He ended the lop-sided friendship of convenience with Chris Finch by telling him where to go, he finally found a romantic companion, and it seemed he’d crawled out of his existential slump that seemingly everyone in The Office was experiencing. We were content. That was 2003. Now, Ricky Gervais returns to the character without The Office partner Stephen Merchant, for the big screen.
Present-day Brent has traded selling Mr Sheen and chamois in favour sanitary pads and tampons at the horrifyingly named Lavichem, and his previous love interest is nowhere to be seen. From the opening moments we see David Brent crystallised - eager and with plenty of that awkward, stilted comedy that, although definitely with its moments, has near enough been homogenised in the thirteen years since we last saw him. His famous blind side - the gap between how he sees himself and how others perceive him - bigger than ever.
During these opening moments we get a glimpse into how his working environment differs from the heyday of Tim, Dawn, and Gareth. We see that people have no time for him in far more obvious ways than before; his bosses at Wernham Hogg tried to help him to help himself, meanwhile his current boss slams doors in his face. The lax attitude towards work shown at Wernham Hogg has been exchanged for a post-recession team of rabid sales reps always on the phone and deep in spreadsheets, only looking up to berate him for punctuating his time in the office by being jovial with the one person there who likes him.
Plagued by ennui, which hovered over Wernham Hogg like a cumulonimbus, and coming out of a rather clumsily portrayed nervous breakdown, David Brent want to take a break from his job. Playing on many people’s fears and adhesive attitude towards their comfort zones, he cashes in a number of pensions - understandably met by sharp inhales of breath by the audience - and goes on tour with a rebooted Foregone Conclusion, referenced first in the Training Day episode, to live a bohemian lifestyle of ripped jeans, Red Stripe, and record contracts.
The TV series saw Brent grappling with his job security in the pursuit of approval and friendship from colleagues. This time we see him gambling his future material security for much the same reasons. In both cases, people in his employ are happy to see him on the wrong course and take advantage. When his six companions refuse him entry to the huge tour bus he paid for on the grounds there’s no room, we get the first glimpse that he may never leave his corporate world behind, as he jumps back into the Insignia and follows the white elephant.
After nearly a dozen terrible gigs and £20,000 in the hole, Brent is finally accepted by his bandmates, who are endeared by his efforts to search for something more in his life. He returns to work with no pension, nothing to show for the tour, and receives abuse from colleagues focussed on his perceived failure - a situation which could understandably give anyone nightmares. His attitude despite this is buoyant, and in a trademark talking head, he justifies his misadventure by claiming that it’s better to try and fail than not try at all, and that life is a struggle filled with surprises - of which this tour is one he made for himself.
There are many nods to The Office, from the printer churning out copies, the overarching existentialism of office life, and even the film's ending (sorry, no spoilers allowed here).
Ricky Gervais has said that two series and a special is the perfect formula for a sitcom, so perhaps this film is intended to be completely ancillary to the canon? People have drawn parallels with Brent and Gervais before, so perhaps Gervais, a big fan of Spinal Tap and himself a failed musician with Seona Dancing, has funded a vanity project to try something he’s always wanted to do - to showcase his songwriting in a rockumentary?
David Brent: Life on the Road is out now at FACT. Book tickets to see this film.