Before the first episode went out, 20 years ago today, The Office looked like just another BBC2 sitcom. Its species was still common enough in 2001. In fact, its fly-on-the-wall, “mockumentary” style seemed a little out of date, riding in on the coattails of its stablemate, John Morton’s People Like Us, which had concluded to some critical acclaim and a standard level of audience appreciation. Ricky Gervais — who wrote, directed and starred in The Office — had been associated mostly with Channel 4’s rather dodgy satire, The Eleven O’Clock Show. And the concept just seemed mundane. There was no big idea — just ordinary people working in an ordinary place. It didn’t seem that important.
But immediately after the first episode aired, it was clear that The Office would defy these mediocre expectations. I was working in the TV industry, and I remember an unusual flurry of surprised, word-of-mouth recommendations pinging round the pre-social media internet the very next day. Gervais had taken the mockumentary genre pioneered by Morton — with no laughter track and an unseen supposed documentary camera crew — and rocket-powered it.
There were big laughs to be had in The Office, but much of its excellence was found in smaller moments located in the excruciating gap between the characters’ projected self-image and the tawdry reality. Unlike the hapless Roy Mallard of People Like Us or the often-surreal Alan Partridge, David Brent, Gervais’s character, made your entire body clench with mortifying shame. He thinks he is a cheeky barrel of fun who keeps everyone else’s spirits up. “You will never work in a place like this again,” he says. “You’ll never have another boss like me, someone who’s basically a chilled-out entertainer.” Meanwhile it’s obvious to everybody that he is weapons-grade cringe.
But we loved him. After a very shaky start, the ratings for an unusually swift repeat of the first series jumped up, and the final episode got the highest figures of Christmas 2003, now on BBC1. Then, The Office’s enormous success transformed British comedy forever. While it had always had an element of cringe, from Twelfth Night’s Malvolio to Basil Fawlty, cringe now went from being one of the side plates to being the main course. Awkwardness had to be a central feature.
For the next two decades, most of our comedy successes (with two notable exceptions) have been riffing off The Office’s template. Peep Show, The Thick Of It, Gavin and Stacey, Friday Night Dinner — they are all comedies of embarrassment and verging-on-painful unease, filmed entirely in real locations with no laughter track, and greater or lesser amounts of men’s clumsiness and gaucheness. (In fact, there’s a curious cultural disconnect between how we exhort men to open up about their emotions for the sake of their mental health, and then laugh at them when they do.)
But we have cringed too much for too long. At its best (Gavin and Stacey, Derry Girls), cringe comedy revels in the silly little ways we socialise. The terrifying pub quiz and Red Nose Day episodes of The Office set the gold standard for this. At its worst, cringe comedy is ungenerous, snarky and sneering: take the passive-aggressiveness of Louis Theroux with a guileless expression, trying to trip up one of his victims.
And this is the side that has become dominant, though also darker and snarkier to still have an impact. We are beset, today, by low-on-gags comedy-dramas, often set far from the workaday world of Wernham Hogg. The Office now looks almost sweet and innocent by comparison.
There is a weary and wearying sneer to Channel 4’s recent Back, the latest offering from Mitchell and Webb, which is almost entirely cringe and very little com. “As drearily British as Brexit!” gushed the Guardian’s five-star review, which really tells you all you need to know about this grim, wan tale of “broken masculinity”. Hi-de-Hi! it ain’t.
But British comedy wasn’t always like this. Mainstream, studio-based sitcoms with a live audience and a broad appeal were the mainstay not so very long ago, before technology fragmented society. There were hours of this stuff, good and bad, dotted around the schedules. Now, the communal, uplifting, broad belly laughs of the studio sitcom are regarded as terminally dated and naff. Tellingly, Extras, Ricky Gervais’s project after The Office, was about the cringe of making such a show — shop-floor comedy When The Whistle Blows, with its catchphrases (“Are you ‘avin a laugh?”) and stock characters (the thick one, the brainy one). Meanwhile, the astonishing ratings success of Mrs Brown’s Boys and Miranda (the notable exceptions from before) didn’t register in the zeitgeist of creatives. It’s as if their eyes can see them, and their brains register the information, but they never act on it; they never think of tailoring their output to what people actually like, rather than what they think people ought to like.
This current lack of uplifting, mass-appeal comedy has lent a curious sheen to the forgotten staples of old. I recently revisited Me And My Girl, an Eighties ITV studio sitcom about a single father and his teenage daughter. It’s the kind of uplifting, jolly fare that seemed ho-hum back then, but which now looks like a work of staggering genius: it has a lightness of touch, likeable characters, a warm heart and, crucially, lots and lots and lots of jokes, with a very high strike rate.
Unfortunately, the supposedly important, talkative demographics who hold huge sway decided such stuff was rubbish, so we chucked it. This despite the fact that nobody much is watching the supposedly important people’s programmes: the most recent Alan Partridge struggled to raise a million viewers on Friday night prime time. Prestige has become more important than getting bums on seats. Meanwhile Dad’s Army, on its zillionth repeat, is still often the highest-rated show of any kind on BBC2.
Producing a show so bouncy and cheering — light, but with just enough ballast to keep it from floating off like an untethered balloon — turned out to be a special kind of alchemy. And it has become almost impossible to recreate deliberately what had happened by accident. But, then, TV channels can only pour out of a jug what is going into the jug. Wider cultural and social changes have ripped up the desire to make populist comedies. And you can’t produce something the viewers would like to see if nobody wants to make it.
In fact, Ricky Gervais said last year that The Office would not get made today, as any kind of nuance and context is too much of a risk in the age of the Twitter mob. We forget at our peril that laughter is a vent for the release of steam under pressure.
When I started out in television in the mid-Nineties, it was a very different place. The prestige, progressive TV sector — middle-class and socially conscious — was still boxed off, and regarded with some suspicion by executives whose main concern was snaring large audiences. You might still encounter “creatives” who didn’t have a university degree. Such people are now vanishingly rare.
The very idea that TV is primarily entertainment and diversion is now looked upon with suspicion. Something of supposed social value has to be attached. And it is nearly always the same thing, coming from the same middle-class, Remain-y place, with all its cemented doctrines, dished out as if it were the original and startlingly innovative telling of truth to power. Recently the Daleks, Inside No. 9 and even the BBC adaptation of The Pursuit Of Love gave us a good scolding for Brexit. This is not art, not even low art, but mutual masturbation.
There was always a gap between the people who make television and the people who watch it. But that has now become a chasm, as with many other areas of public life. Viewers are low-status and embarrassing. They need to be jolly well educated, whether they like it or not. The mass audience, though, can smell this stuff a mile away, and it finds something else to do. It doesn’t want to sit down after a hard day’s work only to be scolded. It’s no coincidence that the biggest TV hits — Strictly, Bake-Off, Love Island — are not trying to improve or lecture people; the dropping off in viewing figures is not solely the result of technology and the proliferation of choice.
So While The Office revolutionised TV comedy, it also ruined it. It wasn’t trying to improve us. In fact, it depended on us being a bit silly, a bit worn-out, a bit impatient with the way things are — but never all that committed to change. Just like its characters, that is. And if it were to want to make a comeback, it would have to sack off the sneer and snark, and start loving the office workers of Slough, again.