Netflix – The Office (UK): why watching David Brent is worse than surgery

Not a new series, I know but certainly one that needs revisiting and this blog comes in a timely manner off the back of reports that Ricky Gervais may be bringing his character, David Brent back for a one-off special. I, for one, would meet Brent’s reappearance with mixed feelings as this blog will reveal.

One of the things that I miss about living abroad is British comedy like Have I Got News for You and Would I Lie to You? as two favourites. The witty back and forth, the sarcasm, the surreal – all of them the hallmarks of British humour.

And I know that there are cunning ways to access stuff with VPN but it would be far more convenient if we could find it on one of our streaming subscriptions. Having just watched The Crown and Ripper Street, I was craving a bit of Britishness in the form of comedy and found myself inadvertently drawn to The Office, the attractive goatee of Ricky Gervais as David Brent having popped up on my “Suggestions for You” feed.

After having poured myself a glass of sherry, it was time to settle down with the hubby and have a good old laugh at the antics of Brent and the staff of Wernham Hogg. However, I find that I have to mentally steel myself to what is coming as this is not your conventional belly-rumbling laughter at someone’s quick wit and lightning repartee.

I have to say that watching David Brent is one of the most excruciatingly painful experiences of my life, and I’ve had several surgeries.

For those of you who’ve watched it, skip the next three paragraphs. For those of you who have missed it, firstly, how were those 20 years as a hermit in that deep dark cave? And now, here’s a summary:

David Brent is the manager of a branch of a paper supply company and is played by the then unknown Ricky Gervais. He is a prat, intent on self-aggrandizement and popularity and keen to let everyone see how great he is. Unfortunately, nobody else agrees with him and he is constantly in situations where he thinks he’s brilliant and the stony silences and expression of bewilderment on the faces of everyone around him tell us, as the audience, that he is very self-deluded. He lacks tact, clarity, compassion.

The show is filmed like a documentary following Brent while he does his day-to-day job so there are a lot of monologues where he is talking to the person behind the camera and this is true of other office members like Tim (Martin Freeman), Gareth (McKenzie Crook) and Dawn (Lucy Davis).

These four are the main characters of the programme, Gareth being David’s loyal sidekick whilst Tim and Dawn are nice people who provide the love interest, their ongoing chemistry providing a more light-hearted element when compared to watching David blunder his way through life, making a complete arse of himself.

Summary done. Back to the blog.

Hubby and I were heading towards the end of the second series with only the Christmas specials to go and so, we were treated to the Red Nose Day episode where the employees indulge themselves in some wacky behaviour all in the name of charity. David is in particularly high spirits with the prospect of hilarious shenanigans ahead of them during the day and not a lot of work.

Dawn is offering kisses for a pound and looks delightful with a Princess Leia-style do giving her a girlish quality, presumably in a bid to show Tim that she really is much nicer than Rachel, the girl who Tim has been dating who also happens to work in the office.

Neil, the Swindon boss and the person put in charge of the Slough office, essentially Brent’s usurper, has decided to do a Saturday Night Fever dance to raise money with the aforementioned Rachel as his partner and does it with aplomb, to the delight and encouragement of everyone in the office except Brent, who glowers and struggles to hide his envy.

And so, Brent decides to show Neil up by doing his own dance.

I cannot tell you how excruciating it was to watch him perform whilst also being incredibly funny. His gusto, the variety of moves, the high kicks, his facial expression and the grunting tune that he does under his breath throughout – it is hysterical but it is also so uncomfortable to watch. I repeatedly uttered “Oh no!” in a tone of total disbelief, questioning constantly why does this man not realise that he is a buffoon?

The thing is, too, is that I have seen this before. Many times. But the discomfort was as fresh as if I was watching it for the first time, maybe even more so because I knew what was coming.

Pure bewilderment

I am not a great fan of this sort of humour, preferring word play and sarcasm and dry wit but Gervais and Merchant are masterful in their creation of Brent – it’s like a horror film where you can’t bear to watch but you can’t turn away completely. So painful. I felt the same way about Basil Fawlty, John Cleese’s depiction of a manic hotelier – it’s not easy to watch but it’s compelling.

John Cleese as Basil Fawlty

I think this is why it is worse than surgery.

I’m not saying that I would rather be cut open than watch The Office – that would be over the top – but there is something so bad about the way Brent deals with things that it makes my insides squirm and contort in the most uncomfortable way. Also, it is relentless, wave after wave of embarrassing, tortuous incidents. At least, with surgery, you’re numbed and once it’s done, you’re on the road to recovery; David Brent’s behaviour just seems to get worse and worse until you feel that there can be no more disturbingly shameful episodes. But no! You’re not safe yet! He’s like a chubby British Terminator, using “the means to make you uncomfortable” as his weapon of choice.

And so, thank goodness for the Christmas specials which came soon after the debacle that is David Brent’s dancing. I had struggled up to this point to find any redeeming qualities in Brent’s personality: he is arrogant, he is tactless, he is rude, defensive…the list of negative qualities goes on and on.

In fact, the only time that I have ever felt anything like sympathy for him is when he begs not to be made redundant and you have a glimpse of the insecure, vulnerable person who is probably at his core but gets lost amidst the bluster and self-promotion that he uses to make himself seem better than he is. I actually wanted Neil to give him his job back at that point, awful at it as he is and despite the fact that the only reason he wanted it was because the motivational speakers didn’t want his services.

But in the last Christmas special, Gervais and Merchant give you a chance to like him and for this I will be eternally grateful. I always like to see the good in people, even in fictional characters but Brent had me floundering. For me, the one moment that makes me believe that there is hope for Brent is when he tells Chris Finch to “F*** off” when Finch insults the date that David has brought to the office Christmas party.

Chris Finch or Finchy is an occasional visitor to the office and Brent sees him as his mate, his equal – they are “the lads”. It was quite clear to us as the audience that Finchy looks down on Brent, seeing him as someone to make fun of and that Brent fawns a little when Finchy is around, again wanting Finch to like him. You get the sense that Brent would take what Finchy throws at him verbally because that’s part of their friendship, part of being “the lads” – it’s not to be taken seriously even though Finchy makes Brent look stupid a lot of the time. Does Brent see it or does he choose not to see it? Who knows?

This makes the moment when he stands up for himself and for his date all the sweeter because Finch is not a character to be liked and had it coming. It is all the better for having come from the person that you wouldn’t think would have the spine to do it. It’s a great moment, beautifully executed and satisfying in its unexpectedness. And thank goodness, Gervais and Merchant chose to do this, to show that there is a side to Brent that could redeem him from being a complete idiot for the rest of his life.

It is TV magic, pure and simple, a balm on my discomfort.

And then, to keep that warm fuzzy feeling going, we have the longed-for kiss between Tim and Dawn. The moment when she opens Tim’s Secret Santa gift in the car and she finally realises that Lee is not the man for her, returning to the party to claim Tim as her own is just wonderful and the perfect culmination to the special.

Finally…

It all ends on a positive note, loose ends tied up and hope presented for David and his future, to my utter relief.

And the proposed return of David Brent? Will I be pleased to see him? Well, I’m not sure I’d go that far but I am sort of curious about where he is now and would sort of like to see him back on our screens but I know that finding out, if Gervais does decide to tell us, is not going to be easy viewing.

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