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Stephen Merchant: ‘I would’ve pushed to keep The Office going for a while longer’

As fans continue to revisit The Office Christmas specials, Stephen Merchant and Ricky Gervais reflect on what a third series may have looked like.

By Simon Bland

(Picture: BBC)

Will David Brent live to dance another day? It’s a thought that’s crossed the mind of The Office co-creator Stephen Merchant. Meanwhile, despite fronting one of the most successful British comedies of all time, his creative partner Ricky Gervais admits he hasn’t watched any new comedy in years.

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

Speaking to Rolling Stone UK about the 20th anniversary of The Office’s two-part Christmas finale, Merchant, who wrote and directed both series of the BBC’s game-changing comedy with Gervais, admitted that if he could go back in time, he might continue the show after all.

“If I was in that position again now, I think I would’ve pushed us to keep going for a while longer,” said Merchant when asked if he has ever considered returning for a third series of The Office. “I think we were kind of naive,” he continued. “We were just worried we wouldn’t have any more fuel in the tank but actually, I think we could and probably would have if we’d put our minds to it. Maybe we were a bit too precious with it.”

In the years since The Office ended in 2003, Merchant has helmed several film and TV projects, including 2019’s Dwayne Johnson film Fighting With My Family and two (soon to be three) series of The Outlaws with Hollywood icon Christopher Walken.

He tells us this added experience has given him plenty of insight on “how hard it is to make TV that really engages with people,” but also taught him how to keep things going “without repeating yourself or it becoming stale.” In hindsight, he believes this knowledge might have helped him continue The Office with Gervais for one more outing if he could do it all over again.

Debuting in July 2001, Merchant and Gervais’s mockumentary took us inside an unassuming paper merchants in Slough, with its frequently inappropriate boss David Brent (Gervais) regularly stealing the spotlight.

After two six-episode series, the show concluded in 2003 with a touching two-part Christmas special, having bagged multiple BAFTAs. In 2004, it won two Golden Globes before inspiring a hugely successful American remake starring Steve Carrell that ran for nine series between 2005 and 2013.

Even though the duo’s 14 Slough-set episodes inspired 204 different stories Stateside, the idea of dismantling the show’s perfectly crafted ending for one more series still gives them pause. 

“I’m very pleased and proud of it because I do think it’s a very satisfying ending,” admits Merchant of the series romantic climax where office lovebirds Tim (Martin Freeman) and Dawn (Lucy Davies) finally get together. “Even now, if I see a clip of Dawn returning to the office and kissing Tim, I’m still touched by it. I think we – and the actors – did a nice job.”

Meanwhile, despite having resurrected Brent for smaller projects and the 2006 film David Brent: Life on the Road, Gervais has a more grounded view about returning to the show.

“We might have got away with a third series,” he ponders, “but I think whenever people go back and do another [version of something] that was really successful, people want to watch a season that they haven’t seen before but [one that] was filmed at the time.” 

When it comes to a potential third series of The Office, Gervais is quick to suggest that there’s much more to the equation than simply getting the old gang back together: “There’s nostalgia mixed in with it,” he suggests. “The time you watched it, the age you were… all these things you don’t know make a difference. It can’t go on forever. I still think that Fawlty Towers proves that over and over again,” adds Gervais, commenting on the benchmark set by John Cleese’s 12-episode classic. “It’s better to get out a bit early.”

What’s more, considering how much has changed since The Office’s 2001 debut, Merchant wonders whether Tim’s secret fascination with Dawn would still fly with 2023 audiences.

“There tend to be stricter rules now about office relationships,” he says, comparing Tim and Dawn’s dynamic to the Netflix drama Fair Play, a film with a much more toxic depiction of workplace love.

“The whole premise is [Alden Ehrenreich and Phoebe Dynevor’s characters] are secretly in love and can’t tell their bosses they’re dating and it leads to jealousy and sexual assault,” he continues. “Maybe we wouldn’t be able to do that and that story just wouldn’t be romantic now. It’d be predatory or something.”

As for Gervais, The Office may have helped him carve out a career as one of the most divisive stand-up comics working today (with new special Armageddon hitting Netflix on Christmas Day) but as far as he’s concerned, his time watching comedy is over.

“I don’t think I’ve sat down and watched a new comedy for five years. I don’t seek it out,” he says, telling us he prefers Scandi noirs and heavy drama these days. “I don’t watch comedy films. Whenever I see a comedy horror I go ‘Oh just make it fucking horror!’ I’m a grumpy old man now,” he laughs. “I don’t need comedy. I’ve done it. It’s like a magician watching other magicians. I know what he’s doing.”

The Office Christmas specials are available now on BBC iPlayer. Ricky Gervais’s new stand-up special Armageddon is released on December 25 2023.