A life On The Road, Alan Bennet, Alan Milman, Amish, Awkward, Banality, Barrat, Bowie, Dad's Army, David Brent, DAVOS, Extras, Father Father Burning Bright, Frozen, It's a Wonderful Life, Kaiser Chiefs, Lady In The Van, Life On Mars, Living The Dream, Multinationals, Navy Seals, Pilkington, prosperity, reality tv, Ricky Gervais, Rock N Roll, Rolos, TEDx, The King's Speech
I have just painfully struggled my way through the film David Brent. A life on the road. Struggled because I was meant to – this format of comedy celebrating its own ability to raise the desperately bleak uncomfortable human truth of our everyday mediocrities, misfits and mishits to artistic degree. Struggled because it is ferociously painful and cringe-worthy on purpose. Struggled because his character is mostly so repellent.
(I also struggled because in comedic terms it over eggs the point, over cranks the cringe and over renders the desperate side of Mr Brent with less finesse and subtlety than I had hoped for. The original series of the Office through which David Brent entered our cultural consciousness was for me a far subtler and richer human stew. This felt like a side gag escalated to movie length. A back story narrative thread built into a one and some hour screenplay.)
I am not a massive fan of Ricky Gervais. His sneery cheap shot approach to ironic belittlement and provocation sometimes just leaves me a little cold, its cruelty only ever saved and salved by Merchant, Pilkington and the whole surrounding cast of Extras.
Saying that and having almost switched it off at so many points, the gift for my patience (or stubbornness) came in the last 5 minutes (as I am assuming they’d planned).
At the final gasp, with his perfect shiny dream of rock stardom in tatters, the uncomfortable Brent is saved by the until then unnoticed and desperately awkward affections of the lady in accounts; his silent admirer for so long. She has looked through and beyond his vulgar and desperate showboating and seen insecurities run riot in a man who perhaps deserved a second chance. A real one. A flawed, awkward, imperfect diamond of a chance perhaps – but in spite of and because of its clumsy nature – a real human and ordinary one.
David Brent is blind to his real dream state. His notion of prosperity is rooted in social status and the trappings that come with it – rock n roll – the irony being that he impoverishes himself in pursuit of it (cashing in various pensions to try and realise it).
Prosperity is defined as something that encompasses wealth but in reality includes other factors such as happiness and well being. But we seem to have lost the ability to comprehend and measure the balance of material riches with those of a more emotionally fulfilling and human kind.
A concept of Prosperity that balances emotional and spiritual contentedness with material security and pleasure seems just beyond our ken, destined to see saw from one extreme to the other. Achieving that balance is somewhat akin to the parlour game challenge of patting our heads while rubbing our stomachs at one and the same time.
David’s painful journey to realisation and possible redemption for me is a beautiful summary of the state we’re in. Much like his enthralment to rock n roll stardom and public recognition as the source of his happiness, we are distracted by the Kardashian model of prosperity – a very American model of perfection. Perfect teeth, cheekbones nose and ass: a magazine home, a windswept and unusual partner, a face-book page crowded with a multitude of cool and just so ‘friends’ – a model of prosperity that is the antithesis of what might actually make us happy. An impossible dream that leaves us feeling lesser and unsatisfied. A model built to relentlessly disappoint.
The flawed awkward joy of his second chance is a very British thing. As a nation we are truly at our happiest amongst the flawed and the awkward. We are enamoured most by the almost and the not quite. Perfect things leave us wanting and dislocated. We rarely trust perfect.
But, we seem to be transfixed by the pursuit of it, to the degree that like David, we will impoverish ourselves in our pursuit of it. (Credit card debt in the UK is staggering.)
Watching David Brent coincided soon after with the annual Yuletide Curtis-fest of Love Actually. Love Actually is the closest we get to a very British sense of imperfect lives rendered perfect in film – and every one of them, though pulped through the Daily Mail filter of mawkish sentimentality is thankfully still slightly flawed and awkward and uncomfortable.
Unlike its US counterparts, the characters do not always square the circle. The cheated upon wife doesn’t turn into a vengeful super woman, have an extreme makeover, sleep with the football team, take up firearms and beat a horde of Russian special forces or become the new police chief on a mission. She simply gets on.
The hopelessly smitten friend of bridegroom doesn’t get the girl. He doesn’t transform into a lothario or a serial killer. And he certainly doesn’t find a cure for cancer and global recognition as some astonishing cosmic recompense for the loss of his one love. He simply says – that’s enough now – and gets on. He is still the loser in this. But we don’t care.
The irony was that the screening of Love Actually was repeatedly interrupted by a commercial for a viewing App that offered thousands of hours of reality TV. The scripted ugly slutty buttered shiny kind – delivered for what are presented as Fuck You It’s All About Me people.
We like to pretend that our reality TV is so different to the US kind – that it is in some way more real – but we are just aping every piece of Real Housewives, Real Teenagers, Real Truckers, Real Dentists Real Vets fodder that creeps across the Atlantic. Hyper reality is a US confection. And like all of the more recent US dream factory propaganda there is something unpleasant and slightly toxic about them. More importantly there is something unreachable in them – and not in a good way. We are bingeing on these boxed sets of Krispy Kreme content to the point of becoming spiritually obese.
Shiny is the American way. I am uncertain as to whether it is born of an immigrant nation desperately trying to expunge the dark sigh of bleak want and soiled existence that their ancestors lived under; or whether it is simply that the staggering output of the dream factory has all but obscured the less shiny truths of everyday life. Regardless, there is a chasm of difference between the perfect screenplay of It’s a Wonderful Life and Frozen – stories of perfect redemption – and our British kind. The Kings Speech and Wallace & Gromit come from a very different sensibility. The American ‘Awkward’ is a very different creature to the British one: theirs rooted in eye rolling teen embarrassment saved by a trending catch phrase; ours just rooted in, well, the awkwardness of awkward.
We take a run at shiny but really, our heart isn’t in it – we like people who are not quite 100%. We quite like a bit of a shambles and a rough edge. When all is said and done we’d take dusty Dad’s Army over sleek Navy Seals any old day.
And it strikes me that when we try and engage Brits in embracing a reimagined prosperity – one where we eschew the shiny for something more within our material, environmental and spiritual means – we need to remember this truth.
We need to remember David Brent.
The corporate Davos schtick of Millennials saving the world all by themselves with a smart phone and a face book page, and the hyper intellectual nirvana of Sustainable Living Plans may work at a CEO keynote level. BUT they are simply too perfectly rendered and presented for the ordinary people we are trying to reach – not a hairline crack in their purpose and their intent. They are quite simply unhuman. More importantly, they lack any sense of the banal – the most precious, present state of being we have. Banality. The beautiful kind. The flawed and awkward kind. The silences and shuffling kind. The kind we measure the original, the fresh, the remarkable, the uncommon and the brilliant by.
In the UK we need our prosperity to be aspirational, yes. It needs to make us feel smart and satisfied. But not self-satisfied. And it needs to allow for our flawed and imperfect selves.
It needs to allow for us to fail at it and be OK. To slip and re-offend and be forgiven. A humanity that the US approach to Better sometimes seems to deny.
I am reminded of sitting in a working session in San Francisco with a group of astonishingly intelligent, mission minded and highly driven entrepreneurs and business leaders with a scattering of social entrepreneurs and innovators amongst us for good measure.
In a discussion with a woman who was trying to re-engineer public school meals away from the fat and salt riddled fare that had previously been on offer to one packed to the gunnels with organic greens, fruit, meat substitutes and pulses, the startling difference between the ‘no quarter no leeway‘ approach and the ‘muddle through, get there in the end’ kind was demonstrated in all its glory.
She felt the solution was to create a brutal and absolute transition. Burgers, pizza and donuts one day – tofu and vegan-cheese lentil burgers and multiple greens the next.
My concern was that this absolute approach might create an extreme equal and opposite reaction from both children and parents that would negate all her best intentions and objectives. There was no room for dissent or manoeuvre. Not a breath of stumbling or conflicted self. No cracks no dents no imperfections. No flex.
So I suggested that she perhaps set aside a corner of each box – and call it ‘the naughty step’ – that place where fundamentally good but sometimes flawed and mischievous children get put from time to time. And in this corner would be a portion-controlled treat – an echo of the old school meals and less healthy fare. Naughty but nice. And a lot less Amish in its intention.
The expression on her face was a sight to behold. I may as well have been speaking Old Pennsylvania Dutch for all sense this seemed to make to her.
My suggestion that she allow for the human flaw of failing and people’s desire for something other than her perfectly modulated, highly strung and calorie and sodium controlled solution was an anathema to her. All or nothing. Black and White. No fringed and frayed edges. Old diet and food stuffs equal death. There was no leeway in her solution for those who might struggle towards a better solution in their own good stumble-tumble-and-trip time and way.
A big ambitious destination can be an onerous one: daunting and overwhelming when seen in isolation – but as long as the journey to it has some light and shade; some play and humanity with the best interests of our flawed selves at its heart, we’re far more likely to embark on it. But I sense this a very British thing.
Being a bit almost and not quite. Imperfect. Flawed. This is the British way. Saying and doing the wrong thing every now and then. Making ourselves look a prat. Failing. Getting through. The universe of the underdog is our universe. We love them – because they are relatable. This is very different to the knowing and snarky failure of Family Guy and Ted.
And in the universe of the underdog, banality is one of the most undervalued states of our existence – and the most profound. Truly universal, it is one we can all relate to.
Banality and the poetry of its daily occurrence is again very British. The perfunctory observations and recordings of the minutiae and mundane are written into everything from high culture to low art – from Syd Barratt’s ‘I’ve got a bike you can ride it of you like’ and Bowie famously singing ‘there’s lemons on sale again’ in Life On Mars – his paean to the banality of Britain in the 1970s – to the Matchstick Men and Women of Lowry’s town-scapes to Alan Bennet’s forensic interrogation of the very British nature of relationships played out in Father Father Burning Bright and The Lady In The Van: microscopically dissected renderings of uninvited friendships and still-born familial love. There is little to separate the knowing observation of Bennet and the Kaiser Chiefs as they sing ‘I tried to get to my taxi. The man in a tracksuit attacks me. He said that he saw it before me.’
In the awkward truths of hum-drum, everyday rituals is where this very British humanity lies. Bennet captures fireflies of human emotion amidst the ordinariness of shopping lists, bed-socks, Camden Traffic Wardens, NHS hospital porters and the sweet & cigarette shop plying emphysemic pensioners with Benson & Hedges and multipacks of Rolos.
Unsurprisingly, banality is the point where another character from Brent’s creator, Ricky Gervais, and David Bowie, the Glam troubadour of British hum drum collide. The moment is captured in a comedy scene that is, for me, the most perfect distillation and summary of how flaws and banality are celebrated in the UK.
The scene, from Extras, involves Gervais’s star-struck character Andy Milman trying to get into the tiny roped-off VIP area of a club to buddy up to David Bowie. On being beckoned over, Andy finds himself making a heart-wrenching admission of his own mediocrity and failure only to have it thrown both to the crowd and in his face by Bowie with that song:
Pathetic little fat man;
No-ones bloody laughing.
The clown that no one laughs at
They all just wish he’d die.
He sold his soul for a shard of fame
Catch phrase and wigs
And the jokes are lame
He’s got no style,
He’s got no grace;
He’s banal and facile
He’s a fat waste of space.
And suddenly there is a quiet alchemy at work. Suddenly, we find ourselves beginning to consider the unpalatable – we find ourselves starting to like an unlikable character a little bit. Because his flaws have been writ large for all to see. Cruel perhaps; but human nonetheless.
Banality of this kind and the flawed lives it is rooted in – this is where we need to test the new model of prosperity for British people. This is where we need to find its insights and its language. Not in the boardrooms of multi-nationals and TEDx talks.
So here’s to banality. And flaws. And human stuff. Messy, imperfect, uncomfortable and awkward human stuff – and their role in a new and more deeply connective narrative and model of prosperity. For the UK at least.