Beeb gets all boss-eyed

Television - Andrew Billen unearths a gem on dead-end office life in Slough

The Office (Mondays, 9.30pm, BBC2) is the funniest comedy since Marion and Geoff. The office in question is located on a trading estate in Slough, for which Betjeman's friendly bombs never did come. From here, the bored and incompetent administer the distribution of plain paper, huge stocks of which lie in the warehouse beneath them. The show's writer-directors, Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, thus confront the writer's terror of the blank sheet in the typewriter and beat it into gold dust.

The office boss is David Brent, played by Gervais himself. In the opening episode on 9 July, he was told by his superiors that the office would close unless it proved itself leaner and meaner than its twin in Swindon.

This was an unfunny situation, to which Brent responded in the only way he knew: by pretending it was a funny situation. Being funny is Brent's sole contribution to the theory of management. "When people ask me whether I'd rather be thought of as a funny man or a great boss, my answer is always the same: they are not mutually exclusive," he tells us in the second episode. "There is a weight of intellect behind my comedy. If you asked me to name three geniuses, I probably wouldn't go Einstein, Newton . . . [he cannot think of a third scientist]. I'd say Millington, Cleese, Everett."

What is so good about that line - and it is typical - is the overfamiliar omission of the comedians' first names, and also the inclusion of Kenny Everett. Everett is just one clue that Brent, who appears to have modelled himself physically as well as professionally on Jeremy Beadle, has no aptitude for comedy, and may, indeed, suffer a sense-of-humour deficit rather than a surplus. In his constant references to his staff as "mad", there is a hint that he has actually had a nervous breakdown himself. His joking certainly covers something up, and when the underlings make jokes at his expense, they reveal his thin, easily bruised skin. Mostly, however, his joking is not defensive, but part of a desperate charm offensive. Friendless, he wants to be everyone's best mate.

Brent thinks the key to office life is "morale". As well as keeping up an unnecessary level of practical jokes during the weeks of crisis, he takes it upon himself to promise his staff that their jobs are all safe. His deputy, the pitifully status-obsessed Gareth, is greedily realistic about the crisis. "If there is to be a cull," says Gareth, who used to be in the TA, "so be it. That's natural selection." For him, in contrast to Brent, humourlessness is almost a point of pride. He is played by Mackenzie Crook and, physically, he is just extraordinary-looking: haunted, sallow, with the deep purple eye sockets of a man who never sleeps. Like Brent, Gareth has no discernible life outside work. The two of them take work desperately seriously in an office where no one else could really care less. It is their substitute for intimate private relationships.

What is absent from their private lives is a woman's love, which may be why they have such difficulty with the women in the office. Brent does not know how to talk to them at all, his gambits ranging from the obscenely suggestive to the confessional, as when he confides to a secretary that he has a suspected lump in one of his testicles. In an attempt to treat the women to the same culture of practical joking as the men, he calls in his secretary and pretends to sack her for stealing Post-it notes. She bursts into tears and then, realising she has been tricked, retaliates unarguably with: "Such a sad little man!" Naturally, Brent is fated to have as his boss a confident and assertive woman.

He is happiest exchanging furtively sexist banter behind the women's backs with his unseen friend, Chris Finch. Yet he also knows that such badinage is taboo in the grown-up world of bossdom and, hypocritically, gives his staff several pompous-sounding speeches about "sexist" pornography. "'Dutch girls must be punished for having big boobs'?" he reads, finding a pornographic site at random on the internet. "Now, you do not punish someone, Dutch or otherwise, for having big boobs." This is a programme about men who cannot cope with women in the workplace.

The only thing preventing The Office from walking away with top prizes at next year's award ceremonies is its comparative unoriginality. Behind Brent there lurks a little bit of Steve Coogan's Alan Partridge, a bit more of the psychopathic office worker from The League of Gentlemen, and more still of Colin Hunt, the catchphase-parroting know-all from The Fast Show. The production also lightly borrows the conceit of being a fly-on-the-wall documentary, bringing to mind Chris Langham's inferior People Like Us.

But never mind original - The Office is a delight, full of accurately overheard dialogue and wonderfully understated performances. It is hardly being promoted at all by the BBC, which slips it between two repeats in its Monday "Comedy Night" sequence, but the show is destined to be either the next big thing or a cult that will be replayed on devotees' VCRs for years to come.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the London Evening Standard

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2001 issue of the New Statesman, How long have we got?