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Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant look back at The Office Christmas Specials, 20 years later

20 years after the two final episodes of The Office first aired, Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant tell Rolling Stone UK how they created a festive classic.

By Simon Bland

(Picture: BBC)

“Chris. Why don’t you fuck off?”

If you’ve never watched The Office, that sentence will mean very little to you. But for die-hard devotees of the BBC’s game-changing comedy series, it represented the moment when David Brent (Ricky Gervais) finally developed a backbone and stood up to office bully Chris Finch (Ralph Ineson) in the second part of two Christmas specials that are now regarded as among the greatest festive offerings to ever grace the small screen.

Turning 20 this month, The Office Christmas Specials not only gave us a festive follow-up to the comedy series but also acted as a satisfying bookend to the whole Slough-set story. Across two perfectly-pitched episodes, writer/creators Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant managed to sweetly conclude Tim (Martin Freeman) and Dawn’s (Lucy Davies) will-they-won’t-they office romance, all while sending the world’s worst boss David Brent (Gervais) off on a surprisingly uplifting note, proving that Christmas miracles do exist.

“I’m still very proud of it,” says Gervais, reflecting on the legacy of both the Christmas specials and The Office itself. Despite experiencing fame before their arrival – including a short-lived pop career and two Channel 4 TV shows – it was Brent who helped him break through. “The Office is where all those big opportunities really started for me,” he tells us. “It was the first thing I tried my hardest at – and I got an A.”

Growing up as comedy fans, Gervais and Merchant were well aware of the power Christmas specials held on viewers and saw them as something to aspire to when developing their own sitcoms. “Christmas TV was a big part of my childhood,” recalls Merchant. “Sitting down as a family and watching a Christmas edition of something felt like an occasion. That’s why we did Christmas specials for Extras and The Office: because they felt significant,” he says. “So the fact that this features on lists of favourite Christmas TV is very pleasing.”

Today, it’s easy to forget that The Office wasn’t an immediate hit. Landing on BBC Two in July 2001, it was famously lambasted by the late Victor Lewis-Smith as a “bore” and took a repeat airing for it to really catch on. By the time season two ended in November 2002, Gervais and Merchant’s no-frills mockumentary about life in Slough’s most mundane paper merchants had bagged multiple BAFTAs and cracked the pop-culture zeitgeist, with Gervais’ irresistibly cringy boss emerging as a new comedy icon. From there, it looked like a third series was a no-brainer – but its creators had other ideas.

“We didn’t want to do a third season because we always thought Fawlty Towers was the paradigm,” says Gervais on emulating the BBC’s 12-episode classic. “We thought the special was a bonus.” Merchant recalls another big sticking point: “We were worried we’d run out of steam. How many more embarrassing faux pas can we have David Brent make and how long is this simmering romance between Tim and Dawn going to go on? There was anxiety around quality control dipping and it not being as good.”

Originally conceived as one long episode but later split in two by the BBC, The Office Christmas Specials aired on December 26 and 27 2003, catching up with Brent, Tim, Dawn, Gareth (Mackenzie Crook) and the rest of the Wernham Hogg office a year after we last saw them. Battling redundancy and swiftly fizzling fame, we find Brent at his lowest ebb while Tim’s still recovering from his awkward attempt at winning Dawn’s heart in series two’s bittersweet finale, with the latter retreating to Florida with her not-bothered boyfriend Lee (Joel Beckett).

“We thought [the hook] could be that the first two seasons had gone out and the characters were now aware of it,” explains Gervais. “Secretly, it was always about fame and comedy. David Brent thought he was a comedian; it was all about ego, being loved and ‘please, please make me famous.’ It was nice to show that things didn’t always turn out well and that he had the wrong sort of fame.” By 2003, these ideas were all too familiar, as Merchant points out: “The reality TV format had become quite set by that point. You’d have shows, a bit of downtime, then they’d revisit the old gang to see what they were up to. It seemed like a natural way of doing it.”

In that downtime, Brent had been busy. Equipped with a modicum of fame, he spends his days repping office supplies (“Who does your tampons?”) and nights making ‘guest’ appearances at dive bars, finding both equally frustrating. It’s a nomadic existence, spent either alone in his car, in cheap hotels or haunting grotty backstage areas, showing us Brent at his bleakest but also his most sympathetic.

“I wanted people to feel it,” says Gervais on bringing Brent down to build him back up. “It was a fake documentary but it had to be real. When people are crazy comedy characters, you don’t care about them when something goes wrong. Whereas if you’ve earned it, it resonates because you suddenly feel responsible,” he argues. “Someone can be an idiot in the office but they might go home and cry for all we know – so I wanted that discomfort. I wanted us to feel a bit guilty about what we do to normal people because they want to be famous.”

That said, Brent’s pain still gives Merchant pause: “I think perhaps we took it too far,” he laughs, remembering part one’s final moments where Brent is left in the back of a cheap club, drenched in beer that’s been chucked over him by disgruntled punters. “I was in a pub playing pool on the night the second episode aired and some guys next to me said: ‘Did you see The Office last night?’ and his friend said ‘Yeah, it was alright but that ending was a bit depressing.’ I wanted to lean over and go: ‘It was a two-parter! Go home and watch the second one – because there’s a happy ending!’”

We also see Brent’s pop-star aspirations and the so-bad-it’s-brilliant music video he funded entirely from his Wernham Hogg redundancy package. “That was inspired by all the ill-fated attempts by TV personalities to launch music careers off the back of whatever moment of fame they had – sometimes with a novelty record and huge earnestness,” says Merchant of Brent’s wince-inducing vanity recording of Simply Red’s ‘If You Don’t Know Me By Now’. “They were always in white linen suits; there was soft focus, mirrors, wispy curtains… It all seemed very of the moment. Now it would be on social media.”

“There’s a bit of an exorcism in that I was a failed pop star and actually went through all that, so that’s funny,” Gervais adds. “It’s funny that he’s way too old to be doing it. It’s also funny that he chooses a really hard, iconic song to sing,” he laughs. “I based it on George Michael’s ‘A Different Corner’ and [Pop Idol star] Rick Waller, who did a video a bit like it.”

Having the idea was one thing but bringing it to life was trickier than expected: “I just couldn’t take it seriously,” admits Gervais. “I put my hair up and wore eyeliner but could see the cameraman going every time I tried to sing,” he giggles. “There’s something intrinsically funny about turning to the camera like it’s meaningful.”

Thankfully, Christmas is a time of miracles – even in a place as dreary as Wernham Hogg – and when Dawn makes a surprise return and Brent hits it off with a blind date before the big office party, fortunes begin to change.

“We were quite proud of the structure of it,” says Merchant of crafting the climactic moment where Dawn discovers Tim’s touching Secret Santa gift, finally ditches Lee and makes a romantic return to him in the office, soundtracked to Yazoo’s ‘Only You’. “I was very pleased with the choice of ‘Only You’. It felt like a song that might actually be played at a Christmas party but one that wasn’t overplayed. We felt we could claim it as ours. Whenever I hear it, I still get quite sentimental about that moment in time.”

Meanwhile, Brent’s magic moment comes when he’s suddenly appreciated for being himself and finally confronts office bully Chris Finch (Ralph Ineson). “I like that search for something that’s under your nose,” says Gervais of Brent’s surprise connection with his blind date. “It was a tiny moment but it meant a lot to him. He was genuinely happy about something he could’ve had all along. I knew I always wanted Tim and Dawn to get together and for Brent to get a little satisfaction and to do that he had to tell the bully to ‘fuck off’ while standing up for the woman he just met who was nice to him.”

Before the specials had time to air, disaster struck when the show’s scripts were accidentally sent to a beauty technician who sold them to the Daily Mail. “It wasn’t so much stressful, it was just fucking annoying,” remembers Merchant of the leak. “We were really fucking angry. I’m still angry about it.”

Thankfully, the incident did little to dilute the show’s impact. 20 years later, both Gervais and Merchant remain satisfied with how The Office concluded. “A few years after they aired, a woman who worked for the ambulance service came up to me,” remembers Merchant. “She’d seen paramedics scraping bodies off pavements and lifting corpses out of crashed cars and never seen them moved. They all watched the Christmas specials and all these tough men and women were in tears. I always remember being touched by that.”

“We might have gotten away with a third series but I liked the idea that we stopped a bit early. I’d much rather that than going on for too long,” says Gervais, looking back. “It was an amazing opportunity. I have very fond memories of The Office and David Brent – and I’m pleased that people still watch it.”