Thirteen years after The Office ended, the sitcom’s legendary antihero David Brent is hitting the big screen as a wannabe rock star. Ricky Gervais, who masterminded all of it, talks to Si Cunningham about people who “sell their f**king souls” for fame and why Life On The Road isn’t just for Brent-heads
Ricky Gervais doesn’t want to be taken seriously. The creator of The Office, Extras and Derek, conqueror of Hollywood and atheist equivalent of a comedy god is amusing himself with a couple of limp bananas. Any pretence that this – his first-ever NME cover shoot – will be a stuffy A-list affair goes out of the window when he starts hamming it up, using the fruit as impromptu prop guns. And, as we sit down to ease into the interview, without being asked a single question, he launches into a monologue about fame and what it means to be cool.
“I’ve still got that fear of people thinking I want to be famous for the sake of it. I didn’t want to be lumped in with people who did anything to be famous. I was probably a bit over-precious. Now I don’t care. If you do what you like and try your hardest, you’re bulletproof. As I get older I realise reputation isn’t everything. It’s not like I’m a serial killer and I’m trying to hide it. I’m an alright bloke who’s an entertainer and sometimes tells jokes people don’t like.”
The theme of acceptance, looking to be loved, craving coolness, runs throughout his new big-screen David Brent outing. Life On The Road rides shotgun with Slough’s most famous sales rep 13 years after the last episode of The Office aired and follows his flawed attempt to make it as a rock star.
Gervais explains: “Brent’s been sold a lie. He was told that if you’re not performing, you won’t be popular. And if you’re not popular, then you’re nothing. People don’t think they exist unless they’re in the paper or they’re trying to be a singer. For Brent, it’s a vanity project. But it’s really bad – he’s a man at his lowest ebb.”
A man at his lowest ebb never makes for easy viewing and even though the film’s packed with familiar social faux pas and instantly quotable one-liners, many will recognise Brent as a man in the midst of a mental crisis. If the 2001 fictional Wernham Hogg office was the career equivalent of a lukewarm bath, Brent’s 2016 Lavichem gig is like a cup of cold p*ss in the face. So what’s changed since we last saw Brent strumming his guitar?
“Everyone else is an a**ehole,” insists Gervais. “Since The Office we’ve had The Apprentice, where people get on by saying: “I’ll destroy anyone who gets in my way.” So now he’s in a room of alpha males who are just nasty. It’s harder, it’s more dog-eat-dog. Because elder statesman, people who should be more parental, have said it’s OK. We have Donald Trump saying: “I’d like to punch that person in the face…” It’s like Gordon Gekko has come true. Greed is good.”
As a prolific tweeter, Gervais has this poison-infused, post-Apprentice world under a microscope, along with the Katie Hopkins brand of bile that spews out of it.
“In The Office, I didn’t have other characters blatantly saying: “He’s a prat,” like they do in the film. People now say everything on their mind. It’s like everyone tweets their f**king innermost thoughts. It’s got worse and worse – we give way too much away now,” he says. “There’s a scene in Life On The Road that personifies the fact that everyone’s a mob now, where Brent wants his mate Dom [Ben Bailey Smith, AKA Doc Brown] to use the ‘N’ word. Dom knows he’s not racist, so the first thing he does is look at the camera, worried about his mate, cos he knows it will look bad. And that’s about shaming. Everyone’s f**king shaming these days. The first time I was on Twitter, I’d tweet something and if one person didn’t get something, I’d explain it. But now I go: ‘There’s the tweet, f**king live with it.’
I study people for a living, so Twitter’s good as I don’t actually have to meet these idiots. I can meet them from the safety of my Hampstead mansion, whereas Agent Starling [The Silence Of The Lambs] has to show up to the prison every day.”
It’s been a busy few months for Gervais, putting the finishing touches to Life On The Road, releasing Brent’s debut album and songbook, and planning a series of live gigs. But Britain’s been having a busy old summer, too. Just as Brent’s world has changed beyond recognition, our own world seems to get more and more bonkers. Gervais lets out a hearty sigh when the topic of post-Brexit Britain rears its ugly head.
“What’s depressing are the reasons behind it. There’s obviously a fraction who are xenophobic and racist, but that’s the way of the world. People blame foreigners. It’s terrible. The truth is, we would’ve been better in. They’re not going to get the Britain they want. They’re dreaming. What do they think it’s going to be? They’re going to go back to f**king Victorian times? They’ve been sold a lie; their life hasn’t turned out like they thought and they’re blaming someone. And now they’re gloating about it. I don’t know what this England is they think they’ve got back. I really don’t understand it. I don’t want to call them all racists, because they’re probably not, but some are. Ignorance is the real enemy.” Yet for all the post-Brexit doom and gloom, his own rags-to-riches story makes him cautiously optimistic for those growing up today.
“We still live in pretty much the best era ever for opportunity,” he insists. “If you can read, you can know as much as anyone that’s ever lived, because they’ve written it down for you. When I was growing up on the Whitley estate in Reading, we had no money. I knew I couldn’t have bikes and trainers, but I could have books. So that’s what I did. I learnt everything about the world. I watched Horizon. I f**king soaked up knowledge. Ability is a poor man’s wealth – it’s good that, innit?” he adds, with more than a touch of the Brents about him.
What does seem to irk him is society’s increasing propensity for sh**ting on the little guy. “It’s that Simon Cowell thing, isn’t it?” he muses. “Is it cruel to be kind? Because you know, as much as Cowell’s filming this for his own ends, sometimes you wanna go: ‘No, he’s right, she’s not going to make it. Tell her to stay in school and get a job.’ But then again, who is he to crush someone’s dreams? Some people spend all their hard-earned cash on comics, which I think is daft, but who am I to say that? We all spend our money on what we want because we’re all different. I don’t want to crush someone’s dreams, but I don’t want them to waste their life either. Even when I’m laughing at someone who’s basically clutching at straws, they’re still a real person. Like with Brent. He’s got real feelings. He does see the sniggering.”
So who’s responsible for this theatre of shattered dreams? Is it Cowell, or is it the hashtag-wielding mob at home? “I’ve got nothing against Cowell really. If you’re daft enough to buy a cure for something that’s so obviously snake oil, then you know… Listen, I’ve lived off the back of satirising reality and documentary. The Office was inspired by those quaint docusoaps of the ’90s where ordinary people got their 15 minutes of fame. But fame is different now – people live their life like an open wound to get another 15 minutes every day. Nothing is enough. People sell their f**king souls, and they sell their bodies, just to stay famous. They become famous for nothing, or for terrible things. They’ll show their breakdowns, their addictions, their break-ups. How many times have you seen someone who’s had a really bad time – they’ve fallen from grace or they’re desperate – and they go in the jungle? They say: ‘I just want to change the public’s opinion of me.’ Why? F**k the public! It’s like therapy, but the worst kind possible. It’s never going to be good for you. We’re laughing at their delusions.”
Yet for all Brent’s delusions of touring success, the accompanying album is very real. “The album’s not a comedy album,” insists Gervais. “The songs aren’t ridiculous comedy songs. Brent takes them very seriously. It’s the back story that’s funny. It’s the fact that ‘Free Love Freeway’ was a cracking little pop song. John Cougar Mellencamp could’ve done that. But when you realise it’s a 55-year-old sales rep singing about crossing America and picking up chicks, it’s suddenly funny. Same as ‘Native American’. It’s not a bad tune. The influences on that are probably Neil Young and Bob Dylan, but it’s a 55-year-old rep thinking he’s cured racism. That’s why everywhere on the album it’s ‘Written by David Brent’.”
But of course this is an album essentially made by Gervais himself, and he had more than a bit of fun putting it together. “So much fun. So much fun,” he beams. “We probably had 20 days in the studio and every time it was my favourite day. I couldn’t sleep the night before, I was so excited about going to the studio. We were making this as real an album as we could, but we had an ironic get-out clause. So someone can say ‘Oh, this song’s a bit s**t’ – well, of course it is, it’s David Brent!”
Before David Brent, before Foregone Conclusion, there was, of course, Seona Dancing – Gervais’s short-lived synth-pop band. As we approach the subject of him being on the cover of NME, and how he’ll soon be headlining the Apollo, he interrupts: “Your question’s going to be: ‘You were a failed rock star 30 years ago, but now you’ve sort of…’ Yeah, yeah, yeah.” His defence is as robust as the leather on Brent’s Sergio Georgini jacket. “Yeah, I know it doesn’t count. And I want people to know that I know that. I don’t want people to think this is really me vicariously living my failed rock stardom through a fictional character. I’ve just used my knowledge and skills to make it more realistic and better.”
The knowledge is one of truncated tours and playing gigs to empty rooms. Gervais presents Brent’s first gig in the film as exhibit A: “That actually happened to me in my first band, at The Bull & Gate in Kentish Town. We went up and did the sound check and he said: ‘You might as well stay up there, lads, because you’re on now.’ And I said: ‘When do they open the doors?’ He said: ‘They’re open, mate – no one’s come in to see you.’ We did 10 songs to an engineer.”
Likewise, Gervais is keen to play down his short-lived career as Suede’s manager. “It was all greatly exaggerated. I was a failed pop star for six months of the ’80s. But now there’s a video that exists, that pops up on Graham Norton. I did help Suede out, but when I said: ‘I can’t do this any more…’ they didn’t seem that gutted. And then they made it.”
In the vein of Spinal Tap (and Anvil – a “f**king heart-wrenching” favourite of Gervais’s), Life On The Road is a film about the crushing realities of being an aspiring musician, yet it’s full of nods and winks for super-fans of the original Office TV series. Ricky gives no hint as to what became of Wernham Hogg’s other much-loved paper merchants. “We simply don’t know. We don’t know what the future holds. So I try to leave people with a bit of hope… It’s not over until you’re dead.”
Yet he gives a slither of what happened to one of Brent’s closest pals: Nelson, the black Labrador from the 2003 Christmas specials. “Nelson is dead now,” he admits. “We shot a scene for the film where he’s got a little shrine with a picture of Nelson Mandela and a picture of Nelson the dog, and he goes to Dom: ‘Yeah, both called Nelson… Nelson Mandela probably a hero of yours?’ And Dom goes: ‘Not particularly.’ And Brent goes: ‘Yeah, both great in their own way. Both dead. Both black. Both caged – got him in Battersea Dogs Home – so yeah, both great.’ And Dom goes: ‘I don’t think you can compare a dog to Nelson Mandela.’ And Brent goes: ‘Why not?’ ‘I don’t think a dog can become president of an African nation.’ And Brent goes: ‘Well, I don’t think Nelson Mandela could lick his own b***cks, so what?’”
It’s a tremendous moment of improvised Brent-ism that brings back memories of other long-forgotten in-jokes from the long-running TV show. “There’s lots of little nods… you think we’re going to meet Pete Gibbons, but you don’t. It’s little things like that, for real f**king nerds,” says Gervais. “I was even thinking of having Brent play the Coventry conference in the film. I thought it would be funny if you met Eric Hitchmo [have a Google], who it turns out doesn’t even know who Brent is, but it wouldn’t drive the story enough. But also I didn’t want Life On The Road to be just for people who love The Office – 15-year-olds weren’t born, you know?”
Before we finish, Gervais reflects on the man who’s been his alter ego for 16 years. “I like him and I feel sorry for him. I sort of want to hug him but shake him as well. But he’s a nice guy. Everything I’ve always done is slightly existential; it’s always about, ‘Am I leading a good life?’ Comedy at its best is to say, ‘We’re all idiots and that’s alright.’ Just don’t be as big an idiot tomorrow as you were today.”
David Brent: Life On The Road is in cinemas August 19. The album by David Brent & Foregone Conclusion is also out August 19, and the accompanying songbook is out August 11.