Brent is Back: British Sitcoms on the Big Screen

At the time of writing, audiences will be eagerly or nervously anticipating the unexpected resurrection of David Brent in the new comedy film David Brent: Life on the Road. First introduced in the seminal mockumentary series The Office in the early 2000’s, the character was originally conceived and characterised as the archetypal ‘Boss from Hell’ at a boring, Slough based branch of the fictional Wernham Hogg paper company. Brent spends his time in the series terrorising his bored and unimpressed workers with his cringe inducing antics and his attempts to play up to the camera. From his realistic portrayal of such a scarily recognisable character over the course of the short two series’, both the creator Ricky Gervais and the David Brent character have managed to achieve substantial success and a firm cult status in British popular culture, whilst the show itself is ranked highly amongst the cream of the crop of British comedy.

However, like many creators of such a successful property, Gervais hasn’t been able to let go of his Frankenstein’s monster just yet. A few appearances in Comic Relief skits and the American adaptation of the series aside, Brent hasn’t been in the forefront of a series since The Office ended in 2003, but after a thirteen year hiatus he is now back in the characters first cinematic appearance. The film (set for release on the 19th of August) has Brent being shadowed by a documentary film crew yet again, as he travels up and down the country trying to break into the music business and achieve his dream of becoming a rock star. Gervais has stated that this film will catch the audience up on what has happened to Brent in the last 13 years, whilst also peeling back the layers on the “extraordinary, ordinary man”.

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Whilst the buffoonery, self-delusion and uncomfortable scenarios present in the series all seem to be in check from the trailers and TV spots, Brent being rebooted does open up the debate as to whether or not these iconic comedy characters are best off being left behind in their TV roots? Cinematic adaptations of popular British sitcoms have never been particularly well received and are certainly not a recent tradition, having been hugely popular in the 1970s with everything from Porridge to Steptoe and Son getting a film adaptation, with generally negative results. The last few years have seen a similar trend on our screens, with Mrs Browns Boys, Bad Education and a reboot of Dad’s Army all having cinematic releases and being critically panned, as well as a film adaptation of Absolutely Fabulous in cinemas now getting mixed reviews and Cold Feet returning to ITV soon after 13 years off the air. This is definitely turning out to be the year for bringing old sitcoms and old comedy characters back into the limelight, but is that a good thing?

The last canonical appearance of David Brent was in 2003 with The Office Christmas Special, where we see him trying to get by as a struggling salesman after being fired from Wernham Hogg. As well as this, Brent is living under the delusion that he is now famous thanks to the documentary, making a living off the ‘fame’ by making demeaning club appearances alongside a stream of other minor celebrities. As well as desiring fame in this two-parter, we watch Brent try to find love and a date for the annual office Christmas party. For one of the first times in the series you really get an idea of the immense tragedy behind the character, as we see his desperate need for fame and appreciation from those around him. These final appearances are tragic, and manage to finally humanise the monster that we had seen for the two series previous. In his last few scenes Brent finally meets a woman who gets along with him, and when pushed from yet another insult by his friend Chris Finch he tells him bluntly to “f**k off”. As he poses for a photograph with his workers, he finally manages to achieve the impossible; he makes them laugh. And cut.

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This final appearance for the oft derided character gave him an arc, and wrapped up the fantastic series in a neat bow. Not content with this ending apparently, Gervais has brought the monster back, and in doing so it could be argued that he has unravelled the perfect ending to the show and that character’s own personal happy ending. Despite Brent’s huge character faults, watching him have a sort of happy ending and a redemption was pleasing, and yet now we’re here 13 years later, with the character being just as much of a pr**k as he was in his very first appearance in the pilot. Does this insistence of bringing sitcom characters back in film adaptations undo the legacy left behind from the series’s that they originate in? Does it also undo any development that the characters may have gone through?

One such example comes in the two film adaptations of The Inbetweeners. The Inbetweeners was a fantastic comedy series from Channel 4, that in the span of three series’ showed the trials and tribulations of four sixth form students going through the awkward adolescent phase of life as they get drunk, sit exams and go through a series of humiliating sexual encounters that usually end in failure. Worryingly for the most part (for myself at least), this series was closer to the horrifying reality of being 17 than sensationalist teenage dramas like Skins and One Tree Hill ever were. What made the series particularly perfect was the wonderful cast and the chemistry they have with one another; Simon Bird as the sarcastic and pessimistic Will McKenzie, Joe Thomas as the love stricken and cynical Simon Cooper, Blake Harrison as the dim-witted Neil Sutherland and James Buckley as the immature and vulgar Jay Cartwright. The final episode has Simon having to move away to Swansea after his dad lost his job, and as a final farewell the boys go on an ill-fated camping trip to the countryside. After a series of escalating disasters that lead to Simon’s car being destroyed and everyone throwing up in the tent, the four walk home whilst making jokes about Will’s fit mum. The series finale opens up a hint that Simon and Carli (the girl he hopelessly loves) may have a future in an optimistic ‘finale’ moment, whilst also sweetly showing the camaraderie between the four friends in a typically vulgar and hilarious way.

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The film adaptation of the series is set a few months after the series finale, and like many film spin offs has a drastic change of location to escalate the situations and increase the humour. Transporting the action from South-West London to Malia, the film has the four teens go on a lads holiday to celebrate finishing sixth form before they all head off to University or employment. Despite the film admittedly being very funny and having a lot of great moments, the impact of the series finale is lost in many ways by carrying the four characters story on. We see that Simon did (unsuccessfully) end up with Carli and never moved away, which were both big factors in the finale. This film ends with the four each finding suitable love interests, which is scrapped yet again in the sequel when their new girlfriends are quickly discarded as they go travelling across Australia. Both of these films have been relatively successful in the UK but have been criticised worldwide, with a general consensus being that they never manage to shake off the TV roots. This could also prove a problem with the return of Brent, who is so well established in Television that it’s hard to imagine him leading his own feature. In bringing back these TV characters again and again in a cinematic format, it could be argued that it’s never giving them a chance to grow up.

However, films based on successful British comedies don’t always have to result in damaging the existing source material. In 2009 Armando Iannucci made In the Loop, a film mostly adapted from the incredibly funny political comedy The Thick of It. Like the series, the film takes a satirical look at the nature of politics, but in the film Iannucci explores 21st century Anglo-American politics and the Invasion of Iraq rather than the inner workings of the British Government that is predominantly seen in the television series.

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What In the Loop really manages to achieve and what makes it a great film in its own right is that it manages to find the right mix between using elements from the series correctly, whilst still remaining original and not relying on the success of what has come before. The incessant and inventive use of swearing, the clever writing and the presence of Peter Capaldi as the monstrous spin doctor Malcolm Tucker are all in check, but you can clearly tell that this isn’t just an extended episode of the show. Familiar cast members make appearances in the film playing completely different characters, with the story itself being radically different from anything that was seen in the show. A large portion of the film is also dedicated to the American side in this political conflict, which lead to the development of Emmy award winning show Veep a few years later. In this outing, Iannucci manages to use his unique writing style and the fantastic actors cast to give a completely different and fresh look at the nature of politics than he’d done previously, and what we were given was one of the cleverest and funniest British comedy films of all time.

Only time can really tell as to whether Brent’s return will be a revelation in the somewhat tired trend of TV to film adaptations and bring something new to the table and to the iconic character, or whether the film will fall short and be yet another sad attempt to recapture the magic of a successful show. With Gervais’s writing history I would like to believe the former, I just hope that on the 19th we will have something more along the lines of In the Loop than Mrs. Browns Boys. Just please, don’t bring back that dance…

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