Ten years ago this Christmas, The Office came to an end with a two-part special after two full series. The sitcom, penned by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, has since become the most successful British comedy of all time. I spoke to five of the actors, ten years on, about their experiences of the show.
Ralph Ineson, who played Chris Finch
Hi Ralph. How did you come to the part of Chris Finch?
When I was first sent the sample scenes, Finchy came over as a spivvy, cockney, white-boy-geezer type, but it was more interesting to have him as a Yorkshireman and to give him a bullying twist.
I look back on it very fondly, and I’m reminded of it every day of my life. It was a nervous time for me – I’d never done comedy before, as I’d mainly been in drama, so it was quite nerve-wracking.
It was quite cathartic to act as Finchy, but it was also exhausting. To say his lines to people’s faces, it erodes your soul a little bit! I did want a shower when I came home from work to wash the character off.
Did you have any feeling that it was going to become a huge hit, despite the underground start it had?
I don’t think you could ever predict the success it’s had. It would be very strange if you could spot those shows.
When filming series one I talked to Ash [Atalla, the producer] and asked him what he hoped for the show. He said he’d like it to be the new Royle Family – which got nine million viewers on BBC1 and was a cultural phenomenon. Everyone knew it was ridiculous for a little show about people working in an office to achieve success on that scale, and I remember smirking to myself at the suggestion.
Everyone liked the Royle Family because everyone watches TV with family and so it works universally – but families aren’t in offices, so I couldn’t understand how it would be successful on that scale.
How do you look back on the project?
On one level, Ricky and Stephen were doing something very different, as that style of comedy [mockumentary] wasn’t prevalent. It was the first show to do that style. It tooks lots of rehearsal and long takes. It was a very exciting, creative set to be on. Brent’s a fool but he’s a harmless fool who’s misled. They brought Finchy in to show Brent’s not actually a bad guy, compared to Chris Finch.
David Schaal, who played Taffy (Glynn)
Hi David. When you looked at the script did you think it could go far?
No, not at all, I thought it was a load of shit. I was actually annoyed because I auditioned for the part of Finchy. As an actor, one day you’re on top of the universe and the next day you feel like you want to quit – when you’re young there’s not much in between. It’s very black and white.
To me this was another piece of shit job, the daily fee wasn’t great, and it just reminded me that I was a shitty actor and my career was going nowhere. But I was an idiot back then because I didn’t realise how lucky I was.
I was devastated that I got what I considered to be the consolation prize: the warehouse manager, when all I could think about was that I wanted to play Finchy. In the end they just wanted a Northerner for that part.
What was it like working under two unknown writers and directors [Ricky and Steve]?
When he did the warehouse scene – the ‘my dog shagging his dog’ bit – Ricky gave one of my lines to an extra, which pissed me off. The scene had no energy in it, it was boring, so I just laughed all the way through and Ricky was really pleased with that. But my initial reaction was that he doesn’t know what he’s doing, or what he wants.
Then I saw the first episode on TV and I realised – this is actually pretty good. I had a similar feeling with The Inbetweeners [where David played Jay’s Dad, Terry]. I thought: these kids can’t act. But when I watched it back, I realised it was really good.
How did you feel about the comedy of the show?
Ricky’s comedy is one of brutality. The comedy of so many characters – Anne, Taffy – is very brutal, same as in his other shows like An Idiot Abroad. I think he’s a little bit of a misanthrope. Picking on pregnant women [Anne], for instance! There’s something a bit hateful about it; reducing the beautiful act of childbirth to someone ‘blowing his beans up your muff’ (Christmas Special pt.2). That’s quite dark.
Me and Ewen MacIntosh, who played Keith
Did you audition for Keith at the time?
There wasn’t originally a part for Keith, I was just one of the supporting cast. They wanted faces that hadn’t been on TV before, so it was like a documentary.
I was doing a market research job at the time and only doing comedy on the side, so it was a good chance to get away for six weeks, be involved in something that was vaguely creative.
I was working in a call centre and management worked on a different floor, so unfortunately I never came across a real David Brent character in my real working life.
Did anyone have an inkling it was going to be so successful?
We were all vaguely aware that the BBC weren’t that hopeful of it. They had undergone a regime change and it was notorious that the new controller of BBC2 [Jane Root] didn’t rate it, or really understand it. The ratings were losing out to Women’s Bowls, it was such a low key project.
The good thing about it was that the BBC pushed Ricky and Steve out to the studios in Teddington, so they didn’t have to deal with the bigwigs and could get on with the project on their own.
Was there a good atmosphere in the studio?
When Patrick [Baladi, who plays Neil Godwin] came in, it was great because he’s such a strange person. He brought a real energy to it; he’s so different to how you’d expect watching Neil. He was always mucking about.
The show had a great atmosphere, there were no egos, and everyone had lunch together so there was no segregation between cast and crew. I definitely look back on it with fond memories.
Stirling Gallacher, who played Jennifer Taylor-Clark
Hi Stirling. What were your first instincts about the show?
When I first read the scripts I didn’t get it, so I gave it to my husband and he thought it was genius. When we started working it was great fun and I laughed a lot. But I remember thinking it would either come across as very funny, or as one of those sixth form revue projects where you think it’s hilarious but no-one else does.
After episode two of series one, Jane Root, the BBC2 Controller, was on the verge of pulling it, but then the ratings quadrupled after episodes three and four.
How do you think they managed to make it such a timeless project?
Ricky and Stephen were very smart about not overdoing it – they weren’t at all keen on doing the Christmas specials. The BBC wanted another series and everyone felt so strongly about Dawn and Tim, but they were hugely reluctant to give them a happy ending.
The specials were their compromise. But they didn’t get caught up in the hype, and given it was their first big hit, it was a really brave, smart move to limit the show.
Did you feel any affinity to Jennifer Taylor-Clark?
I didn’t believe Jennifer would tolerate Brent as much as she did – I wanted to play her much harder. It seemed she had known Brent for a long time and she knew he was a prat, but on the other hand part of her thought he had a good heart…though I couldn’t see it!
Robin Hooper, who played Malcolm
Hi Robin. Presumably the show felt just like any other normal job at the time?
Yes, for me it was just about going in there to do your job. You don’t ever think you’re in a hit series. I had such a small role that I spent a lot of time eating biscuits in a small room waiting for my scenes!
After the success of the show ballooned, I was getting invited to all these glamorous parties. ‘Why on earth am I getting invited to them?’ I thought. I hadn’t watched most of the show myself and now people were stopping to talk to me.
Did Ricky and Stephen, two unknowns back then, come across as very professional?
It was clearly a terribly important project to Ricky and Stephen. They spent so much time writing the script, but the BBC didn’t care much for the first series. There were also two other series based on an office environment which got cancelled at the same time.
Ricky was in his early forties and hadn’t really got anywhere, and Martin Freeman hadn’t yet come out of drama school – no-one really knew what to do with him. People thought he was quite weird really.
Was it hard working with Ricky in a serious capacity?
It was so difficult not to react to Ricky ad-libbing his part. One scene was twenty-two takes of non-stop laughing. The whole scotch egg bit [with Keith] took a long, long time.
The reason why the show works is because David Brent is completely human. He’s an absolute prat, but he’s human. We all know somebody like him, whether it’s our father, our boss or our lecturer.