David Brent: Life on the Road

He’s back, one of the most successful characters in recent British comedy history. Just as with Steve Coogan’s Alan Partridge, Brent is the creation that must haunt its creator Ricky Gervais. Try as both might, they can’t shake these characters – you can almost see the irritation on their faces, the self-loathing, but the British public really doesn’t want to see them doing anything else.

Brent is, of course, a monster and this inevitable yet inevitably slapdash spin-off film (mind you, it’s slicker than Ab Fab, but so is feeding time at the zoo) finds him now working at Lavichem, a sales rep for public toilet products.

As some kind of saving grace, he’s holding on to his dream of getting a band together, and we follow him – via a documentary crew following up on their “forgotten” reality star – on a hapless, useless tour of Berkshire, mainly, as he makes a fool of himself, live onstage every night, in front of tiny audiences, most of whom walk out pretty quickly.

The film***, at least, should fare better than the Foregone Conclusion tour. Although it has an almost apologetic smallness about it, it is often funny in that cringe-making way in which Brent trades so deftly. The lyrics to his songs are truly terrible – “Foot to the floor, 70 miles an hour but no more”, goes his ode to life on the road while the song about Native Americans is pure toe curl – and his lack of self-awareness remains astounding. Yet it is also, ultimately, his one redemptive quality.

The band, whom he pays to work for him, won’t let him on the tour bus, which he’s paid for, nor will they drink with him after the shows – unless he pays them. He gets a tattoo but faints half way through, so instead of having his beloved home county emblazoned on his arm, he ends up with simply: “Berk”.

The humour does struggle to be mean and crude without being offensive but mainly gets away with it thanks to the conviction of Gervais’ performance. I find Gervais practically unwatchable as an actor in anything else, but quite excellent as Brent, punctuating his social awkwardness with his little simpering sniggers and the way he digs his holes ever-deeper, particularly when trying not to offend women and black people. “Bob Marley?” he asks of his black rapper friend. “Yeah, he’s ok.” replies Dom (Ben Bailey Smith). “There you go, horse’s mouth,” says Brent, proud to be multi-racial.

What is less successful is the attempt to maintain a facade that this is a mockumentary and that a doc crew are following Brent around. This is not rigorously upheld throughout and requires more expert direction than Gervais’ own efforts here. I could have done without the ending which sort of makes people feel sympathy for Brent, and the seeds of an office romance with the excellent Jo Hartley as a woman from accounts feel very underdeveloped.

It’s not something you need to see in the cinema – not a great recommendation for a movie, I know, and the Alpha Papa Partridge movie is better in that regard – but it IS undeniably funny and look-away-awful in parts, which is just what you want from David Brent. Like he sings: “Slough, my kinda town, how could anyone put you down?”

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