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Slough of despond

Pete Smith on the disturbing reality of The Office world.

Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant have come up with a brilliant concept in The Office which deservedly picked up two awards at the Golden Globes. Set in a paper company on a Slough trading estate, it centre stages David Brent (played by Gervais) as the office manager.

Brent is a monster. He is a bully, but also desperately wants to be liked. He sees himself as an entertainer as well as the boss. The fat kid in class who longs to be liked. Bill Clinton, for example.

The first series of The Office passed me by - I do not know why - so I only picked up on it on DVD much later. Therefore I did not get it when work colleagues started putting staplers in green jelly.

The show is an interesting piece of would-be social commentary. Wernham Hogg (the company) is a classic product of the Thatcher, Major and Blair years. Ruthless, bottom line orientated but presenting the pretence of being people centred. We all know that the biggest pretence in personnel departments and much laughed about in a gallows humour sort of way is that 'our most valued resource is our employees'.

In some ways, The Office only became possible post-1997. All the double talk and spin set the tone. David Brent could easily be a cabinet minister under the present regime. He has a sense that he is special and beyond the usual limits on human behaviour. Brent blunders at every turn, particularly in relationships with others. Sexism and racism come naturally to him, but he is oblivious to what he is saying or doing.

In the first series, the episode on the training day where Brent goes home to get his guitar is particularly gruesome. It is impossible to know whether to laugh or cry. Whenever I have watched it there were points when I have had to look away. Brent is a terrible person, but it is hard to know whether to hate him or sympathasise with him when his schemes and pretensions all go awry.

When the Swindon and Slough offices are merged, Brent finds himself sidelined and under increasing pressure from more and more intrusive management. Redundancy becomes more or less inevitable. The experience of countless professional, semi-professional and white collar workers could not be more clearly summarised.

Although the series is built around the Brent character, the other inhabitants of the office are just as crucial to the way it works. Gareth, with his cadaverous looks, obsession with the Territorial Army and compulsive (though unsuccessful) womanising. He is just as much a monster as Brent. It also features a character in a wheelchair and three strong women.

It might be the case that most people live lives of quiet desperation, but the thing about the inhabitants of The Office is that they refuse to be quiet. Their weak and frustrated lives are paraded in front of us in all their gruesome detail. Some of them evoke our sympathy, others our contempt.

Because Brent is by turns a thug and a whimpering pathetic, he is unable to really capture our sympathy. I am sure that most of us have worked with managers who feign concern but will drop you in it in a moment if it is their perceived self-interest.

The world of The Office is a world I do not want to live in, and I guess that it is a world that most of us do not want to live in, but needs must when the devil drives. The cynicism of the office politics, the backstabbing and the refusal to treat colleagues as anything other than a means to an end is genuinely disturbing. As I think Kant put it, "of such a crooked timber as humanity nothing straight can ever be made".

The phenomenon which is The Office has only been possible because of the rise of reality television. No studio audience, no laughter track, the semi-documentary style and the running comments to camera are all a product of 'real' TV. We should have realised that Big Brother, I'm a Celebrity etc would change the face of TV forever. Not just comedy (though I'm not sure that The Office is a comedy) but drama as well. Once you understand how real people speak, talk and relate, the old world of theatrical style performances was doomed. In that sense The Office is the new world not the old one. It makes shows like Friends or I'm Alan Partridge look dated, even though they remain funny.

There is no way back from The Office. Although there is a way back from Slough. The opening titles are so bleak, as the camera tracks towards the Slough trading estate that one cannot help being reminded of the John Betjamin, "come friendly bombs" and so on.

The Office is full of people who are hopelessly alienated. They find no satisfaction in their work lives but seem dispirited in their personal lives as well. A receptionist feels that her life has been wasted, compared to people she was at school with, and a dropped out university student who harbours the fantasy, at the age of thirty, that he will go back.

The dreary workaday world of mundane administrative life is finely captured. Even the rough and uneducated characters who inhabit the warehouse seem to have more life to them than those whose lives are built around keyboards and computers.

The disturbing thing for many of us is that the world of The Office is our world.