icky Gervais and Stephen Merchant have come
up with a brilliant concept in The Office which deservedly
picked up two awards at the Golden Globes. Set in a paper
company on a Slough trading estate, it centre stages David
Brent (played by Gervais) as the office manager.
Brent is a monster. He is a bully, but also desperately
wants to be liked. He sees himself as an entertainer as well
as the boss. The fat kid in class who longs to be liked.
Bill Clinton, for example.
The first series of The Office passed me by - I do not know
why - so I only picked up on it on DVD much later. Therefore
I did not get it when work colleagues started putting staplers
in green jelly.
The show is an interesting piece of would-be social commentary.
Wernham Hogg (the company) is a classic product of the Thatcher,
Major and Blair years. Ruthless, bottom line orientated but
presenting the pretence of being people centred. We all know
that the biggest pretence in personnel departments and much
laughed about in a gallows humour sort of way is that 'our
most valued resource is our employees'.
In some ways, The Office only became possible post-1997.
All the double talk and spin set the tone. David Brent could
easily be a cabinet minister under the present regime. He
has a sense that he is special and beyond the usual limits
on human behaviour. Brent blunders at every turn, particularly
in relationships with others. Sexism and racism come naturally
to him, but he is oblivious to what he is saying or doing.
In the first series, the episode on the training day where
Brent goes home to get his guitar is particularly gruesome.
It is impossible to know whether to laugh or cry. Whenever
I have watched it there were points when I have had to look
away. Brent is a terrible person, but it is hard to know
whether to hate him or sympathasise with him when his schemes
and pretensions all go awry.
When the Swindon and Slough offices are merged, Brent finds
himself sidelined and under increasing pressure from more
and more intrusive management. Redundancy becomes more or
less inevitable. The experience of countless professional,
semi-professional and white collar workers could not be more
Although the series is built around the Brent character,
the other inhabitants of the office are just as crucial to
the way it works. Gareth, with his cadaverous looks, obsession
with the Territorial Army and compulsive (though unsuccessful)
womanising. He is just as much a monster as Brent. It also
features a character in a wheelchair and three strong women.
It might be the case that most people live lives of quiet
desperation, but the thing about the inhabitants of The Office
is that they refuse to be quiet. Their weak and frustrated
lives are paraded in front of us in all their gruesome detail.
Some of them evoke our sympathy, others our contempt.
Because Brent is by turns a thug and a whimpering pathetic,
he is unable to really capture our sympathy. I am sure that
most of us have worked with managers who feign concern but
will drop you in it in a moment if it is their perceived
The world of The Office is a world I do not want to live
in, and I guess that it is a world that most of us do not
want to live in, but needs must when the devil drives. The
cynicism of the office politics, the backstabbing and the
refusal to treat colleagues as anything other than a means
to an end is genuinely disturbing. As I think Kant put it, "of
such a crooked timber as humanity nothing straight can ever
The phenomenon which is The Office has only been possible
because of the rise of reality television. No studio audience,
no laughter track, the semi-documentary style and the running
comments to camera are all a product of 'real' TV. We should
have realised that Big Brother, I'm a Celebrity etc would
change the face of TV forever. Not just comedy (though I'm
not sure that The Office is a comedy) but drama as well.
Once you understand how real people speak, talk and relate,
the old world of theatrical style performances was doomed.
In that sense The Office is the new world not the old one.
It makes shows like Friends or I'm Alan Partridge look dated,
even though they remain funny.
There is no way back from The Office. Although there is
a way back from Slough. The opening titles are so bleak,
as the camera tracks towards the Slough trading estate that
one cannot help being reminded of the John Betjamin, "come
friendly bombs" and so on.
The Office is full of people who are hopelessly alienated.
They find no satisfaction in their work lives but seem dispirited
in their personal lives as well. A receptionist feels that
her life has been wasted, compared to people she was at school
with, and a dropped out university student who harbours the
fantasy, at the age of thirty, that he will go back.
The dreary workaday world of mundane administrative life
is finely captured. Even the rough and uneducated characters
who inhabit the warehouse seem to have more life to them
than those whose lives are built around keyboards and computers.
The disturbing thing for many of us is that the world of
The Office is our world.