When the first series of The Office was broadcast on August 30, 2001 expectations weren't exactly sky high. Set in a paper supply company in Slough, and with no stars, it was hardly likely to become the new Friends. Indeed, it had scant chance of becoming the new Coupling. It was launched, without any fanfare, into the tranquil backwater of BBC2's midweek summer schedule.
Just over two years later, The Office has entered the British Comedy Hall of Fame. With only 12 episodes in the can, it sits alongside Steptoe and Son, Dad's Army, The Likely Lads, Porridge and Yes Minister as one of the finest sitcoms ever made. Among comedy experts, ranking The Office has become something of a parlour game. Is it the best British sitcom since Hancock's Half-Hour or merely the best since Fawlty Towers? One thing's for sure: every comedy lover in the country will be glued to the goggle box on December 26 and 27 when two Office Christmas specials are due to be broadcast.
What makes The Office so good? Critics hate writing about comedy because there's nothing much to say. If the audience laughs, it works; if they don't, it doesn't. End of story. Still, there are a few obvious ways in which The Office stands head and shoulders above the opposition.
To begin with, there's no laugh track. Not only that, but there are hardly any jokes, and those that there are end with a whimper rather than a bang. This is deliberate, according to Ricky Gervais, who co-created the series with Stephen Merchant.
"I was a couch comedy philosopher," he says, referring to the years he spent festering in front of a television set. "When I wrote The Office I had a much bigger list of don'ts than dos. I knew that people didn't talk in poetic prose. I knew that people didn't always end with a punch line -- there was an aftermath. I knew that people didn't talk in funny voices, that awful Oxbridge tradition. And I hated exposition."
The verité style of The Office, which is a mockumentary in the same vein as Spinal Tap, helps it stand out when placed alongside other contemporary sitcoms. The humour feels organic rather than forced; the appalling predicaments that David Brent winds up in seem to evolve naturally out of everyday situations.
Indeed, the dialogue sounds so authentic that many viewers mistakenly think The Office is improvised. In fact, practically every word has been carefully crafted by Gervais and Merchant.
It's not just it's style, though, that makes The Office seem realistic. Wernham Hogg is intensely familiar to anyone who has spent time in a white-collar environment.
Who amongst us hasn't had to share a desk -- or, at least, a workspace -- with a colleague like Gareth? The buttoned-up martinet, who lines up his pens and pencils like soldiers on parade, is instantly recognisable.
But it's the character of David Brent who strikes an almost universal chord. From Basil Fawlty to Captain Mainwairing, the protagonists of British sitcoms have always been upwardly mobile buffoons whose efforts to advance themselves end with them falling flat on their faces.
According to legend, Ricky Gervais originally dreamt up his version of this stock comic character -- then called "sleazy boss" -- to amuse his co-workers when he was employed as head of speech at XFM. One of these happened to be Stephen Merchant and when he decided he'd had enough of radio and wanted to move into television he persuaded Gervais to reprise the role in a 15-minute cod documentary. Merchant managed to get the tape into the hands of the BBC's head of entertainment at the 1998 Edinburgh Festival and he, in turn, passed it on to the head of comedy. The rest, as they say, is hysteria.
We don't have to look far to find David Brent's antecedents in the British comic tradition. Mr Micawber in David Copperfield, for instance, with his ridiculously overwrought vocabulary, has something in common with the middle manager from Wernham Hogg. Brent's fondness for management gobbledegook -- and his inability to get it right -- is one of the things that brands him as a social interloper.
Even Shakespeare's most inspired comic creations have a touch of the "sleazy boss" about them. Just as Malvolio in Twelfth Night is never more pathetic than when trying to seduce Olivia, so David Brent reveals his ambition at its most naked when he thinks he has a chance with Jennifer, his glamorous supervisor.
The genius of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant has been to take the counter-jumping clown who has always been at the centre of our comic tradition and relocate him in Blair's Britain. The Office, like all the best British comedies, is essentially about class; but it's a class comedy set in a world that purports to be classless.
The corporate culture at Wernham Hogg won't allow David Brent to reveal his true colours; he has to pretend to be one of the lads in order to advance within the company hierarchy. The problem is, he isn't sophisticated enough to pull this off. The trick of accumulating authority while appearing to renounce it, is a slight of hand that's beyond him.
All the funniest scenes in The Office -- which are also, not coincidentally, the most embarrassing -- occur when this cack-handed Machiavelli inadvertently exposes himself. For instance, when he tries to upstage Neil by showing off his breakdancing moves or when he pushes a woman in a wheelchair out of his way.
At moments like this, The Office reveals the hypocrisy at the heart of our corporate society. In nearly all contemporary workspaces there's a pretence that there's no hierarchy, no class divisions. On the contrary, it's just one big, touchy-feely, happy family.
In reality, of course, the modern office is a nasty, Hobbesian environment in which everyone knows exactly where they stand. We may be forced to indulge in the occasional bit of make-believe -- the bonding weekends, the racial sensitivity courses, casual Fridays -- but the brutal truth is only ever a redundancy notice away.
Given how few correctives there are to the official, sentimental view of Blair's Britain, do Gervais and Merchant have an obligation to make another series of The Office? They upset millions of fans earlier this year when they announced that the second series would be the last. Clearly, they don't want to tarnish their legacy by making another six episodes that may not be as good as the first 12.
To my mind, we shouldn't hold this decision against them. After all, there were only 12 episodes of Fawlty Towers, yet that will live forever. Like John Cleese and Connie Booth, Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant have set the gold standard for a generation and it's up to others to live up to it.
In the meantime, we should be thankful that they've agreed to make two bonus episodes. I can't think of a better Christmas present to the nation.