— Ricky Gervais (@rickygervais) October 20, 2015
I don’t blame anyone for reacting cynically to the news Ricky Gervais is making a film about David Brent. Historically, the journey from beloved British sitcom to Hollywood movie has been a walk to the critical gallows.
The League of Gentlemen’s Apocalypse… Kevin and Perry Go Large… even 70s classics like Are You Being Served? and Dad’s Army were turned into insipid feature length versions of their small screen selves.
But there are good reasons to hope Life On The Road – which will follow Brent as he chases his rock and roll dream on self-financed tour with his band 'Foregone Conclusion' – will be prove the exception to the rule, like The Inbetweeners and Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa movies in recent years.
Whatever you think of Gervais’ output post-The Office, whenever Gervais has gone back to David Brent, he has does so without putting a foot wrong.
First there was the Christmas special in 2003 – 100 minutes of, for my money, some of the greatest British television ever produced. It granted its main characters the perfect amount of pathos and resolution without losing any of the painful realism the show was built on. Hearing Brent finally tell Finchy to 'fuck off' and, of course, watching Tim and Dawn have their wobbly happy ending still brings a tear to my eye over a decade later. And crucially both parts of the special were as funny as any of the episodes that went before it.
The next time Brent popped up, besides a brief cameo on the American version of The Office, was in 2013 for a Comic Relief sketch that also had fans wringing their hands in concern. They needn’t had worried. The music video for ‘Equality Street’ (below) – which starred Brent alongside his new rapper ‘friend’ Johnson – was as well-observed and laugh-out-loud funny as any other Brent moment, a brilliant realisation of ‘the best Office episode ever’ in which his musical pretentions were first revealed during a corporate training day.
A YouTube series – Learn Guitar With David Brent – released later the same year was also far better than anyone expected, following Alan Partridge’s Midmorning Matters into the brave new world of digital streaming. Conventionally, comedy sequels involve putting beloved characters into bigger worlds with more characters and crazier distractions. Instead, Gervais paired Brent back to the essentials, casting him in his favoured roles as mentor and 'chilled out entertainer', recapturing the magic of those excruciating 'talking head' segments in the original.
While promoting Alpha Papa, Steve Coogan was quizzed repeatedly about how Alan Partridge – the only other comedy character who inspires comparable affection in Britain to Brent – had remained popular for so many years. He explained how he and his writers were careful to change the character so he moved with the times – evolution, not repetition. They also meticulously tweaked and rewrote the script, including during filming, to ensure it was as pitch perfect as possible – the exact opposite of a lazy ‘cash in’.
Gervais – who has barely given an interview in the past ten years without talking about his lack of interest in ‘fame for fame’s sake’ (or money, of which he has plenty), and his determination to only work on projects that satisfy his artistic integrity – will take a similarly studious approach to rewriting Brent for 2015.
Whatever Gervais has or will do since The Office, the show is his gold-plated entry card to the Grand Hall of Comedy Geniuses, the one irrefutably brilliant moment in his career. The only way he could sully that now is to give people a lesser incarnation of Brent to remember. That he would be frivolous about it is unthinkable.
No comedian has ridden the changing tides of public opinion quite like Ricky Gervais. Arriving to stardom out of nowhere in his late thirties, he went on to epitomise better than anyone the corrupting power of fame or the ‘build ‘em up, knock ‘em down’ fickleness of the British public, depending on your point of view.
He could have made The Office forever. But instead he decided to cap it at 14 episodes to preserve its stature and quality. Whether you believe he is arrogant, un-PC, nasty to movie stars or any of the rest, what Gervais has always been is painfully serious about his art. For that reason, I for one can’t wait for the next outing with the boss from hell.