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Last Updated: Friday, 15 December 2006, 16:18 GMT
Faces of the week
Faces of the Week

Our regular look at some of the faces which have made the news this week. Above are STEPHEN MERCHANT (main picture), with ZARA PHILLIPS, TOYTOWN, WILL SELF and BISHOP OF SOUTHWARK.

Written by BBC News Profiles Unit's Bob Chaundy


"There's nothing funnier than a man from Reading onwards towards Bristol trying to be taken seriously," Stephen Merchant once said.

Merchant, a born-and-bred Bristolian, was speaking, at the time, of Gareth, the Territorial Army-loving character with the pudding-basin haircut from The Office, the hit TV series he co-wrote with Reading-born Ricky Gervais.

He could equally have been speaking of Darren Lamb, the part of the useless goggle-eyed agent he plays in the pair's follow-up series, Extras, for which Stephen Merchant has just been named Best TV Comedy Actor at the British Comedy Awards.

The award is quite an achievement for Stephen Merchant whose acting experience is limited to a couple of walk-on parts.

Comedy has been a lifelong passion.

Stephen Merchant posing with his Best Actor Award
Stephen Merchant's Best Actor award upstaged Ricky Gervais.
Born in 1974, Merchant claims to have had a happy and normal upbringing, with none of the 'comedy to mask his misery' type of experiences.

What did set him apart, though, was that he was tall, 6'7" to be precise. And that was something he shared with one of his comedy heroes, John Cleese.

Like Cleese, Merchant dreamed of starring in the Cambridge Footlights, but, he didn't make it to Cambridge University despite gaining three As at A-level. He ended up instead, studying Film and Literature, his two hobbies, at Warwick University.

Here he became involved in student radio and his dream of working in comedy took hold. He became busy storing up future script ideas thanks to experience in boring office jobs, most notably a stint in a call-centre.

His big break came in 1997 when he applied for a job as Ricky Gervais's assistant at radio station XFM. Gervais had the position of Head of Speech, curious in a music station.

"If you promise to do all the work, you've got the job," said Gervais.

The pair found that they shared the same dark humour and struck up an instant rapport. People who worked there talked of an almost constant double-act played out in their office.

They were given their own show.

But when the BBC invited Merchant to join a TV production course that he'd applied for months before, he jumped at the chance.

It enabled him to make a short film about a character which he and Ricky Gervais had dreamt up at XFM, entitled Seedy Boss.

Merchant and Gervais on set during filming of The Office
On set during filming of The Office
It was an embryonic David Brent. The film found its way to the controller of BBC Two and, first a pilot, and then The Office series, was commissioned.

There's an old broadcasters' joke that asks, what is the difference between comedy and drama?

Drama is when a little old lady walks along the street and slips on a banana skin. Comedy is when a little old lady walks along the street, sees a banana skin, steps carefully over it and falls down a hole.

With Stephen Merchant and Ricky Gervais, comic drama is, as they once put it, when the little old lady slips on a banana skin, having 30 seconds earlier told her boss, with quiet dignity, where to go.

Its satire is at times excruciating.

When David Brent patronises a black colleague or when Maggie in Extras commits a faux pas with a girl with cerebral palsy, the joke is on the main character. Gervais has called it "comedy of embarrassment".

Yet, as cringing as it often is, the characters are easy to identify with. We all know a David Brent. It's realism with a universal appeal and The Office has been sold to 80 countries. And the Americans have made their own version.

Extras, with its cast of Hollywood stars to boot, is also selling well.

It's ironic that Extras' take on celebrity, namely the superficiality of it, has made a celebrity of Stephen Merchant. His success has also made him rich.

But you're unlikely to see him regularly in Heat or Hello magazine since he takes no interest in the showbiz circus, not to mention conspicuous consumption.

He and Gervais could have made another series of The Office but they judged that its time had run.

His biggest regret is that where once the pair would spend hours in cafes, eavesdropping on conversations for comedy ideas, today they're too easily recognisable.

Stephen Merchant dreamt, as a teenager, of making a cult TV comedy series and achieved his ambition while still in his 20s.

His next goal, he says, is to make a full-length movie - "a great one" at that.

It's a tall order but, then, he's tall, not to mention precociously talented.

Zara Phillips

Zara Phillips, daughter of Princess Anne and her former husband Mark Phillips, won the prestigious BBC Sports Personality of the Year Award this week for winning the World Three-Day Event Championship in Germany in August. She became only the third rider ever to hold both the European and World titles simultaneously. Inevitably, there were those who questioned whether she would have won the BBC award, voted by the public, had she not been a "royal".


You have to feel sorry for Toytown. After a year of carrying Zara Phillips over 6 foot fences he did not even get an invitation to the Sports Personality of the Year. Were the producers concerned he would misbehave on the studio floor? While Zara stumbled through her acceptance speech, without a mention of her trusty steed, Toytown languished in his stable with an empty hay net. Hopefully he got a carrot.

Will Self

The author Will Self is to follow in the footsteps of George Orwell by taking up a writer in residence position on the remote Hebridean island of Jura. The place is home to 180 people, with one shop and a pub. Orwell wrote his famous satire, Nineteen Eighty Four there in 1946. He was forced to leave the island after being diagnosed with tuberculosis and died in 1950 aged 46. "It's a sobering thought," said Self, aged 45.

Bishop of Southwark

The Rt Reverend Tom Butler, Bishop of Southwark, got drunk this week after attending a reception at the Irish Embassy. Dressed in his cloak and cassock, he was seen getting into an unlocked Mercedes car from which he began throwing children's toys into the street. When challenged by the car's owner, he shouted "I'm the Bishop of Southwark, this is what I do." He then fell out, injuring his head. The incident occurred in Crucifix Lane.

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