Sit down in front of Ricky Gervais and it’s sometimes hard to tell where he ends and David Brent begins. The Hollywood comic and one-time Suede manager doesn’t make any catastrophic motivational speeches or aggressively insist I join him in a dance-off, but every now and again there’s a hint of Slough’s most obliviously offensive middle manager. Gervais spends our entire interview with his feet up on a desk, his fingers occasionally making their way into a thoughtful templing, and at one point he very sincerely repeats a Tommy Smothers saying about offence: “He said the only valid form of censorship is someone’s right not to listen.” There’s a pause. I whisper the Office line, “foreword by Duncan Goodhew”, and there’s that laugh. “I’ve ruined quotes now, haven’t I?” he snorts. “And I love quotes.”
Gervais is in good spirits because Brent – a man he talks about like a familiar friend, albeit one you wouldn’t introduce to your good friends, I mean, you wouldn’t invite him to your housewarming, that would be horrendous – is back. Gervais made his name in the BBC2 mockumentary series The Office, which redefined cringe comedy when it ran from 2001 to 2003. Since then, Brent and his Asda suit full of bravado have been more or less packed away, save for the odd Comic Relief skit. But now he’s returned for a big-screen debut, more than a decade later. Just don’t, whatever you do, call it an Office sequel.
“I was very clear about that,” says Gervais, “that would be mental. I’d never do that with the same actors. The guy from Sherlock and… you know what I mean? I know I’ve been in other things, but the narrative that it’s the same people, in the same office, at the same desk, after 15 years in Slough? Ridiculous.”
Instead, David Brent: Life On The Road is more of a spiritual successor, an extension of The Office’s classic episode in which Brent – a wannabe musician who never got his break, remember – gets the guitar out and sings songs like Free Love Freeway at a staff training day. Now, Brent is careening along in his mid-50s, still high on the giddy gasps of 13-year-old docusoap sub-fame and still convinced he is a star just waiting to happen.
Having left his employers Wernham Hogg years earlier, Brent has been working as a cleaning products sales rep. But then, with one last roll of the fame dice, he cashes in some pensions, leaves his job and sources some musicians to reform his old band, Foregone Conclusion (including Andy Burrows, once of mid-2000s indie lads Razorlight and now playing Brent’s long-suffering drummer). The band go on a tour of Reading, which goes as well as can be expected, considering that they all hate him and they’re being followed by a documentary crew seemingly sent to stitch Brent up. There he is, full mascara-and-double-denim garb, blasting out some of the most deranged songs ever heard while nobody’s watching except the cameraman.
In real life, Foregone Conclusion’s fortunes are more favourable. An IRL warm-up gig in Bloomsbury weeks before filming started sold out in minutes; at a filming in November, even Burrows admitted they were worried the songs were almost too good to ruin with joke lyrics.
“It’s great,” Gervais admits, baffled at how he’s accidentally arrived at the exact inverse plot of the film. “It’s actually so weird. It’s meta. They come along for Brent and it sells out, ridiculously. The first Bloomsbury gig – which was, like, 500 people – they had 110,000 ticket enquiries, and Wembley called the next day because they heard about it. I thought, that’s mad, Brent can’t play Wembley!” Still, he doesn’t rule out the possibility completely. “Maybe after the film. The band are good, and the songs are pretty good. And once you know the context you can enjoy the songs without jokes, because you sort of get it. It’s like watching Spinal Tap.”
There is a strong feeling of “Why now?” about bringing Brent back for these sorts of shenanigans, but maybe the question should be “why not then?”. Why not when Gervais was hot, pre-Extras and pre-standup, before he became Hollywood’s Ricky Gervais, before Flanimals and the Muppets and the golem-like creation of Karl Pilkington, and being really atheist on Twitter? And Derek?
At one point, he notes, all sorts of film offers were pouring in. “I think then was wrong for many reasons,” he says, defending his decision to ignore them. “I wanted to end it like we did. I had a backlog of things I wanted to do next, and I didn’t want to do a movie then. I was offered a movie after the second episode of The Office went on TV but I turned it down. I thought it was integrity, they thought I was being an idiot. But I wanted to do everything else first, and once I’d done everything – once I’d done Extras and my standup – I thought, ‘Why not? I can do it now.’ I don’t worry that people say, ‘He’s only got one thing.’”
Brent 2k16, however, is a slightly different beast. He’s still an unsubtle car crash of ego and obliviousness, but he has also become an office relic in a more fast-paced, socially conscious world. Brent’s the ageing rep amid boorish alphas (the rest of the sales team are essentially three slightly louder versions of vintage Office character Chris Finch), an HR person who takes exception to his unwittingly homophobic impersonations, and his only work friend, Nigel, is all the worst elements of Gareth from the series before, amplified. There’s no one willing to laugh at his crap jokes now he doesn’t pull rank.
As ever, it’s a difficult watch. Themes of loneliness, loss of vitality, and Brent’s general acceleration into irrelevance add the classic emotional punch that hits you at the end of most of Gervais’s work. And there are moments of High Brentness, too: a scene in which he invites two women back to his hotel, only for them to just clean out his minibar, is as good and cringe as anything from the original series.
How does the host of the Golden Globes write petty British office politics so well still when he no longer works in one himself? “But I have,” Gervais insists. “No, I know I’ve had a rarefied world, but that’s not true – I still have production meetings in an office. I still have all the office politics; I’ve seen them change. I’ve seen politics change, I’ve seen political correctness change.”
Political correctness – and regular flirting with the fine, unspoken constraints of it – still underpins a lot of Gervais’s work, and Life On The Road is no different. His new friend and sidekick is Doc Brown’s Dom, a talented young rapper whom Brent manages (and provider-in-chief of the film’s necessary to-camera eye-rolls). One scene in particular feels custom-built to dominate discussion around the movie: a late-night corridor stumble in which Brent – drunk and lonely, his dream career on the rocks, desperate for confirmation that he’s cool – repeatedly asks Dom to call him the n-word. He’s immediately chided – “I can say that, you can’t say that” – but they come to the uneasy conclusion that, yes, Brent is Dom’s n-word, now shut up and go to bed.
For Gervais, this scene appears to be indicative of how Brent is always the guy who’s so keen to be seen as unracist and hip to others that his intentions come out wrong. “He uses the n-word naively with no racist intent at all, because he’s heard rappers and black people talk to each other like that, and he’s not part of that club, and he doesn’t know he has no right to do it because he’s doing it to his black friend,” says Gervais. “And what’s beautiful about it is his friend [Dom], because he knows him, and it isn’t a stranger on Twitter, knows he’s not racist. He knows [Brent’s] not using that word with any of its power or intent or hatred – he’s worried about his mate getting in trouble for saying it, and that’s why it’s a beautiful moment.”
I’m unsure. Offence and the right to do it make up so much of Gervais’s comedy, but nonetheless this scene feels like a misstep. In the screening I saw, it took the wind out of the room, and when I tell Gervais this a mischievous smile creeps across his face. Is he confronting the nature of being offended, or is he just being offensive?
“I’d say I’m confronting it,” Gervais argues. “Confronting the difference between intent of bad words, whether it be racist, homophobic, you know, being out of touch and not knowing or meaning it, and white angst.” He doesn’t dangle bait, Gervais says, because “I don’t feel that I have to”. “But,” he continues, “I’m glad it had an effect, because people should think about things. If you’re shocked about something, it means you’re thinking about it. If you go through life never being offended, you won’t fucking think about things. You’ve got to be offended.”
“My point isn’t that I am offensive and I’ve got a right to be. My point is, who fucking says I’m offensive? Some people might think I’ve done it to get away with it, which just isn’t true. No one’s not got that joke yet in my circle of people. Not one person I know – black or white – has worried about that joke in context.”
Among my peers – ie 29-year-old boy-children who can still quote, word-for-word, the entire original Office run – the concern was that a film would somehow sully the Brent legacy; that a misfire could downgrade the character from comedy great to ghastly has-been. There’s a scene towards the end of Life On The Road that puts paid to all that: Brent, in a rare fragile moment, cheerily drinking espresso in an anodyne hotel on his day off, realises his tour is bad, that everything is bad, that his band detests him, and visibly deflates. You remember what made this character so good in the first place. You want to hug him, pat him on the shoulder, and say, “Stop being such a prat, mate.”
Deep down, that’s what’s likable about Gervais’s masterwork. David Brent is cocky, a fantasist, oblivious, appalling at his job, unaware of the fine unspoken lines of racism and sexism that everyone else knows not to cross, plus he headbutted a temp while trying to do a stepover once. And yet, when it comes down to it, you root for him and wish him well. Turns out Brent’s description of himself from The Office is pretty accurate, after all: “Friend first, boss second. Probably an entertainer third.”
David Brent: Life On The Road is in cinemas from Friday. The soundtrack album by David Brent & Foregone Conclusion is released the same day
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