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Anorak | The Ricky Gervais Interview: Whatever Happened To Him?

The Ricky Gervais Interview: Whatever Happened To Him?

by | 9th, May 2011

IN August 2002, Anorak’s Ed Barrett met Ricky Gervais. Whatever happened to him? (Not Ed – he’s here.)

RICKY Gervais is a friendly-looking chap in his mid-thirties. He speaks in a soft-but-jaunty voice with a distinctive Reading accent. Until recently he was known chiefly for his appearances as a comedian on The Eleven O’Clock Show and as host in Meet Ricky Gervais – a respectable enough CV, but nothing to suggest that he would soon become indelibly stamped on the memory of a generation of TV viewers. All that changed this year, though, when he grew a neat goatee beard, acquired a cheap suit and a medium-priced tie, and unleashed David Brent on an unsuspecting world.

Brent is the manager of an ailing paper suppliers in Slough, and he’s the undisputed star of The Office, a spoof documentary that Gervais wrote with long-term collaborator Stephen Merchant. In a summer in which Big Brother has taken banality to new depths, The Office has raised it to new heights. It has also created a TV monster in the odious Brent, who negotiates the open-plan landscape of his fiefdom with one eye on the camera and the other on his back. He thinks he is grabbing his chance of fame, and takes every opportunity to give us the benefit of his people-centred management methods, and charm us with his done-meself-a-mischief chuckle. What the camera reveals, though, is a fundamentally weak person whose capacity for self-delusion is topped only by his instinct for self-preservation. He elicits pathos and contempt in equal measure, in a way not seen on the small screen since the dog days of Alan Partridge.

Brent’s origins lie in an incident from Gervais’s youth. As a school-leaver, he attended a recruitment agency, where the interviewer proceeded to call a “friend” and lie his head off in order to get Ricky a job. As he fibbed away, he winked and made “Pinocchio nose” gestures with his thumb and forefinger. “This guy was supposed to be his mate!” Gervais recalls. “And I was meant to be impressed by this man lying to a friend! It’s the arrogance of people who meet someone and want to take the short cut. They go: ‘I’ll be honest – you’re going to like me because everyone else does, so let’s cut the bullshit and start liking me now’.” It was the inspiration for the opening scene of The Office, when Brent interviews an applicant for a fork-lift driving job and tells porkies to his warehouse manager on the phone. As we speak, Gervais switches seamlessly into Brent mode, clicking his fingers, drumming on the desk, picking up the phone and putting it down again – a bag of futile nervous energy.

This effortless transformation begs the obvious question: how much of David Brent is there in Ricky Gervais? “Well, he’s that part of all of us that wants to be liked and thought of a good bloke, and also wants desperately to win at Trivial Pursuit. Most of us manage to keep it under control, though.” Gervais clearly can’t bring himself to completely condemn his alter-ego. “David Brent’s not a bad bloke, but he’s full of contradictions,” he says. “Part of him regrets missing out on the Eighties and thinks he could have had his own business and owned a Mazerati by now. But he also wants this Californian thing – a big commune. He doesn’t know if he wants to be head of the mafia or a guru. He wants to win, but if he was a bit more honest and vulnerable, and occasionally admitted he was having a bad day, people would like him more.

If David Brent had a coat of arms, its legend would probably be: You don’t have to be mad to work here, but it helps. And in his hands, this well-worn slogan becomes a full-blown management philosophy. The result is a tyranny of forced hilarity. Resistance is futile. Brent’s partner in comedy crime is Chris Finch, an obnoxious and slightly menacing sales rep from up North. Between the two of them, they keep up a relentless barrage of badinage. No opportunity for zaniness is knowingly passed up. Would Brent be up for Comic Relief? “He’d love it!” replies Gervais without hesitation. “He’d be straight into a bath of baked beans. Or him and Finchy would make everyone do a sponsored Monty Python recital. Oh, he’d say ‘Pants to Poverty’ all right!” Needless to say, Brent has no inkling of how others see him: “He’s got such a massive blind spot, he just wouldn’t believe someone was slagging him off. If you got fed up with him and threw him in the fountain, he’d come back in and say: ‘See what the lads did? They’re mental! They love me here!’”

Has Gervais ever worked in an office? “Yeah – not like that one, though. You never got the feeling you were going to die there.” Yet he is at pains to point out that he did not set out to sneer at people who do humdrum nine-to-fives. The show is set in an office because he wanted something universally recognisable. The fact that the office in question sells paper is of no interest to either the viewers or the employees – all of which adds to the feeling of being everywhere and nowhere. Ditto its location, in a demographically important but anonymous part of the Thames Valley. “Everyone thinks of England as London, Birmingham, Manchester, and so on,” Gervais points out. “But most people live anywhere but. Anyway, it’s the only accent I can do…”

There is certainly something queasily familiar about Brent, Finchy and the rest. Is there a kind of iron law at work, through which we grow into our allotted roles and become enmeshed in the petty politics of office life? “Everyone picks up symptoms,” says Gervais. “It doesn’t matter if you work for a paper merchant in Slough or ICI or NASA, if someone who hasn’t been there as long as you gets a bigger desk, you’re going to mention it. Take Tim [the frustrated graduate whom life is passing by]. He’s meant to be the normal bloke, stable and a genuinely a good laugh.- what most of us like to think we would be like. But you can be in an office and someone won’t lend you their stapler, and within two weeks, when they ask to borrow yours, you’ll go: ‘No, you wouldn’t let me borrow yours’…”

ENDS



Posted: 9th, May 2011 | In: Celebrities Comment | Follow the Comments on our RSS feed: RSS 2.0 | TrackBack | Permalink