Writer, director and comedian Stephen Merchant has recalled creating the acclaimed show The Office with Ricky Gervais, after first meeting in 1997 while the pair worked together at a London radio station.
Merchant later quit his job as Gervais’s assistant and joined the BBC, only to get back in touch when he had the opportunity to create a film with a small crew.
“That became really the genesis of The Office and we were off to the races,” Merchant told BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs.
The mockumentary sitcom, which follows the day-to-day lives of office workers at a paper company in Slough, debuted on BBC Two in 2001 and soon brought international acclaim for its creators.
Merchant said the unique chemistry between the pair – and their 13-year age gap – was key to the show’s success.
“There was an arrogance about us,” he said. “For me I think it was just, I didn’t know better, I had the arrogance of youth. I think with Ricky he had quite happily got into a groove in life. He felt he didn’t have anything to lose.
“I was quite dynamic and proactive. And I think Ricky was willing to walk out of a room if he didn’t get his way. And I would go after him, ‘what are you doing?’ and he would go ‘it’s all a plan, don’t worry’.
“I think maybe because he was in his 30s they trusted him a bit more. He seemed like an adult. I think it was cheap and shot in one location and didn’t involve dragons and CGI and I think they just let us get on with it.”
Despite The Office’s success, however, Merchant said it did not feel like he and Gervais – who also starred in the show as David Brent – were reinventing the sitcom.
He said: “It was one of those things that, there’d been This Is Spinal Tap, and there had been other people who had done fake documentaries.
“So it didn’t seem to us like any great revolution it was just, in retrospect, there wasn’t anything else like it at the time.”
Merchant – a former DJ whose chosen discs included The Whole Of The Moon by The Waterboys, Raspberry Beret by Prince and Babies by Pulp – compared The Office to other sitcoms of the time, many of which were still shot in front of live studio audiences.
“And here comes a show that was very dour and we used to joke about how we would drain the colour out of it so it’d look like it had been lying on a shelf at the BBC for years and they’d finally put it on to fill up some hours.”
Merchant, 45, followed up The Office with another sitcom, Extras, and has enjoyed major success in Hollywood.
Discussing his upbringing in Bristol, he said one of his inspirations was Monty Python star John Cleese.
He said: “I don’t remember where I got this grand idea that I could somehow be John Cleese.
“That was my overriding passion from my mid-teens. John Cleese had grown up in Weston-Super-Mare, not far from Bristol where I grew up, and he was tall and he was very funny and very British and it’s almost like I thought ‘well if they want tall people from the west country I can do that.’”
Stephen Merchant on Desert Island Discs airs on BBC Sounds and BBC Radio 4, Sunday, 11.15am.