Why The Office is important

Business as usual at Wernham Hogg

David Brent is set to grace our screens, cinema screens that is, fifteen years after he first graced our screens in BBC’s The Office.

The Office was the first Gervais and Merchant collaboration, first aired in 2001. Taking place inside the Slough branch of Wernham Hogg Paper Company, introducing us to manager David Brent and staff members Tim Canterbury, Gareth Keenan and Dawn Tinsley.

brent 1

Ever the consummate professional

Shot as a documentary on office life, the series contains little nuances to reflect the style. For example if several characters are talking, the camera might reframe itself to encompass all of the characters or at times the camera will hosepipe back and forth to catch what characters are saying. The methods used go further than just trying to catch characters conversations, there are subtle readjustments of camera angle and framing as well as the flickers in focal points and depth of field. All these pull together to create the illusion of spontaneity and the sense that nobody is aware of what’s going to happen next. It feels as if the camera crew are always on the lookout for the next shot.

David Brent provides an opportunity to show how social faux pas can be used for comedic effect, social faux pas or “cringe” comedy is now a staple of British sitcom humour. Brent’s dialogue is often inappropriate and his jokes and anecdotes, which usually have little or no relevance to whatever conversation he decides to hijack, are allowed to fall flat. This again is where the documentary style of the show shines through as the camera pans back and forth to characters reactions and the awkward silence is allowed to linger uncomfortably.

In the staff training episode, during the first series, David is asked to play the role of a customer while the facilitator, Rowan, plays a hotel manager ignoring the customer’s complaints. David’s delusions of popularity come through as he get frustrated when in the role play things don’t go his way and in a childish attempt to gain the upper hand he shouts out “I think there’s been a rape up there” which stuns everybody into silence. However big headed or ignorant David can be he never becomes an unlikable character, the audience sympathises with his ill fated attempts at trying to be the cool boss.

david brent 2

The series does not have traditional storylines for any of the episodes, because the idea is that it is trying to create a believable office working environment. A place where not very much happens and therefore a lot of the dialogue and interactions are made up of monotonous conversations. An example of this is in the first series where Tim, for a practical joke, has put Gareth’s stapler in a jelly mould which sparks off an argument followed by Tim, David and the new team member trying to come up with dessert related puns, this runs for around five minutes of the episode cementing the childish relationship that Tim and Gareth have with one another and emphasizing the mundane and ordinary world in which The Office resides. There are recurring story lines which are interwoven throughout the series such as David’s attempts at being promoted to area manager and the threat of redundancy for the Slough branch.

The office romance between Tim and Dawn is one of the best examples of such storytelling, because characters are aware of the cameras’ presence, shows of affection would be played down due to the feel of being constantly watched. Instead these are substituted by the small glances that Tim and Dawn make when they think the other is not watching and the way they brush past each other just letting a hand rest on a shoulder for a few seconds more than usual. It’s little nuances like this that elevate The Office from just being another mockumentary and ground characters but also let us connect and empathy with them without it feeling forced or faked.

the office dawn and tim

The Office balances the comedic elements with moments played straight very effectively, so that it never becomes one or the other. A particularly well crafted moment comes when Tim lets Dawn know how he feels about her and he takes her into an empty room where the camera films them from outside but instead of listening to what would potentially have been awkward conversation they both unplug their mics and in complete silence we watch as Tim pours his heart out. It’s effective because the audience observes from a distance this private moment without feeling intrusive.

In no uncertain terms The Office has become a staple of British comedy, and is often mentioned in the same breath as iconic BBC shows such as Monty Python’s Flying Circus and Black Adder which is no mean feat and deservedly so. Ultimately it is fitting that David Brent has achieved the level of fame and recognition that only a lone maverick and renegade…and middle manager of a paper company in slough such as himself can aspire to.

Dan P



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