The lost Stephen Merchant interview

Stephen Merchant
As a writer, sometimes you get commissioned to write a piece that ultimately doesn’t run or quickly disappears from view. Unpublished is where I resurrect those stories.

Written for The Australian, 2004

Ricky Gervais has achieved international fame — and won two Golden Globes — for his portrayal of shocker boss David Brent in The Office. Yet while Gervais is very much the public face of the most successful British comedy in years, an equal share of the credit (and the Golden Globes) can be taken by his writing and directing partner Stephen Merchant.

Six foot-seven Merchant has mostly stayed out of the limelight, save for a brief cameo as Gareth’s mate Oggy. And although the pair were granted complete creative control over the show, Merchant says he was never tempted to take a bigger on-screen role.

“We were always guided by who was the best person for the role. Also, it’s nice to have someone behind the camera — we’re co-directing but Ricky’s often in the scene.”

In the past, Merchant has commented that Gervais can be a “nightmare” to work with. Surprisingly, he says this situation hasn’t been exacerbated by the show’s two Golden Globe wins.

“He’s much easier to work with now than he’s ever been. He still mucks around, but that’s an important part of the way we work, and where we get some of our best ideas.”

This lack of inflated ego may be because the pair never anticipated international acclaim. “We were surprised that it took off in the UK to the extent that it did, so the fact that it’s been successful in other countries is quite baffling,” he says. “I hope that it’s just because there’s a universality of some of the themes and ideas — the minutiae of office life are broadly the same everywhere.”

While Merchant shies away from comparisons to other classic UK sitcoms such as Fawlty Towers he pronounces himself pleased with the two newest episodes of The Office — in part because they expand on the existing template for the show. “I think the first of the two in particular is not quite what people were expecting. A lot of people thought it was quite dark — not a lot of funny dances or anything like that.”

The two specials, which find the documentary crew returning to Wernham Hogg three years on, also mark the end of the Office saga. The BBC would happily have commissioned further episodes, and at one time Merchant and Gervais themselves imagined the show running for three or four seasons, but any such plans have now been abandoned.

“I think the truth is we’ve got ourselves in a situation where we always envisaged it as having some sort of narrative — more like a film than a sitcom — and we didn’t want to repeat ourselves. We felt if we kept going we’d run out of ideas.”

The office environment itself, while easily recognised, is also somewhat limiting. “It’s very hard to bring in crazy characters and wild plots,” notes Merchant.

Indeed, he worries that this may already have happened. “Sometimes we wondered if we pushed it too far with the dance, or Brent in an ostrich costume — they’re moments that people love, but sometimes we wondered if we’d got too far away from the original idea. But it’s a sitcom, and sometimes you’ve just got to have jokes.”

In a series filled with memorable occurrences, which one is Merchant most pleased with? “My favourite moment is the one at the end of the second series where Tim unhooks his microphone when he’s talking to Dawn. It managed to use the documentary style at its best.”

For now, Merchant is determined we won’t see an Ab Fab-style resurrection a decade down the track — unless, he deadpans, he and Gervais develop “massive alcohol problems”.

Scarily, the only new Office we’re likely to see in the future is a planned American adaptation. Despite the decidedly mixed record of British sitcoms transferring to the US, Merchant is adamant that he and Gervais didn’t want a heavy level of involvement.

“We don’t really think we’re particularly equipped to write about American offices. They seem to be a lot more politically correct — there’s stuff in ours that they just wouldn’t get away with. And we didn’t want to feel like they had to be tied to our vision.”

The role of David Brent in the US version is being taken by actor Steven Carell, best known for his appearance in the movie Bruce Almighty.

“He stole a couple of scenes from Jim Carrey, which is no mean feat,” says Merchant.

“We’ve given it our blessing. It’s down to whether or not NBC likes it, and network television is very unpredictable.”

If it’s successful, will he become fantastically rich? “I would hope so. I want my own private jet.”

Another disincentive for stateside participation is that Merchant and Gervais are now at a very early stage in the writing of their next comic project. Gervais has said that, like The Office, it will be “another observational comedy about a man who says exactly what he’s thinking”.

However, the pair don’t plan to return to the pseudo-documentary style that made their name.

“I think the documentary thing is a bit limiting,” says Merchant. “What we will still hopefully bring is the naturalism of the performances and that slightly loose, improvisational feel.”

The story behind the story

Back in 2004, I happened to be in London and the Australian asked me to interview Stephen Merchant, co-creator of The Office, ahead of the broadcast of the final episodes on free-to-air TV. At the time, Merchant and Ricky Gervais were working on Extras, though not much was known about it. The interview never got a run, an occupational risk with newspapers.

Reading this back, my assumption that the US version of The Office would flop proved ridiculously wide of the mark. It ran for 201 episodes. The David Brent character was eventually revived in the 2016 film David Brent: Life On The Road, though tellingly Merchant was not involved.

Image from Wikimedia Commons

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