The opening credits to The Office were the only part of the show to be filmed in Slough. Everything else was shot in an office building in Teddington, on the outskirts of south-west London. Several years later, I interviewed for a job in that building, where I would work for almost five years. Every now and then, I’d walk into a room or look up from my screen and feel a weird sense of déjà vu.
Once a week I’d be called into a senior manager’s office that was, if not David Brent’s actual office, all but identical. The company I worked for even sold paper (OK, magazines), as Wernham Hogg had done. I remember eating a Double Decker in a stairwell one afternoon – never let anyone tell you journalism isn’t a glamourous business – and realising it was the very spot where David Brent and Gareth Keenan leave a wheelchair-using colleague to wait during a fire drill.
Occasionally, we would acknowledge that we worked in a building that had been chosen as the archetype of the depressing office. I remember vacuum-packing a colleague’s phone one lunch break (and calling it when he returned to his desk, obviously) in homage to Gareth’s stapler.
Twenty years after it first aired, I can’t watch The Office without searching the background of each shot for things I recognise: the rows of Viking Direct desks between off-white columns, the glass panels with flimsy blinds, the windows that were just windows into other parts of the building.
Then again, a big part of the success of The Office in 2001 was the fact that almost everyone else worked there, too. The quiet, beige-on-greige environment was instantly familiar to an audience that spent 40 hours a week somewhere exactly like it. One of the show’s best and bleakest jokes is the line in which David Brent tells a group of his colleagues: “You will never work in a place like this again.”
Even the show’s cast, most of whom hadn’t been on TV before (famous actors would have dispelled the sense of a documentary), worked in a place like this. Ewen MacIntosh, who played the fabulously impassive Keith, was an employee at a call centre around the time of filming.
The office itself also helped to keep The Office going financially. Ricky Gervais and Steven Merchant have said that the BBC wasn’t keen on the series at first, and that some executives pushed for it to be cancelled. It is said to have had the worst focus-group rating of any show. But it was cheap to make, partly thanks to the lack of a studio set.
This, too, is one of the reasons why offices became identical, and why the premise translated so well to France (Le Bureau), Finland (Konttori), Chile (La Ofis) and the US, among others – because they were cheap. The open-plan office was where two of the great economic influences of the 20th century – reinforced concrete and the computer – combined, creating millions of almost identical buildings around the world. The tech “campuses” of Silicon Valley may have more juice bars and art installations than the office blocks of Slough, but underneath they are all big, cheap places to arrange lots of desks.
Watched in 2019, the only visual elements that made The Office look dated were the phones and the boxy grey monitors. But after a year in which most of the information economy moved into people’s homes, it now looks like another world. The corporate environment – not just the filing cabinets and carpets but the clothing and the behaviour – is imposed on the characters in a way that now seems all the more ridiculous because it was so unnecessary. Of all the characters, only Keith – whose apathy in the face of a pointless appraisal is still wonderful to behold – seems really to understand.
There may be no going back to the world of the office. While lobby groups (largely comprised of property developers) ask the government to help urge a return to the same buildings, a new study of open-plan offices finds they contribute to higher stress levels and lower psychological well-being. Most people want to mix their time between the company desk and their own, but the pandemic has dispelled the illusion that working requires being at work.
There is certainly no going back to the office in The Office, because the building has been bulldozed into the ground to make way for luxury flats. The development’s website makes no mention of its connection to David Brent, although it does, like him promise that “a life like no other” can be had in a location just like everywhere else. Perhaps they’re both right.
[see also: Why we should celebrate the demise of the office]