David Brent is back and on the big screen

David Brent's on the road again... Film Critic Tony Earnshaw talks stardom and musicality with Ricky Gervais.

On the road: Ricky Gervais as alter-ego David Brent.
On the road: Ricky Gervais as alter-ego David Brent.

Love him or loathe him, Ricky Gervais is a modern phenomenon.

The same could be said for his alter ego David Brent, the cringe-worthy wannabe celebrity whose various faux pas and off-colour opinions have made him one of the most watched figures in TV history. The word ‘cult’ could have been coined for him.

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But, what’s this? The return of David Brent in a new movie, almost 15 years after The Office emerged on British screens? Is Gervais scraping the barrel, desperate to recapture past glories and perhaps destined, like AbFab duo Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley, to have a filmic legacy that’s barely worth remembering?

No, says Gervais. Not at all. And in David Brent: Life on the Road – which Gervais has written, directed and stars in – we see the evolution of his most famous character. What’s more, this is most definitely not a lazy rehash of The Office.

“This guy had a little bit of fame at the turn of the century by being on a TV docu-soap and now what’s he doing?” says Gervais as the socially inept Brent, one of life’s premier grotesques, is revealed to be working as a travelling salesman for toilet products.

“He’s a real Z-lister, but in his mind he thinks he can do it and make it big. He’s still famous enough for people to remember he was a prat but he’s not famous enough to do anything with it.”

Much has been made of Brent’s age – he’s now 55, the same as Gervais – and that he’s clinging on to a rapidly fading dream of being a rock star as the frontman of his band Foregone Conclusion. But that’s where the similarities end, says his creator.

“Brent’s been sold a lie,” says Gervais. “He’s been sold a dream and he wants it and he hasn’t quite got it, but what I like about him is he never gives up and we explore that quality in the film too. He falls over for our pleasure, but he stands back up, dusts himself off and has another go. He’s a bit of a man-child and he is clutching at straws, but I like him.”

The appeal of Gervais is intriguing. His fearless (read ‘in your face’) and controversial verbal annihilation of the Hollywood elite via his innuendo-ridden hosting of the Golden Globes has earned him as many detractors as supporters. Mel Gibson definitely isn’t a fan. And his frequent appearances in movies, playing himself or a variation of the Brent persona, begs the question as to what he brings to the table. The answer is the appeal of Brent and The Office, which, after a wobbly start – the series was almost canned – became a worldwide smash.

But there have been blips. Gervais may wish to draw a veil over his calamitous guest spot at Live 8 in 2005 when, on stage to introduce R.E.M. before a global audience of billions, he singularly failed to engage with the crowd until he performed Brent’s notorious dance. (“Who said ‘do the dance’?” asks Gervais as his jokes fall flat.) Or a well-planned mini sketch that resulted in a roar of approval?

The return of David Brent has been a long time coming. Gervais revisited him a few years back for the tenth anniversary of The Office and then via a six-minute Comic Relief sketch. From that – and courtesy of an adlib in an episode of The Office that conjured up a political reggae song entitled ‘Equality Street’ – Gervais penned several more songs a la Brent. A gig was arranged with a bona fide band. Then the light bulb went on.

“I thought, ‘Why would David Brent have this amazing band?’ Then I realised: he’s paying for it. It’s a vanity project. He’s haemorrhaging cash, cashing in pensions, and that was the idea for the movie. He’s a man so desperate for fame that he’s been spending all his hard-earned money over the years on just one more shot.

“He hasn’t changed a lot. What’s changed is the world around him. In those days he was 39 and he was the boss. He was a bit of a prat but he was working with nice people. Now the world is harsher, he’s not the boss, he’s 55 and it’s full of alpha males.”

Life on the Road is also built on a new cast. Gone are Mackenzie Crook and Co from Wernham Hogg and The Office. In comes Lavichem and Foregone Conclusion with Jo Hartley, Ben Bailey Smith (as rapper Dom, awkwardly sharing a stage with Brent) and ex-Razorlight drummer Andy Burrows. Together they bear witness to Brent’s naivety, self-delusion and desperate need for approval.

“Brent is like a Frankenstein of everyone I knew growing up and working with and he’s just a very ordinary man who is trying to achieve something he’s not capable of, and that’s quite funny,” says Gervais. “He is older, some would say a little bit wiser. He’s had a little bit of a breakdown. It’s about how he coped with it and how he coped with fame and how he’s still obsessed with it and how he still wants it even though it’s not his friend – and nor is the camera. He thinks it will be different but it’s always out of the frying pan into the fire. He is his own worst enemy and he brings a lot of it on himself, but some of it he can’t help. He can’t help his 
age, where he was born, how he looks. He can’t help some of those things that the world looks down upon him for, but he can help most of it!”

Gervais is clear about one thing: the new movie is not The Office, and he has no intention of resurrecting it.“I always said I would never bring The Office back and I never will. It would be a bit weird to revisit a sitcom with all the same people at the same desks after 15 years. Really hokey and sad.”

Award-winning writer and comic

The Office is the most successful British comedy of all time, shown in more than 90 countries and with seven remakes. Co-written with Stephen Merchant who occasionally appeared in the show, it also starred Martin Freeman and Mackenzie Crook.

Ricky Gervais has won three Golden Globes, two Emmys and seven BAFTAs. His other movies include Cemetery Junction, The Invention of Lying and Ghost Town.

Gervais earned a place in the Guinness Book of World Records for having the most downloaded Internet show of all time.

David Brent: Life on the Road (15) is on saturation release.