Very few comedy series know when to stop. They tend to carry on, becoming less and less funny, while the locations become more outlandish, the situations more contrived and the scripts degenerate into self-parody. Some know when to stop – in particular ‘Fawlty Towers’ – John Cleese and Connie Booth made 12 perfect episodes and then ended it and it hangs suspended in time; always fresh, still funny, never weak. Let us hope that it is never revived.
It seemed that The Office would follow the same path. Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant made two series – 12 episodes and then an extended Christmas special and that was it and they said they wouldn’t do any more. It was complete, it was perfect, the story arc had closed and by the final episode true love had triumphed for Tim and Dawn and David Brent was on the point of redemption – all was summed up in his comment to Chris Finch – ‘why don’t you fuck off?’ – after Finch had made a derogatory remark about Brent’s (will she, won’t she) new girl-friend. Whether Brent would ever resurrect his music career was something we could speculate about and discuss endlessly – where would these characters go and how would their lives play out, even as we watched the actors themselves go on to fame and fortune – Martin Freeman in The Hobbit and Sherlock and everything else, MacKenzie Crook to Pirates of the Caribbean and Detectorists, even Chris Finch becoming the voice of Dacia cars in every advert – ‘you do the maths.’
Well, as for David Brent, now we know because Gervais has made Life on the Road, a film about Brent some years on. It’s not bad, it’s even quite good in places and some of it is funny but considering his track record we expected so much more from Gervais than ‘not bad’.
The plot is swiftly explained. Brent has always wanted to be a pop star so he decides to cash in some pensions, book some holiday from his job as a sales rep for a cleaning company (Lavichem – great name) and head out on a 3 week mini-tour to present his music to his hopefully adoring fans. He puts together a back-up band (Foregone Conclusion – the name of his original band) from a group of musicians who are only there for the money and sets off. And so this mini road movie results. He is accompanied by Ben Bailey Smith as his friend cum helper Dom who emerges as the real and alternative star of the show.
One of the reasons The Office worked so well is that Wernham Hogg – the paper merchants – was an enclosed world peopled by characters from the office: the real world did not impinge. Life on the Road is different – once it sets out on tour the real world and real people start to intrude and it doesn’t ring true. Brent’s virulently and often hilarious non-PC comments, jokes and songs worked in The Office but here some of them fall flat and sound offensive just for the sake of it. If you go on making racist jokes and jokes about disabled people, there comes a point when they are no longer jokes about people who make racist jokes or jokes about disabled people: they’re just offensive jokes and that is often the case here.
The other problem is more deep-rooted. One of the key reasons The Office worked so well is that it was an ensemble piece and the other characters were as important, if not more important, than Brent himself and it was often they – not Brent – who had the funniest and sharpest lines. Who can forget the romance between Tim and Dawn; the characters of Gareth, Chris Finch, Jennifer, Keith, Neil, etc. Life on the Road is different – it is a film by and about Ricky Gervais as Brent and the other characters are just ciphers – there to laugh or cringe or react or just sit and stare at his comments and actions. They don’t have any funny lines and in most cases, have little to do – they are, most of them, just extras. Philomena Cunk appears as a tacky PR agent but her character seems shoe-horned in and adds little. The only character to truly come alive is Dom who is the main reason for watching the film.
The film ends with an awkward and not very convincing happy and mawkish ending which I won’t spoil but it feels forced and was maybe demanded by the film studio.
‘The Office’ was written and directed by Gervais and Stephen Marchant. Gervais and Merchant then went on to make ‘Extras’; as good as, if not better than ‘The Office’; ‘Life is Short’ for Warwick Davis which didn’t work and seemed like a rehash of ‘Extras’ and then ‘Derek’; which was much panned but was nonetheless an interesting, if ultimately flawed, project and introduced a cast of powerful characters, not just Gervais as the hapless idiot savant Derek. Who knows how crucial Merchant’s role in all these shows was but it is significant that he was not involved in this project – maybe he felt it was the wrong thing to do or maybe Gervais just wanted all the money for himself. Whatever the truth, this was written by, starred and was directed by Gervais and feels uncomfortably like a vanity project.
And yet, and yet – one still feels sort of glad that he made it. There are some funny lines, there are some funny scenes, Brent was and remains an interesting character, Gervais knows how to construct a movie, it is sort of believable and Ben Bailey Smith is worth the price of admission alone. It’s just a shame it’s not funnier and crueller and the ending is a cop-out.
One curious and unexplained point. In one of the episodes of ‘The Office’ Brent fetches his guitar and sings a couple of his songs and in the Christmas special he is seen to record a single of ‘If you don’t know me by now’, using the money he received from Wernham Hogg after he sued them for wrongful dismissal. The songs are quite good in a cringe-making sort of way and the lyrics are bizarre but they make a kind of sense. And yet, none of these songs appear in Life on the Road. Why not? If we are to believe the story arc then surely Brent would play the songs on tour that his audience, including us, might know. And yet he doesn’t. The songs that he does sing are full of Brentisms (i.e. racist jokes and jokes about disabled people) and none of his earlier songs were like that. Why are they in this film? Is it because he is trying to get some extra laughs? Or because he thinks it wouldn’t work if Brent is just a ‘normal’ wannabe pop star?