always been happy to talk about his comedy and his now well-documented early working life.

What, then, can a biographer offer? Especially one producing an unauthorised account, who clearly has no access to Gervais - nor indeed, anyone who knew him at all.

Michael Heatley’s new offering is obviously a cuttings job. But at least it’s a readable and very well researched cuttings job. All the interviews may be second-hand, but he’s been meticulous in missing nothing out – right down to the fact that 23 per cent of London Evening Standard readers considered Gervais to be ‘the celebrity you would most like to tuck into turkey with on Christmas Day’. How could you possibly enjoy Extras without knowing that vital fact about its creator?

There’s not much here about Gervais’s career that even the casual fan probably doesn’t already know, from being entertainments manager at University Of London Union, a brief career as pop manager when even Suede came fleetingly under his wing, and an ever briefer one as a minor pop star. Then the bizarre title of ‘head of speech’ at the music radio station XFM, the 11 O’Clock Show, Meet Ricky Gervais, The Office and Extras.

Heatley has, however, found some coverage of his early life, living modestly in Reading and holidaying in two-berth in Bognor (‘You have not known pleasure until you have woken up in the middle of the night to the sound of your nan peeing in a tin bucket,’ he recalled.)

There wasn’t much indication of a future career in comedy, with schoolfriend Ricky Bell recalling: ‘He was very academic. He didn’t make everyone laugh that much at school – that humour came out later.’ Really the best he did was playing childhood pranks, recording a message on his new cassette player and hiding it in his five-year-old nephew’s wardrobe: ‘Let me out of here, I’m running out of air,..’

But somewhere along the way, joking became a way of life. At ULU colleagues remember his ‘blurring of megalomaniac fantasy and deadpan humour’, but it reached its peak at XFM, where he forged his successful writing partnership with Stephen Merchant.

Merchant recalls a ypical day in the office. ‘Somebody came with a balloon filled with Rice Krispies, which I put above my desk. So one day I’m doing some work and Ricky was rolling around on his chair (which had wheels). I’m working to try to keep both our heads above water, I hear a pop, and he’s just covered in Rice Krispies. There was no one else in the room, it was just the two of us. It wasn’t like he was doing that to entertain anyone else.’

It’s obvious that in David Brent, Gervais didn’t have to look too far for inspiration as the frustrated entertainer stuck in an office. (For Gareth, incidentally, the suggestion is that he was modelled on the bassist in tribute act Killer Queen, which Gervais managed, who was ‘extremely aloof and serious’ and also called Gareth).

Much more interesting than Gervais’s CV is the chapter dedicated to Merchant – simply because these facts aren’t so often repeated. Not everyone knows he was once on Blockbusters, or that he started as a stand-up, making his debut at Bristol’s Comedy Box (‘The first week I did really well,’ he remembers. ‘The second week I died on my arse. I realised that stand-up was not that easy after all’.) Still, he got to be a finalist at the 1998 Daily Telegraph Open Mic awards before joining Radio Caroline as a breakfast DJ. From there he went to XFM – and Gervais.

Together, they made Golden Years, a Comedy Lab pilot for Channel 4 about a manager with a mid-life crisis who decides to go on Stars In Your Eyes as David Bowie, a hero of Gervais’s. The show wasn’t a hit, but with the benefit of hindsight the seeds for The Office were apparently sown here. Nonetheless, it was enough to bring Gervais a slot on the 11 O’Clock Show – and the rest of his history has been televised.

It’s at this point that Heatley’s book runs out of steam almost completely, reduced to running tedious blow-by-blow episode guides of The Office and Extras series 1 (the second not having aired by the time he wrote this). If you’re already familiar with the shows – and it’s a fair guess anyone who buys a Ricky Gervais biography is – you’ll find yourself skipping through these unenlightening chapters.

That’s not to say there are no interesting anecdotes from this period of Gervais’s life, just not enough of them reported here. A favourite, however, reveals that he is not above a bit of Brentish foot-in-mouth embarrassment. He was preparing a glossary of British terms for the US release of The Office. ‘I had to explain the word bender,’ he said. ‘I was at this serious meeting and I was like, “Bender is a derogatory term for a gay man. It’s derived… probably because gay men bend over “ And then a gay guy there said, “No, actually it’s from the Eighties’ “gender bender’.” I wanted to crawl into a hole and die.’

Ricky Gervais; The Story So Far, by Michael Heatley is published by Michael O’Mara books at £18.99. Click here to buy it from Amazon at £12.53

Review by: Steve Bennett
October, 2006

Published: 22 Oct 2006

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