|First appearance||'Downsize' (2001)|
|Last appearance||David Brent: Life on the Road (2016)|
|Created by||Ricky Gervais|
|Portrayed by||Ricky Gervais|
David Brent is a fictional character in the BBC television mockumentary The Office, portrayed by the show's co-creator, co-writer and co-director Ricky Gervais. Brent is a white-collar office middle-manager and the principal character of the series. He is the general manager of the Slough branch of Wernham-Hogg paper merchants and the boss of most other characters in the series. Much of the comedy of the series centres on Brent's many idiosyncrasies, hypocrisies, self-delusions and overt self-promotion.
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David Brent is the type of boss who wants to be a friend and mentor to those who work for him. He imagines his workers find him very funny and enjoy his company, while still respecting him and looking up to him as a boss, even a fatherly figure.
A key aspect of the character of Brent is his obliviousness to how other people actually see him, causing him to lash out whenever the veil of ignorance and vanity he maintains is pierced. Brent often asks other characters how old they think he is, only to be dismayed and offended when their guesses—even when accurate (39)—are older than he wishes to hear. He has a consistent need to be acknowledged as a Renaissance man and to be recognized as exceptionally skilled at his many desired accomplishments. These include writing poetry and lyrics, composing and playing music, being a rock star, managing his team, dancing, and even dating and marriage. He especially believes himself to be a remarkably talented stand-up comedian, and rarely misses an opportunity to show off to the cameras. His 'material', however, is invariably unoriginal and badly executed, consisting almost entirely of poor impressions and banal routines recycled from British comedy shows such as Fawlty Towers, The Two Ronnies and Harry Enfield and Chums. He boasts frequently about the amount of alcohol he consumes, believing this will gain him respect. He revealed that he was in a rock band called Foregone Conclusion, and claimed that they were once supported by Texas. He claims to be a supporter of Reading F.C., but never attends matches.
Brent has a tendency to promote himself as an intelligent and politically correct man, but often demonstrates an unwittingly offensive attitude towards ethnic minorities, disabled people and women. However, as cringeworthy and insulting as his attitudes and faux pas can be, the insults are rarely intended maliciously; they are frequently the result of extreme naivety and self-delusion and they are spoken in the wrong place at the wrong time. This is usually compounded by clumsy attempts at retractions, after realising his insulting remarks. Brent's need to be recognised as a philosopher and intellectual is also displayed as he is frequently seen sharing inspirational and philosophical quotes with his employees, attempting to claim credit over who invented them. In truth, most of his statements are only direct quotations from such famous writers as George Bernard Shaw and Confucius.
Similarly, while wanting to be regarded by his staff as "A friend first, and a boss second, probably an entertainer third", he displays a chronic lack of awareness and regard for others' feelings. In the first episode of the series, he brings Dawn to tears by joking that she is to be fired for stealing Post-it notes. At the end of Series One, a reorganisation of Wernham-Hogg sees Brent's boss pose him two choices: he can accept a promotion to the Corporate board, which would lead to the Slough office being merged with Swindon's and most of his employees ending up unemployed, or he can keep his post, resulting in the Swindon office being merged with Slough's and his workers remaining on the payroll. Brent, failing to see any dilemma or conflict of loyalty, immediately and delightedly accepts the job and is later bewildered by the reception from his colleagues at the news. However, he later fails a medical test and the plan for the branch merger is reworked, with the Swindon manager moving to Slough as David's superior and bringing several of his own genuinely loyal personnel with him. An older worker named Malcolm tries to confront David's apparent tale of "turning down" the corporate job by revealing the he's found out that Brent in fact failed the medical because of high blood pressure and then when David refuses to accept this suggests that he in that case must have faked high blood pressure in order to fail the medical, but Brent refuses to admit this to Malcolm saying "oh no" in such a way suggesting that Malcolm's original hypothesis was in fact true.
In series two, Brent has to deal with the arrival of Neil Godwin in a role immediately above his own. Unlike Brent, Neil is handsome, hard working, slimmer, genuinely confident in himself and actually commands respect among his staff. Recognising the extent to which Neil is in most respects his superior and is much more liked by staff, Brent quickly grows to despise and deeply resent him. In Neil's first appearance he gives a short, well-received welcoming speech to the new Slough team, followed by a disastrous and cringe worthy attempt by Brent to carry out a 'professional comedian' stand up routine. From this point on Brent spends much of series two attempting to upstage Neil and prove himself to be the popular and respected boss at every opportunity. The staff arriving with Godwin also quickly grow to disrespect and, to some extent, humiliate him. On one occasion Brent invites several of the staff out to the pub, to prove what good company he is, which backfires. Brent returns to find the remaining staff enjoying themselves with Neil and lashes out at him. Brent is increasingly portrayed as a desperate and depressed man as Neil's presence breaks apart his self-delusions of how people actually see him. Brent's desperation to outdo Neil is shown perhaps most memorably with an infamous dance routine in episode five. Neil performs a well received charity dance with another staff member and in anger and frustration Brent recklessly announces himself to be a great dancer the style of which he describes with typical false modesty and inaccuracy, saying "I've sort of fused Flashdance with MC Hammer shit".
Brent argued that the documentary crew "stitched him up" and portrayed him as the "boss from hell". Although depicted on-screen as incompetent, it is suggested that he has been successful in the past. In the first episode he lists achievements (e.g. raising profitability without losing staff), and in the second series he is both interviewed for a trade magazine and invited to be a motivational speaker, suggesting that his reputation is not as bad as viewers are led to expect. Many of Brent's insecurities may stem from the fact that he is no longer able to handle his own job, and his desperation to be liked may be both a failed effort to hide this fact, and a constant distraction from the tasks he's supposed to be doing. In The Office Christmas specials, he is heard complaining that the "documentary" made him look stupid—an observation which also demonstrates some rare self-awareness. Gervais said once that, in the show's universe, Brent did have many moments when he did his job well and even showed an effective sense of humor; for example, in the first series, Brent is met with genuine laughter after telling what appeared to be a joke during a small meeting with his staff. These moments were deliberately not included in the "documentary", but presumably helped shape viewer perceptions that Brent was not just a worthless empty suit and an idiot.
For all his many unlikable and contemptible characteristics, Brent is not without redeeming merit and is largely depicted as a tragic figure, increasingly so as the show progresses: a lonely and somewhat forlorn man who places too much value on his unrewarding job. At several points, the audience is prompted to feel sympathetic towards Brent. This is especially true in the final episode of the second series—as Brent faces redundancy—and in parts of the Christmas special where he is seen struggling with life after losing his job and his fifteen minutes of fame (thus acknowledging that the supposed "documentary" filmed at Wernham-Hogg has been shown on television). These are the few times Brent is seen trying to hold on in the face of a somewhat bleak situation. Brent's most depressing moment may be when he is banned from turning up unannounced at the Slough office after losing his job there. Brent claims that his presence is 'good for morale' and in perhaps his saddest moment he asks all of the staff to come out with him for a drink to which no one responds, his request descends into begging as he offers multiple days as options only to realise that no one wants anything to do with him at all, eventually prompting Tim to take him up on his offer out of pity. Brent's future appears happier at the end of the Christmas special, when his lively and attractive blind date appears to genuinely enjoy his company. In the final scene, Brent also succeeds in achieving what he failed to do for the whole series up to that point: he makes the staff laugh. The Christmas special also reveals that Brent owns a pet Labrador retriever called Nelson, which he named after Nelson Mandela. The fact that Brent brought the dog to the office suggests that he may have bought the dog in an attempt to enhance his personal image in the eyes of his former employees and to hog the limelight from Neil Godwin.
Brent's character was deliberately made more sympathetic as the show progressed, generating pathos from a superficially grotesque character in the manner of British comedy classics such as Hancock's Half Hour and Steptoe and Son. In the DVD commentary of the pilot U.S. episode of The Office, writer B.J. Novak recalls Gervais and Merchant saying that they deliberately altered Brent to become more of a "buffoon" in the second series, and thus more likable. This approach was taken from the beginning with Brent's U.S. equivalent, Michael Scott, who lacks most of Brent's nastier traits. Instead, the U.S. show concentrates on his failed and often desperate attempts at humor, and places more obvious emphasis on his loneliness. While Brent is shown as having no real skills, Scott is portrayed as a great salesman who was unwisely promoted and became a hopeless manager.
Due to the popularity of the show, Brent's persona has entered British office-life culture as the epitome of the "bad boss". He is frequently ranked alongside many classic characters of British comedy, including Basil Fawlty, Captain George Mainwaring and Alan Partridge. He arguably has a more recent precursor in Gordon Brittas and The Fast Show's Colin Hunt.
Appearances outside The Office
In 2002, Gervais wrote an in-character piece for the BBC website on what makes a winner at the FA cup. He said, "Managing a Premiership football team is a bit like running a successful paper merchants. There's a lot of similarities. I have to pick the right team, I have to lead by example, I have to instil trust and discipline."
Gervais and Stephen Merchant (who co-created the show and the Brent character) put together two videos for Microsoft in the UK entitled The Office Values, in which David Brent is brought in as a motivational speaker. These were leaked online in August 2006 and Microsoft was reportedly unhappy about the leak.
At Wembley Stadium on 1 July 2007, Ricky Gervais performed as David Brent at the Concert for Diana. Alongside Mackenzie Crook as Gareth, Gervais performed a rendition of the song "Freelove Freeway" from The Office.
In 2009, Ricky Gervais appeared on Inside the Actors Studio, in which the host James Lipton asked if he could interview Gervais in character as David Brent for a brief period in the show. Gervais went on to perform a shortened version of the song "Freelove Freeway".
The Brent character made two brief appearances in the American version of The Office. In the season 7 episode "The Seminar", he meets his American counterpart Michael Scott (Steve Carell) while coming out of an elevator the latter is waiting for. Unsurprisingly, the two are seen to develop an instant rapport. David learns that Michael manages the Scranton branch of Dunder Mifflin (the paper company that is the equivalent of Wernham-Hogg in the UK series) and asks if there are any jobs available there, but is told there are no openings at the moment. In the final episode of the same season, "Search Committee", David appears (via pre-recorded video resumé) as an interviewee for the Scranton manager's job, following the Michael Scott character's departure from the show several episodes earlier. In addition to appearing in the latter episode, Gervais contributed to the script.
After 10 years, Gervais revived the character for his YouTube channel in the web series "Learn Guitar with David Brent." In each episode he plays the guitar, gives tips on how to play and answers fan questions. Among the songs he has played are "Freelove Freeway", "Spaceman", "Ooh La La" and "Life on the Road".
On 5 August 2014, it was announced that Ricky Gervais would return to the role of Brent for a film titled David Brent: Life on the Road, which features the character as he tours the UK with his band Foregone Conclusion. The film was released in August 2016.
In August 2016, David Brent & Foregone Conclusion released the album Life on the Road. On 13 August 2016, Ricky Gervais appeared on the Dermot O'Leary show on BBC Radio 2 to publicise this album. Gervais was initially interviewed as himself and then after a short music interlude, O'Leary interviewed David Brent about the album release, and gave a stripped back acoustic session, playing the tracks "Life on the Road" and "Slough".
Dan Coop of the British band Does It Offend You, Yeah? has said that the name of the band came from a line spoken by David Brent, when he says, "My drinking—does it offend you, yeah good"?
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