There's no missing Stephen Merchant. When The Office, which he co-wrote with Ricky Gervais, first arrived on BBC2 he was, to most viewers, no more than a name on the credits. Eminence grise probably isn't the phrase, but we'll use it anyway.
All these years later, Merchant is now at least as visible as his old chum. He had a supporting role opposite Hugh Jackman in Logan. He was in The Girl in the Spider's Web. The visibility is accentuated by his great height and impossibly amiable face.
There he is, taking up a large corner of the bar in the Merrion Hotel. Do people expect him to be surprised when they recognise him?
“Some people do. Some people are nervous. Some are rude. I’ll have a man in a van point and shout: ‘Office!’ It’s not even a catchphrase. Just something I did.”
The something he's done this week is to direct Fighting With My Family. Featuring another powerhouse lead performance from Florence Pugh, the movie charts the rise of professional wrestler Saraya "Paige" Bevis from working-class roots in Norwich to the WWE. The Bevis clan were running a rust-bucket wrestling operation in their hometown when they happened upon an audition notice for the big league. Paige made it in. Her brother did not.
"It began life as a documentary," he says. "It was seen by Dwayne Johnson. He was in a hotel, couldn't sleep and saw this. He is from a wrestling family. So he connected with it. I'd worked with him before and my name came up. So they sent me the documentary."
The film is – as you’d expect from the famously friendly Merchant – warm about the Bevis family and open-minded about professional wrestling. There is barely a sharp angle in the entire piece.
“Initially I was sneering a bit at them,” he says. “After 20 minutes of the documentary, I fell in love with them. When the brother got rejected and the daughter got signed I was devastated. I was hooked. That was Act One.”
Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson's appearance in the film will puzzle some Merchant fans. He appears as a version of himself every bit as helpful and unpretentious as we've heard him to be. Yet in Extras, their follow-up to The Office, Merchant and Gervais relished in subverting their famous guest stars: Kate Winslet, David Bowie, Ben Stiller.
“The odd thing is because I have known Wayne for a while I wasn’t thinking of him as a celebrity,” Merchant says. “He was this guy who was involved with the story. These were just anecdotes from real people. It was only later that I realised I’ve done another thing where a celebrity plays themselves.”
He goes on to explain that, after Extras, he wanted to move away from satire of celebrities, but it followed him to Los Angeles. Nicole Kidman ended up playing herself in his series Hello Ladies. But his relationship with fame has changed. He's Nicole Kidman now. Right?
“I think that’s it. Ha ha!” he says. “I am no longer thinking about the celebrity aspect of this. It’s a profession.”
How far we have come. I wonder if he sees any of his own family in the Bevis clan. They are a troubled lot, but they seem to move in a similar working-class milieu to that which surrounded the young Merchant in Bristol.
“It didn’t feel alien to me,” he says. “They had a more rough-and-tumble background. Their dad has done some prison time – as has one of the brothers. They struggled with addiction and things like that. But the core of them – working-class roots, the earthiness, using humour to communicate, not having much money, having one kid who was a bit ambitious – that all felt very relatable to me.”
Were his own family surprised when he ran away to join the circus?
“They were,” he says. “Paige was more primed to do that than I was. She came from a family of wrestlers. I would say to my parents: ‘I want to be John Cleese.’ They were never negative. They just thought: he’ll grow out of it.”
There are no obvious routes to fame in show business, but Merchant's was stranger than many. He studied film and literature at the University of Warwick and then spent a while bombing at comedy clubs. His unlikely break came when he was hired as assistant to the head of speech at the radio station XFM. His boss turned out to be Gervais. Their producer was the delightfully odd Karl Pilkington, who would later achieve fame through the team's podcast.
Gervais, 13 years older than Merchant, had already brushed against fame. He’d managed an early version of Suede. He released records with a band named Seona Dancing. The two seem like a perfectly complementary partnership. One is tall. The other is short. Merchant has a gentle persona. Gervais is more abrasive.
“It’s funny. Isn’t it? There is a tendency – which we’re all guilty of – of mythologising. I was a big Beatles fan growing up and you get these biographies where they say that Lennon was the tough cynic and McCartney was the idealist. But Lennon is just as sentimental.”
So what was the truth?
“It’s a much less defined thing,” he says. “I would say when we met I was ambitious. I was in my 20s. I had ambitions to do comedy. I was: ‘get up and go’. Ricky was more in a groove. He was in his mid-30s and settled down. He had lived a larger portion of his life.”
Looking back, it intrigues me that Merchant chose not to appear in The Office. He explains that there was some vague notion he might play the useless Gareth Keenan, but, when Mackenzie Crook auditioned, the part drifted in another direction.
“He did a voice a little like mine because we asked him to do that,” he says. “It seems now that it could have been me. But we were writing it. We were directing it. Ricky was in it. We had more than enough to do. It wasn’t a plan: here’s how we get famous. It was never that.”
Yet they did become famous. The Office snuck out on BBC2 on a weeknight during the summer of 2001. If this had happened in 2019 the word (good or bad) would have spread instantly. This was, in one sense, still the 20th century. Actual word-of-mouth – that’s to say words spoken from mouths – helped figures grow steadily through the first six episodes. But it tool a while for the series to become a proper phenomenon and David Brent, Gervais’s creepy boss, to define the era.
“It went under the radar a bit,” he says. “Then it started to win awards. It came out in the summer and by Christmas, the DVD started selling. It was given as a gift at Christmas. It was set in an office and people who worked in offices would give it to their friends. By the time we got to series two any article about office life had a picture of Ricky.”
They had created a modern archetype.
“Yes, that’s it.”
It would be a mistake to revisit The Office (though David Brent, A Life on the Road, which Gervais wrote on his own, wasn’t a total disaster). But they surely could do another version of The Ricky Gervais Show podcast. Those glorious, rambling conversations – most spinning out from Pilkington’s wild surmises – invented and perfected a genre.
“It would be fun to do it again,” he says. “But even by the time we’d finished that we’d run out of steam. Those three guys had sat in that room talking bulls**t for hours. We ran out of things to say.”
I resist the temptation to shout “Podcast!” at him.
The three great wrestling films
It’s a shorter list than the huge tally of classic boxing films, but there are three excellent films dealing with the various disciplines.
Nacho Libre (2006)
Jared Hess's films really do have a cult following. That's to say most people know nothing of the movies he made after Napoleon Dynamite, but those who like them really love them. Jack Black stars as a cook in a Mexican monastery who accidentally becomes a wrestler. It's properly hilarious. Also seek out Hess's Gentlemen Broncos.
The Wrestler (2008)
It's over a decade since Mickey Rourke supposedly re-invented himself with his Oscar-nominated turn as a washed-up wrestler in an uncharacteristically restrained film from Darren Aronofsky. The film is as good a piece of post-Cassavetes naturalism as we saw that decade. Rourke lost best actor to Sean Penn and went back to doing what he does.
Yes, we understand that this is about your proper Olympic wrestling rather than its "sports entertainment" cousin. Everybody involved is at their very best in Bennett Miller's enormously creepy study of billionaire Jon du Pont's efforts to revitalise the US team. Steve Carell is du Pont. Channing Tatum is his protégé. The atmosphere is suffocating.