Dark as they look, Stephen Merchant’s spectacle frames glint red when caught in winter sunlight.
As he talks, sprawled on a sofa in a studio in west London, he stares over the top of them with pink-rimmed, pale-lashed eyes, his head resting on his hand.
In the fingers of the other hand he holds a fat Bolivar cigar which he draws on repeatedly until he disappears behind a wreath of smoke. When he reappears, he looks at the cigar and nods to himself.
It’s all true, apart from the bit about the cigar. I borrowed that from a history essay Merchant wrote as a student. He had been asked to discuss the Balfour Declaration and began with a vivid, imaginary account of Churchill chewing on a cigar as he prepared a White Paper on it. The essay came back with ‘Daily Mail?’ written in the margin.
Merchant mentions this story because he says it’s what journalists always do. ‘Journalistic speculation,’ he calls it. ‘You will go away and come up with some psychological insights about me, and people will assume that because they appeared in print they must be accurate.’
Let us start with some facts, then. Merchant was born in 1974 and grew up in Bristol. His father was a plumber. He got three As at A-level and a place to read film and literature at Warwick University.
A year after graduating, he went to work for the radio station Xfm. That was in 1997. His boss was Ricky Gervais. Together they went on to write The Office and Extras and, in so doing, invented a new genre – the comedy of embarrassment.
They also won armfuls of awards – between them an Emmy, two Golden Globes, three Baftas and five British Comedy Awards. They also became rich, especially when an American version of The Office was made (they are its executive producers). Their DVD sales have been record-breaking, as have their podcasts – banter between Gervais, Merchant and their friend Karl Pilkington. They entered The Guinness Book of Records for the most downloads: five million in a month.
So, before I start with the speculation, how would he describe himself? ‘Lanky funnyman [he’s 6ft 7in]. That’s what I’d push for.’
And psychologically? ‘A bit cautious, maybe. Probably not as gregarious as Ricky … I wish I had more angst and torment.’ Because? ‘It would make me much more interesting.’
He thinks he’s shallow? Long pause. ‘Not shallow, no. It’s more I have a fear of not having anything new to say.’
I feel a psychological insight coming on. Although he is warm and friendly, I think the business of being interviewed makes Merchant feel uncomfortable because he can’t control it. He is happiest when experiencing life second-hand, you see. ‘I always feel myself stepping out of myself,’ he tells me. ‘I always feel I am watching things from a removed point. I’m standing back thinking: What’s happening here? What are the dynamics? I always float above things, looking at the drama.’
He’s emotionally detached, then.
‘Yes, and I don’t think it’s healthy. I think it can translate as an emotional coldness. It’s like spending your entire holiday worrying about the photos you’re going to take. You become so obsessed with capturing the beauty of the Taj Mahal you forget to actually look at it and enjoy it. I suppose I have always wanted to live in a film. Take actual experience and make it artificial. Have a beginning, middle and end. And a cool soundtrack.’
Which leads us to his new BBC 6 radio show, in which he plays music that interests him and chats about the tracks, sometimes with guests. He is obsessed with music, he says – an eclectic mix, from Stevie Wonder to the Pixies and Guillemots. ‘I’m one of these perverts who like playing music at people. When I drive people in my car, they have to listen to my CD compilations. Don’t be bringing your own CDs when you drive with me.’
He locks the doors? ‘Lock the doors. Ride the volume. Drive for miles.’
He grins his wide, Creature Comforts grin. I ask him if his passengers are allowed to talk. ‘They’re allowed to ask me questions about each track, at the end. But no talking over the top of them. I’m fairly ruthless about that. No conversation. Just calmly listen to the music. That’s what it’s there for.’
He speaks, by the way, with rolling West Country vowels. It’s an attractive voice but he doesn’t seem to like it. He and Gervais gave the least sympathetic character in The Office, Gareth, the same accent. ‘It came about because, while we were improvising, I would take the part of Gareth and because I have a Bristol accent we started to have that feel in our heads. Also there is an association with dimness. My accent has a yokelish quality to it. So we asked Mackenzie Crook [Gareth] to emulate it.’
And here, ladies and gentlemen, we arrive at the second psychological insight. Merchant tells me The Office is not a reflection of his character, but the podcasts are. ‘I’ve got pretensions, I think. I have to display consciously what little learning I might have had. I think Ricky has fewer urges to display his natural intelligence. He has an incredible memory and studied philosophy at London University but is happy for people to think he is an oik from Reading. I quite like the idea of people knowing I come from a working-class background but went to university.’
He’s insecure? ‘I don’t know whether it is insecurity, but when I was younger, my heroes were the Cambridge Footlights types, like John Cleese and Stephen Fry. Clever men who made clever plays on words. I aspired to that.’
Merchant is 32, 14 years younger than Gervais. ‘I don’t think Ricky was a mentor in the traditional sense. He is much younger in his outlook than most people his age. He always seemed very savvy to me, thinking three steps ahead. He was quite stable in terms of his opinions and his relationship with Jane [his partner].’
Gervais taught him how to be less mannered as a radio performer. ‘He encouraged me to drop some of the façade I had learned on student radio, all those DJ mannerisms – “and now at the top of the hour”. Me trying to sound more slick than I naturally was.’
What did Gervais get out of the partnership? ‘I think he liked my deadpan reactions to things. I just used to tell him stories of the pitiful episodes in my life and he would find them amusing. They usually involved failed romantic encounters. It taps into the basic human fear that you will end up alone, embarrassed and humiliated.’
Gervais and Merchant have been dubbed the Lennon and McCartney of comedy writing, but that celebrated partnership imploded. I ask Merchant whether he consciously avoids arguments with Gervais. ‘I think we’ve been lucky in that he has done other stuff and I, through sheer laziness, haven’t. So we are not competitive in that sense. And we don’t socialise together as much as we used to.’
There hasn’t been a Yoko factor yet … Is he courting at the moment? ‘Blimey you slipped that question in! I don’t like talking about these things … There is a girl, but I’m very protective of that aspect of my life, for her sake. Besides, the Yoko factor was to do with Yoko wanting to contribute artistically and I don’t think that applies with our girlfriends.’
Although Karl Pilkington is a former radio producer, and a bestselling author, he is usually described in the press as an idiot savant. When I met him last summer, he told me that Gervais could be quite possessive of him, not wanting to miss out on any strangely wise – or stupid – observations he might have made to his girlfriend, Suzanne. Does the same apply to Merchant? ‘I don’t think Ricky feels that way about me. Not in quite the same way. I think I would feel jealous, though, if he wanted to work with someone else, because it is a very enjoyable process. Ricky has great enthusiasm. He bounces in most days riffing on some idea or other, making me laugh. It’s exhilarating to be around someone that creative.’
We discuss their working method. ‘Ricky and I always sit together. Sit in a room and stare at each other. I won’t let him play music, which he often wants to, because I find it distracting. We have a barren office. Few distractions. We throw ideas and anecdotes back and forth until something bubbles to the surface. Initially, we will talk about the mood of the project, trying to find a common language. With The Office, it started with realising we had met similar types of people. We had both had a little experience of offices and understood the dynamics of them.’
I ask about his childhood in Bristol, specifically whether it was true that his mother was, to use a catchphrase of his, a crack-whore. ‘Yes, my mother was a crack-whore and my father was a fighter pilot. A lot of people thought they would never end up together but they did. Very pleased for them.’
Actually, his mother was a nursery nurse. It was the comedian Richard Pryor whose mother was a prostitute, a biographical detail Merchant has said he envies because his own childhood was boringly pleasant.
Did his parents have aspirations for him to break into the middle classes? ‘Yes. I think my father would have liked to have gone to university but circumstances prevented him. He did not go to a school where they primed you for it. Ricky and I have discussed a new project called The Men from the Pru, which would look at the small-time lives of men working for Prudential Insurance, men with aspirations to move out of their class. I always feel moved by the idea of frustrated dreams and lives of quiet desperation.’
His father, Ron, had a cameo in The Office as a handyman who becomes transfixed by the documentary cameras whenever he walks into shot. Did if feel strange giving his father a job?
‘There wasn’t any great significance to it. He just put on this funny, deadpan face one day and it really tickled Ricky and me. He’s a naturally funny man. A guy to break the ice at parties.’
It was his father who first made him laugh. ‘He’d do silly things. Always mucking around. You know, he’d pull his underpants too tight and walk funny.’ Are they similar in character? ‘In some instances yes, though I don’t feel like I am a show-off naturally. If I go to a party I will happily listen to someone else be entertaining. I used to be quite shy.’ Was that to do with his height? ‘Not so much now. When I was younger, yes, I would feel self-conscious about it. I would get stared at.’
He had a cameo himself in The Office, playing nerdy Gareth’s even nerdier friend, Oggy. David Brent (Gervais) made fun of his height and called him a ‘goggle-eyed freak’, at which point he ran from the room. In Extras, Merchant plays a more robust character, Darren Lamb, the incompetent agent of Andy Millman (Gervais), a role for which he won a British Comedy Award for Best TV Actor, beating Gervais to the title. Gervais was present at the event via satellite from New York. ‘A British Comedy Award, quite a prize,’ he enthused. ‘Not to me: I’ve won American ones.’
Merchant plans to do less comedy in future and more drama. He appeared briefly in an episode of 24, and a part in the Brideshead Revisited remake has also been lined up. He doesn’t like learning lines, though. He has to write them down and hide them around the set, which is why he is often sitting down in Extras.
Performing on stage terrifies him. ‘Yet I have a weird compulsion to do it. I suppose it is a challenge. I don’t like what it means to be labelled a comedian. I find it a bit distasteful. The sort of person who says: do you know what? I am so entertaining I am going to walk on that stage on my own and amuse you for an hour. What does that say about someone’s ego?’
But his greatest fear is not of forgetting lines or being on stage – it is of being bored. ‘I can’t bear a bore, someone who dominates a party. It exhausts me. When I talk to a bore I feel the life draining out of me. I don’t want to have to compete.’
That’s why he doesn’t really enjoy hanging out with fellow comedians. ‘They are the worst audience because they consider it a sign of weakness if they laugh.’ An exception is Gervais. ‘The great thing about Ricky is that he loves being entertained. He is a great audience.’
Gervais likes to boast about his wealth, as a joke. In his new stand-up show, Fame, he recalls how annoyed he felt when the Sun revealed that his new house in Hampstead cost £2.5 million, because in fact it had cost £3.5 million. Merchant, too, lives in Hampstead. Just how rich is he? ‘It’s never as much as you think. I’m not fabulously rich but I’m not on the breadline either. I’m in the sort of comfortable position where I can do things that entertain me, like this music show on radio.’
On the contrast with his impecunious childhood, he has this to say: ‘I’m very cautious with money because I never had any growing up. I’m sort of wary of it. I’m not a gambler. I’m careful. I’m always half expecting people to turn round and say: “Right, you’ve had your moment, Merchant. That was it. You blew it all? Well I’m sorry, no more.” Money doesn’t govern me. I’m not lavish. I don’t buy jewellery or fast cars. I do think: would my father buy this? I will go out of my way to find a bargain. If I buy a DVD and then find a cheaper one a few shops down, I’m furious. I’m angry.’
Does money embarrass him? ‘Yes, because there is a presumption that I have a great deal of it. I don’t know how I am supposed to react to it and behave with it. I don’t know what the etiquette is. Am I supposed to buy everyone a drink when I walk into a bar? That would be crazy.’
Like Gervais, Merchant is a canny observer of human nature, especially of people who lead ordinary lives.
Presumably now that they lead extraordinary lives – living in big houses in Hampstead and hanging out with Hollywood stars – they will have to rely on their imaginations more. ‘True, it’s not as easy as it was for us to observe people in pubs or on buses. But I do consciously try to remain in touch with that. I listen to builders who come to do work on the house. And cab drivers. And there’s a guy who works in the supermarket where I buy my stuff and he is an extraordinarily eccentric character. He sings and tells stories and I always make a beeline for him.’
Expect to see a supermarket character in a future sitcom. Meanwhile, Merchant has to get back to editing the DVD of Extras, the extra bits.
He grins, shakes hands and rises from the sofa like a giraffe with sideburns. As he strides off I recall his self-description. He is lanky and funny. But he is also interesting, even if he doesn’t see it himself.