Ricky Gervais's Extras
Sir Ian McKellen, Germaine Greer and Mark Kermode line up for this week's episode
‘The BBC – still run by Jews and queers is it?’ These aren’t the words of Nick Griffin, but of cuddly former children’s TV star Keith Chegwin in the first part of the new series of ‘Extras’. Needless to say, Chegwin isn’t quite playing himself – more a version of himself created by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant – but it’s certainly the most squirm-inducingly uncomfortable celebrity cameo yet in this series, and it’s up against some tough competition: Les Dennis’ desperate panto star, Ben Stiller’s conceited director and Kate Winslet’s shallow actress are but three.
In the new series Chegwin is a last-minute replacement for Paul Shane in Andy Millman’s (Gervais) sitcom ‘When The Whistle Blows’, which is finally being produced by the BBC. Problem is, it’s not turning out to be the sitcom Millman had in his head. The actors are awful (particularly Chegwin), it’s chock full of catchphrases, his character has to wear a comedy wig and glasses and it’s broader than a natural canal in Norfolk. Meanwhile Maggie (Ashley Jensen) is beating off the endlessly narcissistic Orlando Bloom on the set of a courtroom romantic comedy.
So one half of ‘Extras’ has stayed the same, while the other has moved into the same self-reflective territory that ‘The Office’ did when Brent became a minor celebrity in Slough. This is the most interesting development. For a sitcom, it’s a risk to give the central character what he’s been striving for so early in the piece, but Gervais and Merchant are at their best on the perils of success, on how – despite never having had to do it themselves – ideals and dignity have to be so readily discarded. Towards the end we get to see ‘When The Whistle Blows’ in all its ghastliness, with Gervais putting in a gurning turn as Millman’s factory boss, which eclipses even his innuendo-laden panto genie in series one.
‘We didn’t just want it to be a spoof, but like a real sitcom that wasn’t to our taste – we wanted it to be a good bad sitcom,’ he says. ‘It’s texture, that’s all, but it would be madness for us to be talking about the sitcom and never see it.’
The sitcom-within-a-sitcom could also be seen as a way for Gervais and Merchant to have a thinly disguised pop at the current crop of lazy catchphrase comedians, although they deny this charge. ‘It’s about Andy’s show being taken away from him,’ says Merchant. ‘The fact that there’s people in the studio audience wearing catchphrase T-shirts is more about them. I used to wear a Vic Reeves one – ‘You Wouldn’t Let It Lie’ – like I was somehow claiming a bit of their comedy.’ ‘It’s there but for the grace of God go I, really’ adds Gervais.
Later in the series Sir Ian McKellen, Chris Martin, David Bowie and Daniel Radcliffe appear. None, presumably, will be subjected to the kind of humiliation dished out to Chegwin, but all will be unfavourably deconstructed in one way or another. Why do they do it? Gervais is in no doubt. ‘It’s mostly because I’ve met them and they’re fans of “The Office”. Some people say they do it for their credibility but it’s nothing to do with that. I still consider they’re doing us a favour.’
Nonetheless, Les Dennis has had a huge credibility leap since appearing in the first series. Will Chegwin have a similar renaissance after playing himself as a racist, homophobic, anti-Semitic crap actor? Such is the Midas touch of Gervais and Merchant, he probably will.
Extras, Thursday 14, 9pm, BBC2
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