The (Un)Welcome Return of David Brent

‘But you know that old thing, live fast, die young? Not my way. Live fast, sure, live too bloody fast sometimes, but die young? Die old. That’s the way- not orthodox, I don’t live by “the rules.”’

So said David Brent, the quintessential “boss from hell” who first came to public prominence in seminal BBC comedy “The Office” and is now getting the big-screen treatment in “David Brent: Life on the Road.”

He was a character that launched the careers of creators Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant and gave birth to a new form of cringe comedy that still pervades the genre 15 years later.

First airing in 2001, “The Office” was as much a play on the developing insta-celebrity culture of the early reality TV era as it was an observational comedy about the everyday minutiae of working in an office. It spawned a long-running American remake, catapulted Gervais into the comedy stratosphere and set the tone for comedy in the 21st century.

Yet under the veneer of the mockumentary format, first popularised by films such as “Spinal Tap”, “The Office” was effectively a study of one man’s desperate attempt to be famous, whatever the cost. So there’s a certain sense of incongruity in Gervais’s decision to bring back a character originally intended to ridicule those striving to stay in the celebrity spotlight. Brent was once described by comedian David Baddiel as Ricky Gervais without self-awareness, which is ironic given the circumstances in which he is returning.

stylish men singing a song

The film catches up with an older Brent on tour with his band ‘Foregone Conclusion’, shadowed by a film crew looking to document the fate of the former Slough middle manager. Whilst it’s a believable turn of events for Brent, it suggests Gervais himself is looking for one last hurrah with the comedy creation that put him on the map.

Brent’s transformation in the original series from vain, delusional idiot to slightly more self-aware idiot was a perfectly understated send-off. Yet, here he is, fifteen years later, having ostensibly learnt nothing from the fictional film crew that broadcast his every faux pas to the world in “The Office”.

The film has also been made without the input of long-time writing partner Merchant, who arguably provided a moderating influence over Gervais’ greater excesses and whose absence here hints at potential creative differences in the decision to revive the character. They both boast a patchy track record since their collaborative partnership ended with the mockumentary series “Life’s Too Short” and the mixed reviews for “Life on the Road” suggest Merchant’s presence may be missed.

The film will also have to make do without the relationship of Tim (Martin Freeman) and Dawn (Lucy Davies), which served as the humanising and emotional linchpin of the original series. David Brent, whilst uniquely funny, carried little of the dramatic burden in “The Office”, so it remains to be seen whether Gervais can manage to extract enough pathos from the polarising, grating Brent to support a feature-length film.

There’s not necessarily any harm in revisiting a beloved fictional creation, but for a character predicated on the idea of knowing when to give up the ghost and the comedic potential when they don’t, it needs to be worth the wait.