It’s really stuck in his craw. “This idea that we have to police ourselves, that we might say the wrong thing and upset someone or something. It’s not fun. It’s just not fun.
“I don’t think The Office would have got off the ground if we’d made it now. I think it would have been shut down. I think the BBC would have been too jumpy.”
Stephen Merchant: a “character from an Aardman animation” (Image: The Telegraph)
Merchant is great company. He’s funny and passionate. He’s really tall, at 6ft 7in, but you knew that. His glasses have thick lenses that magnify his eyes slightly when you look at him and add to what he describes as his “character from an Aardman animation” quality. He’s got long feet. I know this because when I arrive, he’s sitting in his socks, in the middle of rehearsals for his first major stage role.
He’s appearing in a revival of Richard Bean’s The Mentalists at London’s Wyndham Theatre on Friday. It’s a two-hander about middle-aged male friends, who meet up in a nondescript hotel room in north London so that Merchant’s character Ted, a “fleet manager with Sumners Industrial Cleaning Products”, can be videoed by his friend Morrie (Steffan Rhodri) in an attempt to attract followers willing to pay £29.99 each to join him in a utopian community in which “lousy, anti-social behaviour could be gotten rid of, and good, useful behaviour could be encouraged”.
It’s one of Bean’s early works, first performed at the National in 2002, long before the playwright achieved transatlantic success with the crowd-pleasing One Man, Two Guvnors. It’s funny, but also dark and sad. And it’s not hard to see a similarity between Ted and David Brent, who memorably blew his redundancy pay-off in The Office on a misguided attempt to launch a pop career.
“It’s about a man trying to be exceptional and failing, and that is something you can see in a lot of the characters that I’ve been involved with, this resentment at not being dealt the right hand, sort of ‘why aren’t I in charge, why am I not a star, why am I not the mayor?’ It’s that simmering ‘aargh’ at the world that has a very funny comic energy.”
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Rather presciently, there’s something of Russell Brand in Ted, too. The video revolutionary. I ask Merchant what he makes of Brand’s brand of utopianism. “I think Russell’s very sincere in his beliefs, but there’s something about him that feels like a cult leader. I joked with him, ‘One day you’re going to poison the Kool-Aid, then your followers are going to drink it and you’re going to take the last sip.’ ” He laughs.
For Merchant, the role also marks another step away from Ricky Gervais, whose rise after The Office has been the more obviously meteoric. It wasn’t that way at the beginning, Merchant says. “I was probably a bit more disciplined and dynamic [than Ricky]. I was quite ambitious, and I’d studied TV and film – I had a sense of the grammar and the structure of it. And Ricky was more this untapped fountain of creativity, you know, because he’d not done anything – he’d been a musician years before and then he’d been in middle management so he had all this stuff in him that was waiting to be unleashed.”
Life's too short: Stephen Merchant, Warwick Davis and Ricky Gervais (Image: BBC)
I ask him if the sweeter elements in their collaborations come from him rather than Gervais. He says the dividing lines are blurred. “We used to talk a lot about our favourite films and we both loved The Apartment, we both loved Bridges of Madison County. We both loved Spinal Tap. And when I enjoy Bridges of Madison County, I don’t think I love the teary, happy romance of it and he likes the existential despair of Meryl Streep’s character. It wasn’t like, ‘I want this romance of Tim and Dawn, Rick,’; ‘All right, well if you’re having that I’ll have something cynical.’ He was as engaged in that storyline as I was.”
After The Office, of course, came the celebrity-baiting sitcom Extras, their radio show, bestselling podcasts, An Idiot Abroad, with their work colleague and comedy discovery Karl Pilkington, and Life is Short, which dramatised for comic effect the challenges faced by dwarf actor Warwick Davies.
More recently, their work has taken Gervais and Merchant in separate directions. Are they still friends? “Yeah.” Can he see them writing together again, or was it time to move on? “I think we could go back to it definitely, I think it’s just, I remember hearing Fry and Laurie talk about once how you get to a point where you get on two different tracks, and it’s quite hard to get back on the same track.”
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For Merchant, that track has included the 2013 HBO sitcom Hello Ladies, which came out of his stand-up show, in which he sent up his own failures at dating women. In the show, Merchant plays Stuart, a bumbling Englishman trying to meet women in Los Angeles. Though a cult favourite, it was cancelled after one season. Was it misunderstood? “Ahh, possibly. If I’m honest I’ve realised that I don’t know what people want, and I don’t know what people are going to respond to.
It’s a question I know he’s been asked before but I ask him how close he thinks the character is to him. “I was never that Machiavellian, I was never that desperate, but I did experience the same frustrations. Ultimately he’s that awkward person at school who never got the girls and now he’s going to take it out on the world. Which was certainly true of me in my 20s and is true of every other guy you meet in LA.”
Merchant doesn’t talk about his relationships. Newspapers guess. But while he has turned his dating failures into comedy, he was also an unnamed ex-boyfriend in author Alexandra Heminsley’s 2007 memoir Ex and the City, which described being dumped by him. Has he experienced rejections that have really stuck with him?
“Yeah constantly, throughout life, because ultimately nothing changes. You become well known, which gives you confidence and gives you access to another world. But the rules don’t change in that world.”
He’s talked before about having arrested development, not growing up, and admits that at 40 he’d be happy to put the brakes on ageing for a little longer. When I ask him about marriage and children, he says, “It doesn’t feel like like an absence from my life. When people bring it up in interviews, I feel a little bit like what it must have been like to be a single woman in the 1920s – like she’s 19 and not married! I’m sorry if I’ve disappointed everyone, I’ve never felt those social pressures.”
I wonder if he finds it hard to keep a sense of himself as the kid who grew up in Bristol, the son of a plumber and a nurse; whose broad West Country accent, geekiness and habit of providing both voices in imaginary conversations can be seen and heard as clear as day in the character of Gareth Keenan in The Office. Is there a fraying and separation? “I’m sure you could speak to the worst kind of egomaniac and they’d say no, I’m just like I was. But, you know, I spend time with my family and I see all the old faces, and it doesn’t feel different.
“I feel like I’m a professional at this now, and when I first started I felt like an amateur who was suddenly at the Baftas.” (There were no years of struggle. He worked for Gervais at XFM, then took a BBC producer’s course; The Office was the first TV project for both.) “I remember being with my parents once and a kid came up and said, are you Stephen Merchant? And I went, no, because I was panicked and I didn’t know what to do. And my parents didn’t understand it. But celebrity and success are not normal experiences.”
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Very little of that shyness could be seen when Merchant took to the stage earlier this year in Lip Sync Battle (which appears on US channel Spike) dressed in leather chaps and a Union Jack vest to perform Christina Aguilera’s Dirrty. The show, for which Merchant is an executive producer, and in which celebrities battle it out to see who can do the best lip sync performance of other people’s songs, had its roots in a car journey he took with actors John Krasinski and Emily Blunt. They were just playing it for fun to amuse one another. Then after Krasinski challenged Jimmy Fallon to a battle on his chat show, it became a series.
Merchant says he decided he had better pull all the stops out for his turn because they might need to persuade other guests to do it – “then three days later it’s been viewed 10 million times on YouTube”. He comforts himself with the thought that Woody Allen once got into a boxing ring with a kangaroo on a Sixties talk show.
Allen and Billy Wilder are both heroes of his. Merchant admires their ability to move between genres. He’s currently working on two film scripts, which he hopes to direct, both of which he says are more drama than comedy.
But first there’s The Mentalists. Watching Rhodri and Merchant rehearse with director Abbey Wright is a treat. Even in its raw state, it reduces me to helpless laughter.
Merchant seems undaunted by the challenge. “I think on opening night I’ll be pretty jumpy but I suppose I feel a bit like the worst that can happen is I forget all my lines, OK well, I probably won’t forget all of them, so let’s say I forget one of them, well I can probably improvise my way out of that, so hopefully I’ll be OK there. People don’t think I’m very good? Well people don’t like half the things I do, so that’s OK. I don’t want to let my team down, but I’m not scared of failure because I think and I hope the one thing I am trying to do in my career is not play it safe.”
The Mentalists is at Wyndham’s Theatre, London WC2, from July 3 – September 26
It's been a decade since The Office appeared on our TV screens. The story of daily grind in a Slough paper merchants was so realistic that when I stumbled across it on BBC2 one night it took me a minute to realise that it wasn't a documentary.
That revelation for me is something I'll always remember because I laughed a lot at a time when laughter in my life was a thin on the ground.
The show went on to become one of the most successful British comedies of all time, but for me its most notable aspect was the casting director's decision to hire the disabled actor Julie Fernandez.
Long before disability was a campaigning issue for me I'd found actors playing disabled characters embarrassing. Mimicking disabled people had been pounced on and swiftly dealt with when I was growing up. Yet at drama school this was embraced. To me playing disabled, when not disabled, was as incongruous as being asked to black up. I can't imagine people calling a performance under those circumstances brave or moving or groundbreaking, but there we were acting disabled yet simultaneously being told to find the truth in performance.
I hope that my daughter Lizzy, an actor with Asperger's syndrome, will have the same opportunities as any other performer but full representation of disabled people is uncommon in any profession, let alone television or broadcasting.
In advertising, drama series, sitcoms, soap operas or comedy panel shows, disabled performers are notably absent. There are a few disabled characters but fully inclusive casting is not routine. And this is despite there being more than 250 disabled members of Equity, the actors union in the UK.
There are some who say that things are getting better for disabled performers now that broadcasters have diversity departments, but the change is happening so slowly as to be imperceptible to the naked eye. The only place where you will find disabled people routinely featured is in documentaries; but in these there seems to be a demand for a type of misery heavy portrayals of disabled "victims" or "burdened" carers.
Widen the picture and there is even less representation. Why can't kids modeling clothes in adverts have Down's syndrome, newscasters be wheelchair users, and continuity voices be reading brail? It'sa question that many seem unwilling or unable to answer as they continue to cast predominantly white, non-disabled, beautiful, thin people of average height. Couldn't it be argued that to push any one of us into marginalised shadow simply draws the bigots into the mainstream light?
I'm not suggesting an actor be cast just because he or she is disabled, no actor wants be cast for anything other than skill. I just wonder how many disabled people were invited to any casting sessions in the UK in the last seven days.
Greater representation in every aspect of life reduces stigma borne out of ignorance and leads us away from the rising levels of hateful abuse which disabled people experience as a matter of course.
Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant produce projects which tackle our culture of discrimination and ignorance about difference, and they should receive more credit for highlighting these issues than they do. They projects are imbued with a light touch and a sense of humour which stems from a positive place. Their new series, Life's too short, stars Warwick Davies playing a twisted version of himself. It will tweak the cringe reflex that affects too many people when they encounter diversity.
People identified with The Office because they recognised and related to the people portrayed, who were telling the story of our lives. It's such a shame that so many of the programme makers who tried to emulate the show's success ignored the one aspect which bears repetition widely: authentic casting.
• Nicky Clark is a disability rights campaigner and mother to two children with disabilities. She leads two national campaigns Don't Play Me, Pay Me calling for inclusive representation of disabled people in the entertainment and advertising industry and People Not Punchlines which works to eliminate comedy specifically targeting disabled people. She blogs at nickyclark.blogspot.com/