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Office, The (2001-03)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Office, The (2001-03)
2 series of 6x30 min episodes each plus 2 specials
DirectorsRicky Gervais
 Stephen Merchant
Production CompanyBBC TV
ProducerAsh Atalla
WritersRicky Gervais
 Stephen Merchant

Cast: Ricky Gervais (David Brent); Mackenzie Crook (Gareth Keenan); Martin Freeman (Tim Canterbury); Lucy Davis (Dawn Tinsley)

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A 'fly on the wall' look at the Slough office of paper merchant Wernham Hogg, managed by self-styled 'great boss' David Brent'. After his team incorporates the Swindon branch Brent falls out of favour with the company.

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The Office has already proved itself an important sitcom, which like Till Death Us Do Part (BBC 1966-75) and Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? (BBC 1973-4) captures the zeitgeist.

The show satirises the insecurities of British society under New Labour and its central character David Brent (played by co-writer/director Ricky Gervais) has entered the national consciousness. Brent is self-serving and dull with a hyperactive need to prove to people - himself included - that he is caring, sophisticated and witty. Invariably he fails to do so.

Although some of the series' features, like the foolish central character, and the workplace setting, are familiar to sitcom audiences, much about The Office feels new. The style mimics the reality shows filling current TV schedules. A TV crew apparently follows the staff around, but is rarely referred to and never seen. Docusoaps and their use of ordinary people are a great source of comedy because characters' attempts to analyse themselves make their lack of self-awareness very obvious.

The humour in The Office also comes from its perfect observation of our experience of work. It's in the bickering over staplers, the ludicrous management speak, and the staff outings to desperate local nightspots. The style emphasises this reality - indeed some viewers found it all too real for comfort. The setting, a paper merchant in Slough, is deliberately mundane. The characters come to terms with boring jobs by telling themselves all sorts of lies to keep afloat. Wernham Hogg is the nation in microcosm, and the show mocks its culture of fear and self-deception. This has resonated with audiences who find it cathartic - British sitcoms traditionally deal in failure, disappointment and misunderstanding.

Other comedies, including People Like Us (BBC 1999-2001), have taken similar approaches in recent years. What makes The Office special is its complexity and its compassion for its characters. In series 2 Brent's fortunes fade and his superiors attempt to get rid of him - and for all his faults his downfall has great pathos. Salesman Tim (Martin Freeman) and receptionist Dawn (Lucy Davis) are sympathetic characters who lack the courage to tear themselves away from a humdrum existence or to act on their feelings for each other.

The series is an example of narrative comedy at its best; in its sublime acting and in a script that understands the hilarity, but also tragedy, in the nuances of everyday life.

Phil Wickham

*This programme is the subject of a BFI TV Classics book by Ben Walters.

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Video Clips
1. Redundancy (2:57)
2. Tim and Dawn (1:58)
3. Good news and bad news (2:35)
Complete episode (29:09)
Credit sequence (0:26)
Production stills
Doris and Doreen (1978)
League of Gentlemen, The (1999-2002)
Freeman, Martin (1971-)
Gervais, Ricky (1961-)
BBC2 (1964-)
'Fly on the Wall' TV