Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Twilight of the tea trolley

This piece by me was in Saturday's Guardian.

Here is something to make you wonder where the years went. The first episode of the BBC sitcom, The Office, went out ten years ago, on 9 July 2001. Screened on a midsummer Monday evening and sandwiched between repeats of The Fast Show and Have I Got Old News for You, it was launched with no great fanfare and attracted just 1.4m viewers in each of its first three weeks. As Ben Walters points out in his British Film Institute book about the sitcom, only one other new BBC2 programme scored lower in that year’s Audience Appreciation index: women’s bowls. The Office was a takeoff of the then ubiquitous formula of the docusoap and many viewers did not realise it was a comedy. The soon-to-be BBC Chairman, Gavyn Davies, was an immediate fan but his wife, Sue Nye, who ran the office of the chancellor of the exchequer, Gordon Brown, initially thought it was a documentary.

Nowadays, of course, that downbeat, understated style is the industry standard and the “fourth wall” sitcom, performed in front of a live audience like a play on a proscenium stage, seems painfully old fashioned, except when it is being affectionately pastiched, such as in Miranda. But in 2001 people needed to be taught that The Office was funny. “We are living in a new golden age, but this time it is the golden age of a much colder, cynical and more cliqueish kind of entertainment,” wrote Graham McCann, the biographer of Morecambe and Wise, in the Financial Times. “For every viewer who savours each awkwardly tender exchange between Tim and Dawn, and laughs aloud at the sheer awfulness of David Brent, there are several more who shake their heads and protest: ‘I don’t get it.’” We used to laugh at sitcom characters on the understanding that nothing really awful would happen to them. The Office tricked viewers into letting down their guard, and laughing at characters who turned out to be rather vulnerable and tragic. That was something new.

In televisual terms, then, 2001 is a long time ago; in the real world of the office, though, nothing much has changed. Although the computers look a bit ancient, that open-plan office in Slough still looks eerily familiar. And that is what The Office was partly about: the gap between the managerialist rhetoric of modernisation and change, in which employees had to sit through suffocatingly well-meaning “training days” and identify “strategic goals” in their annual appraisals, and the mundane reality of typing away at a workstation in an anonymous out of town office park and then suddenly noticing that ten years have gone by.

In fact, I seem to remember that it was about a decade ago that we were all being told that new technology was turning the idea of being chained to our desks from nine to five into an anachronism. Adverts for laptops and 3G phones all suggested that we could avoid the daily grind by being mobile and remotely accessible. The office has long attracted these valedictories. In his non-fiction book, The Office, published in 1970, Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy wrote that it was “a large squat nanny, waiting comfortably there to gently fuss me with all the details of her tiny, cosy world”. For Gathorne-Hardy, this twilight world of tea trolleys and loyal retainers seemed like the last refuge of a backward-looking nation in gentle decline. But the office was still there in 2001, and it is still there now.

So yes, a decade on, they are all still working in that dilapidated tower block on the Slough Trading Estate. The Wernham Hogg paper merchants has ridden out the recession because that is another thing that was supposed to happen and never did: the paperless office. As the need to keep employees on message has created an avalanche of ritualistic emails and incantatory memos, the demand for paper has soared. Gareth has been promoted to regional manager and regularly watches The Apprentice for tips on business leadership. David Brent still hangs around, doing bad impressions of Michael McIntyre, even though he was sacked years ago. And Tim is still talking about leaving to study psychology at university, but the £9000 fees have put him off. Fortunately, he is now married to Dawn and they have found love and happiness away from the office.

1 comment:

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