Though I don’t believe in God or any form or faction of religion, I do believe in fate. I strongly believe that everything happens for a reason, that every action and reaction is a consequence of a pre-determined destiny. Our self-made episode of The Office is a shining example of just that – every element that combined to make it a possibility was there in my life and it felt like it was there just for that reason.
When I was 15/16 I was obsessed with The Office. I first caught it late one night on BBC2 when the first and second series were being re-run. I set my trusty VCR to pre-record every episode after hearing good things about it. After watching the first episode, I was hooked. I couldn’t quite understand – and still to do this day I’m a little perplexed – what it was exactly that made me so drawn to it. As a fat 15 year old I had no concept of what it was like to work in an office. I think the main attraction, aside from the awkward comedy that us Brits are inherently attracted to and repulsed by in equal measure, was the characters. At the centre of the day-to-day motions of a British paper merchant were real people going about their daily lives, just trying to get ahead in a job that none of them – apart from the durable David Brent – really wanted to be doing. It had relatable characters in all too familiar situations but it showed these characters being human. We’re all flawed, none of us are perfect and these characters had the propensity to showcase these flaws and struggles in front of cameras they knew were there. The trepidation induced watching some of the series’ greatest moments were akin to watching a horror film – the fingers covered the eyes and it was unbearable to watch, but that apprehension was always satiated with laughter and a genuine passion for the characters. Though Brent was cringey and at times downright impossible to connect with, he was always the lovable goof with a bit too much self-confidence but a big heart. Even Gareth, despite his attempts at stature in the workplace, is an affable hero in touching moments. And who can even disagree that Tim and Dawn is the greatest modern day love story ever told? Those little touches and looks between each other; when Tim publically asks Dawn for a date fuelled by the belief she is newly single only to be rebuked so painfully; and that final moment when she walks back through the door -beautifully poignant moments between the two were made all the more special because of the voyeuristic nature of the narrative.
In 2003 it was announced that after the second series, a two-part Christmas Special would round the story of Wernham Hogg off and see the end of The Office. Though I was gutted to know there would be no more Brent and Co., I knew that it made perfect sense. End it on a high – the story had already in itself come to an end with David Brent’s fate at Wernham Hogg sealed at the end of series two (in a heartbreaking moment of television) so the special was the perfect opportunity for them to bring the characters’ story to a close. For most of 2003, Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant set about writing, producing and shooting their swansong for The Office.
In the summer of 2003 I was a fat, curly haired, baby faced 16 year old, fresh from finishing my GCSE’s and spending the summer a little directionless as I headed into the unknown realms of further education. You see, I wasn’t your typical 16 year old; I’d rather spend my Friday nights playing football against the wall of Kwik Save drinking Dr. Pepper and eating fries from Caspian Pizza with my mate Naz than sit under a tree in the park with a bottle of White Lightning and a flavoured condom. For that, I was a little bit geeky but I couldn’t give a shit – I loved film, I loved acting and I loved writing. It was and is who I am and I always embraced it from the start; the beautiful thing I have in my life is that a lot of my friends are different to me in that respect but I grew up with them and they always stuck by me, as I did with them. That summer, to fill the gaps of the day and make sure I had a little money to feed my DVD habit, I worked for my Dad during the week most days at his warehouse in Birmingham town centre. He had a wholesale bag company and the warehouse was huge. The unit he was in had a large open warehouse at the back – I mean huge – and attached to that was a small office space. When I first went in it looked more like an air hanger but there was not a thing in there. . . until I walked into the office. The unit originally housed a clothing catalogue company that must have gone bust pretty quickly because they left behind nearly everything that made the office tick day by day. There were files full of documents and invoices, computers, stationery, desks, cupboards, filing cabinets – the lot. As soon as I walked in there I was reminded of The Office straight away. My first thought was, ‘It would be pretty cool to film our own episode of The Office in here’. The idea grew on me for a few days as I spent more time in the unit cleaning it up. I’d be sweeping the vast open space of the warehouse just looking over at the office, drawn to it like some magnetised creativity was pulling me towards it.
One day I just decided to throw the idea out there to my Dad – ‘Can I use that office to make my own episode of The Office with a bunch of my friends?’ He simply replied, ‘If you want to’. That was it – the seed had well and truly been sewn so I set about starting the script. At that point, I’d only seen the end of series two and had no idea what was in store for the Christmas Special. I had no concept of writing those characters outside of their environment so I decided to set this special as David’s last day at Wernham Hogg.
I knew for a fact that I wanted my then partner in crime Richard Dadd to be a part of this – we had always talked about writing something together so now we had the opportunity to actually make something, I knew this would be the right one for us. Richard was just as taken by The Office as I was but he had the added advantage of being a genius. Rich was in the same year as me at school but we only got to know each other during the last two years. Previously I’d only known him as the irritable little shit that used to call me ‘Linton’ because apparently I looked like someone from some breakfast show. When we got to know each other we instantly clicked, and he brought out the writing side in me and really made me believe that I could write. He had been writing since he could hold a pen and I was – and still am – in awe of the talent the guy has. He has an incredibly intelligent sense of humour and his heroes at 16 were Tony Hancock and Tom Baker. He wrote some brilliant stuff and was an incredible impressionist and performer. Shit I’m writing about him as if he’s dead – he’s not I just haven’t kept in touch with him all that well for which I regret. Anyway, he was my partner in crime and I knew without a shadow of a doubt he would bring this project to life with me. I called him one day, told him the plan and he was in from the start. I wrote about the first eight scenes then took the rest of them to him and together we hashed out the rest of the script. It came to 18 pages in total and was – fuck it, still is – a great script. It captured perfectly the characters voices and attributes and was a fitting send off for David. It also made allowances for the fact that we only had a small office to film in, so it made sure the setting was entirely contained within that environment. Next, was the casting…
I kind of selfishly cast myself as Brent. I used to think I did a pretty good impression of Brent but more importantly I was about the right size to portray him. Richard was cast as Gareth because he also did a great impression of him and again, was more physically suited to that role. We cast my cousin Kevin as Tim because he was a cheeky kind of chap just like Tim; Dawn was portrayed by Hannah Walker, a girl I attended Class Act Drama with who was a great actress and had the right sweetness to match Dawn’s innocence; Neil was also another Class Act alumni in David Cartledge who again had the right attributes; Keith was my mate Dominic Rivers who perfectly encapsulated Keith’s mannerisms; and the rest of the casting was filled with alumni from Class Act and Cockshut (stop giggling; it was the name of my school!). We never had any opportunity to rehearse the script; we literally gave copies to all actors and told them to meet us bright and early one Sunday morning in September 2003 to start shooting.
Before the shoot, myself and my cousin Kevin spent an afternoon dressing the set, setting up the desks in the office with computers, stationery, telephones and anything else we could rummage out of the abandoned block. All was set for filming. Casting call was to meet outside HMV Pallisades early Sunday morning and start shooting. With an old 8mm camera with not much life left in it, only two 30 minute tapes, two 6 hour shooting days and a tremendous amount of faith and support from all those we’d gathered – we made it happen. We shot in chronological order to make it easier both for the actors and for the edit. We moved quickly to adjust the set to suit the next scene; we kept some actors and background people waiting nearly all day just having them sat in the same position for continuity. We all pulled our weight and aside from me barking ‘action’ or ‘shut up’ we all had the same role, we were all working towards the same goal. I know it sounds cliché for me to say that about a shoot of a knock-off episode of The Office with a bunch of 16 year olds, but honestly as I look back on it today I am so thankful and so grateful to everyone that helped make this silly little idea into a reality and help turn our decent script into a cracking bit of amateur filmmaking. There really is an emphasis on the ‘we’ here because I might have had the idea but I sure as hell did not have the audacity to carry it out alone. I really am indebted and forever appreciative of each and every one of those people mentioned in the cast list at the end of the film. I’m indebted to Kevin for his enthusiasm from the get-go, to Richard for instilling my faith when I needed it, to Naz and Ashley for being brilliant on-the-fly cameramen, to Hayley for jumping in head-first when two separate actors let us down on the day. All of them – everyone in that cast made it happen.Special thanks has to go to my Dad, who waited around all day Sunday after he’d finished work just so we could shoot this thing. Dad – your unwavering support has always been appreciated but the faith you showed in me allowing me to do this I’ll never forget and always carry with me.
We had such a laugh shooting it as well – outtakes are always funny but there were some crackers from us over the shoot. Everyone had a huge sense of responsibility but at the same time we made it fun and the little behind the scenes we shot just shows that we knew how to wind down at the end of the shoot. It was the best two days I’ve ever spent making something – it was the first thing I’d written with Richard, the first film I’d ever made, the first time I’d ever been responsible for a cast and accountable to any questions they had and the first time I’d managed a budget above my DVD habit (the film cost a total of £48.09 – frivolous or what?).
Despite its poor quality, its questionable costumes and pencilled-on goatee (thanks Hannah for making me look manly) it is a complete gem in my heart. For me it is also a great bridge story between the end of the second series and the start of the special. I love the final scene where David takes one last look around the office before switching off the lights; the innuendos that Gareth comes out with (ooh); the little subtle love story between Tim and Dawn in the background; and the cameo from my Granddad paying homage to Stephen Merchant’s Dad as the janitor. I think we did an alright job with the story but ultimately we proved that with an idea, a camera and the support of some amazing friends – anything is possible.