RICKY Gervais has a pinpoint memory of the first gut-punching review of The Office.
“It was in the [Evening] Standard, the day after the first episode was shown, and it said, ‘Summer stinker: Unfunny. Boring. Gervais sometimes fluffs his lines’,” he recalls, flashing a smile.
Practically horizontal, feet resting on the desk in the lofty, unfussy office where he works — a gesture pleasingly reminiscent of his alter-ego David Brent — the slight is shrugged away today.
“I post that review now and again on Twitter,” adds Gervais, who co-wrote the mockumentary series — now, of course, a cult favourite — with Stephen Merchant.
“I thought, ‘It’s his opinion’. I started with the backlash. It was good, got me used to it.”
A decade-and-a-half on and the 55-year-old is taking Brent’s middle-management-speak and ill-judged jokes to cinemas with his new film David Brent: Life On The Road.
The plot sees a camera crew hitch up with the former boss, as he lives out his dream of being a rock star with his band Foregone Conclusion, roping in session musicians to take his songs on a self-funded micro tour of the Berkshire area.
Originally written off the back of the 1990s trend for fly-on-the-wall documentaries, early reality star Brent is now at odds with the current breed of warts-and-all personalities, who’d sell their grannies to be the eye of a Twitter storm.
“Bringing Brent back is nice, because it’s going to show that he wasn’t that bad,” explains Gervais, who has a guitar propped up in his office and has dabbled in band life himself, as one half of (unsuccessful) new wave 1980s band, Seona Dancing.
“He was a bit of a prat compared to the other nice people in The Office, but now he’s in a room full of alpha males, and we’ve had things like The Apprentice since then, where people get on the show by saying, ‘I will destroy anyone who gets in my way’,” he adds of Brent’s big-screen outing. “It’s a harsh new dog-eat-dog world.”
And one which Gervais is adjusting to, too. Born in Reading, the youngest of four children, he studied philosophy at University College London and later met future writing partner Merchant at XFM, where he was then working as head of speech.
Now, he and his partner, novelist Jane Fallon, split their time between Hampstead, Beverly Hills and Manhattan, and though he says he’s rarely beckoned for selfies, fame has meant winding his neck in to avoid attention.
“When you’re not famous, you can annoy your mates in public,” he says with a grin. “But now [if I annoy them] they just go, ‘It’s Ricky Gervais!’ They get their own back.”
Still, the popularity of The Office means his name is known the world over. From the outset, he was certain the series it would strike a chord.
“There had been people that weren’t megastars before, but these were all unknowns. There had been awkwardness before, but this was all awkward. And I thought because I wasn’t an actor, that made it different,” he explains. “It was more about body language. It looked real.
“I didn’t know how it was going to be taken but I wanted some people to think, ‘That’s like my office. I know someone like David Brent’.”
Shown in 98 countries, and given an American remake, he says that subsequently, “everything got better and better and better”.
Exacting in his standards (unusually for someone in the public eye, Gervais is not just on time but a whole hour early for our interview), he admits he’s loosened his grip in recent years.
“Now, because I get final edit, I’m more relaxed about it. Now I ask people what they think. If you know you’re in charge and you’ve got final edit, it’s much more collaborative.
“I don’t want to put my hand up to ask permission. It’s much better to be in charge than second in command or third.”
Being the boss means taking ultimate accountability for any misfired jokes too. Even as sometime host of the Golden Globes, where he’s cast caustic volleys towards the famous audience, many of whom are his friends, he is resolute.
“I wouldn’t want to hurt someone’s feelings for something if it was unnecessarily harsh, but they’re jokes,” says Gervais, who is also known for his series Extras, Derek, and Life’s Too Short.
“I’m not trying to undermine the moral fabric of America or ruin their night. I’d rather people laugh, but if they gasp or it’s too close to the bone but it’s true, then so be it.”
Not known for fence-sitting, he nevertheless gives some subjects a wide berth. “I don’t really get political on Twitter. The only things I touch in politics are freedom of speech, religious freedoms and animal cruelty,” says Gervais.
“I don’t really do party politics, or saying I support this or that. Not that I don’t think you should talk about it, but because I’m not interested in it. I don’t know enough.”
But is he interested in reprising Brent longer term?
“Never say never,” he says, before adding... “I don’t know if we can take Brent at 60 still trying to be a pop star. It’d be too sad.”
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