More than eight years after The Office changed British comedy forever, Ricky Gervais has helped create a new television sitcom that finds its laughs in the drudgery and absurdities of another unglamorous workplace.
Rather than the Slough office of the Wernham Hogg paper company, the action, or inaction, of his latest project takes place in a mobile phone outlet. PhoneShop, which has been script-edited by Gervais, will air for the first time this evening on Channel 4 as part of the broadcaster's experimental Comedy Showcase strand. The pilot show was so highly regarded internally that the E4 channel has already commissioned a full six-part series for the new year.
The comedy is set in a phone store similar to those found in shopping malls across Britain, where Christopher (played by Tom Bennett) is the new recruit facing the one-day trial of selling a phone by 6pm. This is not such an easy task for a graduate lacking the street-smart skills required for survival in the battlefield of "high street UK", particularly if he is to live up to his predecessor, the super salesman "Little Gary" Patel, who has been arrested for fighting with the boys from Top Shop.
PhoneShop was created, written and produced by Phil Bowker, the head of comedy at the independent production company Talkback Thames. Bowker got Gervais his first job on television a decade ago, and the pair have remained friends ever since.
In 1999 Bowker invited a young scriptwriter Stephen Merchant to help make the Channel Five programme The Jim Tavaré Show. Merchant, who was later to co-write The Office, brought with him his "hilarious" friend Gervais, who had recently stopped working at radio station Xfm.
"Ricky used to come over every day with brilliant material," Bowker recalled. "He's one of those people that inhabit new characters and can just riff. He had everyone in stitches." Gervais appeared on the show with characters that included a nosy Customs officer, and from there was born a television career that has generated seven Baftas, three Golden Globes and two Emmys.
When Bowker finished his script for PhoneShop he became alarmed that the shop manager Lance (played by Martin Trenaman), might be regarded as a variation on David Brent. So he sent a rough cut to Gervais, who said he liked it so much he wanted to work on the project.
Angela Jain, the head of E4, said that Gervais's involvement in PhoneShop "sharpens it up – he's obviously a fantastic writer and performer". She said she had no hesitation in commissioning a series on the evidence of the pilot. "The premise is really simple: it's about a group of people that work in a phone shop," she said. "Everyone's got a mobile phone and has had some encounter in a phone shop. It's also about those difficult dead-end jobs that everyone has at least once in their lives."
The comedy has been heavily researched to capture the intensely competitive world of selling phones. Co-writer Jon MacQueen was despatched to the high street and discovered how phone shop boys dreamed of girls from Zara but were sometimes prepared to "go academy" with a rising star from Claire's Accessories. He learned how they fight over the right to control the shop's music and lock up the window shutter at the end of the day. "We've all been in these shops and you feel mugged when you come out with a phone you didn't want," says Bowker. "But they earn £9,000 a year and the rest is commission – they need to stitch you up."
Meanwhile Gervais is developing another work-based comedy, this time a feature film called The Man from the Pru, a coming-of-age story about two friends working in insurance. That script has been written with Merchant.