Stephen Merchant, co-creator of The Office, and longtime collaborator of Ricky Gervais’s, gave a talk at Oxford University last year and was asked about the current state of his relationship with Gervais, as Gervais’s public persona has shifted. “He’s always liked, sort of, provoking,” he said. “He’s always had a sort of punk-rock edge to him, even from when we first started working together.” Gervais and Merchant’s most recent collaboration was in 2013 with the end of Life’s Too Short, and in each of the projects they worked on prior — the aforementioned Office, Extras, and their various projects with Karl Pilkington — that is certainly true. The Office made some racy jokes and presented some truly awkward situations. Extras dealt with Nazis, race, and disability, which offended at least one high-profile viewer. The shock element seems to have been a part of Gervais’s comedy from the very beginning.
The pair first met at the London radio station XFM, but the first filmed Gervais-Merchant collaboration was a short film called Seedy Boss that was made as part of Merchant’s training when he joined the BBC. Merchant describes its inception in a documentary about The Office from the series one DVD: “They gave you a camera crew and you had to make a sort of short film. And most people were doing documentary sorts of things, but Ricky had this character he used to improvise and muck about with in the office.” This tape was then passed around at the BBC, which led to Gervais’s first TV gig, The 11 O’Clock Show, as well as the BBC commissioning a pilot script for The Office.
But before The Office would come into fruition in 2001, Channel 4 attempted to get into the Gervais-Merchant business first by commissioning their own one-off comedy half-hour from the pair. The special was called Golden Years and first aired in September of 1999 as part of the network’s comedy anthology series, Comedy Lab.
Golden Years, like The Office, is filmed in the mockumentary style and features Gervais as a character in a position of power who uses his authority for frivolity. Gervais is Clive Meadows, the co-founder of a successful chain of video rental stores who arrives at a board meeting as Ziggy Stardust, face paint and all. He attempts to work his Bowie impression into the business at hand, pitching some commercial ideas and Bowie song title/VHS rental title mash-ups, but when his business partner Barry (Nicholas Hutchison) arrives, the reception to these ideas is chilly, to say the least.
We then see Clive at home, out of costume, being interviewed by someone off camera (Merchant) about his Bowie impression. Slowly the audience is able to gather that this isn’t directly part of the documentary; instead we are watching footage from Clive’s audition for Stars in Their Eyes, an actual British talent-show-style reality show.
Clive feels stifled at his job, particularly when Barry refuses to allow him to expense several limos and his red Ziggy Stardust wig, so he leaves the company, though he retains his office right across the hall and his secretary. He hires an agent who deals mostly with celebrity impersonators, and as Clive’s dreams of Bowie impersonating slowly dwindle, he descends further and further into delusion. He orders his agent to threaten other Bowie impersonators. He propositions another one of his agents’ clients. And when he invites his new friend, a Freddie Mercury impersonator, to the office for a duet, Clive attempts to “show off” by demeaning his secretary, eventually spanking her as she leaves the room. Moments later, he receives a phone call that he won’t be appearing on the reality show, and then as he leaves his office, his secretary’s angry boyfriend is waiting for him. Having hit rock bottom, Clive informs Barry that he never sold his shares of their rental company and would like to come back.
Golden Years is mostly uneven and feels very much like a demo tape for The Office in which several of the bugs are being worked out. There’s nothing all that redeeming about Gervais’s Clive character; when he hits his low point, we have seen him treat everyone around him like garbage. As a result it feels as though the character has gotten what he deserves. (And, as he reminds the audience as he propositions a Dolly Parton impersonator, he’s still a millionaire since his video-rental empire is valued at 4 million.) When David Brent fails on The Office, it’s generally because of his own frustration or a desire to be loved. With Clive, it’s due to karaoke-inspired hubris.
Just as with The Office, Golden Years pushes the envelope in terms of subject matter, mostly by testing the audience to see what level of discomfort they’re able to entertain as they watch the lead characters interact poorly with their surroundings. Ashley Jensen’s Maggie confronted her own issues with race on Extras, but in Golden Years, Clive does so with far less nuance in a scene after the credits, when he dresses as Prince, wearing makeup to darken his skin. Similar taboos are being dealt with, but by the time Merchant and Gervais approach the topic in 2005 with Extras, they were able to use it to actually say something about it, rather than merely use it as another example of this character’s awfulness and discard it.
When the pair moved to The Office, the technique of Merchant interviewing Gervais off camera was maintained as a way to find more material for the David Brent character through improvisation. In fact, Brent’s overall arc in both the original series, as well as the Merchant-less David Brent movie, is nearly identical to Clive’s. In each, David attempts to swing for the fences and pursue stardom through his music, rejecting his humdrum existence in the office environment only to fall back to Earth.
Without this show, there probably wouldn’t have been an Office, so in that regard, it’s a good thing that it was made. But beyond that, Golden Years offers only the spark of what Gervais and Merchant would create together.