Office politics

Ricky Gervais on why his show was a hit...

Ricky Gervais seems to have cornered the market in arrogant, swaggering buffoons.

The ignorant loudmouth persona he adopted for the little-lamented 11 O'Clock Show and David Brent, the ineffectual middle-manager of The Office, share a confidence that is as irritating as it is misplaced.

Yet, despite the impression viewers might get, Gervais insists he bears no resemblance to his on-screen character - well, almost none.

"I've got his figure," Ricky says, "and I am incredibly annoying - but I do it on purpose, to annoy my friends."

The 40-year-old certainly seems a lot more self-aware than Brent, whose frustrating and often bullying management style is funny to no one but himself.

Though he may seem like a monstrous creation, Ricky thinks that everyone has something in common with Brent, which is probably what makes him so watchable.

"I think everyone, if you scratch them enough, will want to make sure they're liked. They want to think that they have a purpose in life. They don't want to think that they're in a dead-end job and, if they are, they want to at least think that they're getting something out of it.

"So, we've all got that problem, but Brent doesn't think anyone dislikes him; why would he? Everything he does is brilliant, because he can't imagine doing anything wrong, because he loves himself so much."

The idea for David Brent evolved from Seedy Boss, a character developed by Ricky while working at radio station Xfm with Stephen Merchant.

He says of those early days: "I had an idea for this boss who got away with murder and wanted to be loved, a bit pretentious. And also, there were a lot of docusoaps in the Nineties, and I loved the fact that ordinary people ­ well everyone's ordinary ­ but people without anything to do with the entertainment world, could use this platform on a national scale to become stars overnight."

"I liked the idea that an ordinary person, someone like David Brent, who thinks he's an entertainer anyway and thinks he's loved and thinks he deserves more ­ when they're given a chance, think: 'This is my chance. I can show the world how funny, how intelligent, how important I am.' Of course, he opens his mouth and he's an idiot".

But it wasn't just the Jane McDonalds and the Jeremy Spakes of the world who fascinated Ricky, but also people who brag about themselves.

"It's these people who have to tell other people that they're popular. It's like they can't be bothered to go through the normal stuff of getting to know someone. They want to hand out a business card that says: 'Mr X, funny, you'll like me, just get on with it, just admire me now and let's save a lot of time.' It's almost like they need to take this shortcut in life, and that fascinated me as well."

Although the character of David Brent may seem like a bit of an exaggeration, Ricky thinks he acts like many people would. He says: "You can have the most important job in the world but if someone who's been there six months less than you, gets a bigger chair, you'll say: 'Why does he have a bigger chair than me?' That's just human nature.

"You look at the person next to you to judge your ambition. You don't judge yourself on President Bush or Robert De Niro. We look at our corner of the world, our office or our street, and that's what's sad. The Office is about lack of ambition. If you're not happy, don't suddenly wake up when you're 65 and think: 'Oh, I should have left. I wanted to be an artist.'"

Of the success of the fist series, he says: "I was really happy with it. I thought it would be liked by a few people in a cult sort of way but I didn't think it would be as popular across the board.

"Again, I didn't expect the broad spectrum of critical acclaim, that was really, flattering. And I'd told myself: 'One, the ratings don't matter and, two, what do the press know?' But then, obviously, I'm glad that the ratings were enough to get a second series, and, of course, the press proved to be discerning, intelligent people, which I always suspected!" Ricky says, bursting into sarcastic laughter.

"I think people recognised it as slightly more realistic than the average sitcom, and I think they liked that. People think they get an insight into it. There was no big announcement, no huge gag, so people respect that - that you're not insulting their intelligence."

And he said the narrative thread was crucial.

"They may have tuned in for comedy, but they stay for Tim and Dawn. It's like when you go and see comedy. If someone tells you 100 jokes, after 20 minutes, you'll be looking at your watch. It's wearing - hundreds of one-liners. You laugh but they don't resonate.

"Whereas, if you go and see a performer like Johnny Vegas, he's got a whole back story when he walks on stage; he creates his own world. The more you watch him, the more you get to know him, the more the payback."

First published: September 12, 2002

Published: 22 Mar 2009

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