From Radio Warwick to BBC Radio 6 Music, via The Office. Warwick Connect traces the university career one of the UK’s finest comedy talents, Stephen Merchant (BA Film & Literature 1993-96).
A normal Friday afternoon in our office. Phones ringing, copiers whirring, the general sound of activity... plus the anticipation of the weekend almost upon us. Except today was about to be interrupted (but very pleasantly) by something different – a telephone interview with Stephen Merchant, co-creator of The Office and Extras, 6 Music DJ, star of films such as Hot Fuzz, Run Fat Boy Run and general all-round funny guy. Oh, and to top it all off, he studied Film & Literature at Warwick from 1993 to 1996.
Steve is engaging, friendly and naturally very entertaining. Within a minute, he had me giggling about one of his memories of his first weeks here. ‘Early on in term, I remember coming back to the hall, seeing my door open and a crowd gathered. I thought to myself “What’s going on?” they were watching our cleaning lady wearing my shoes – my size 14 Doc Marten boots – clomping round my room. She was taking the mickey out of me! I don’t think I ever recovered from that...’
Steve’s arrival at Warwick will sound familiar to many of us. He recalls, ‘…a lot of stuff in my parents’ car…’ and quickly settling into life here. As a first year, he lived in Cryfield (“purported to be based on the design of a Norwegian prison...”). According to this myth, the corridors were deliberately sized to prevent anyone swinging a punch: ‘I never understood it. Surely you could just use an upper cut or kick in the shins instead?’
Joking aside, it’s clear that Steve enjoyed himself at Warwick. He threw himself into campus activities – working on student films using equipment from the department and taking a show to Edinburgh in his final year. He also became involved in W963 (Radio Warwick’s forerunner) with his own show The Steve Show. Back in his home town of Bristol, Steve had experience on school radio and also ran a mobile disco. It seemed natural for him to give it a go at Warwick and so together with friends he created a radio sketch show.
Steve and his fellow contributors (some of whom are now involved in Steve’s 6 Music show, also called The Steve Show) took their show seriously with weekly production meetings to discuss upcoming sketches. ‘It was just a shame no-one could actually hear it!’, laments Steve, referring to the fact that Warwick’s radio station could only be picked up on 963AM at the time. I explained to him that unfortunately this still remains the case (although at 1251AM these days), but the station now benefits from an
FM license for a month each year and broadcasts online.
For Steve, knowing what he wanted to do as a career was no problem – from a young age, he held the ambition of writing a sit-com which one day might be mentioned in the same breath as Fawlty Towers. He considers himself very lucky to have always known what he wanted to do. When he graduated, Steve returned to Bristol where he worked for a while before sending off a tape to London-based radio station Xfm where it fortuitously landed on the desk of one Ricky Gervais, and so began their working relationship.
Initially, Steve regarded the radio as a means to support his other projects; for example, stand up: ‘To my mind, (the radio) was like money for old rope for a couple of hours’ work...’ Money for old rope maybe, but Steve clearly enjoys the medium – it is the immediacy which appeals to him so much, plus he gets to ‘force’ his music taste onto his listeners!
The Office provided Steve and Ricky’s debut TV hit when it was broadcast on BBC2 in 2001. Steve remembers it being an exciting time since it was the first project he and Ricky worked on together. The only downside has been that all their work since has been compared to this debut.
To date, Steve hasn’t taken inspiration from his time at Warwick to inject into his comedy – for example, character ‘spoofs’ of his lecturers – but he doesn’t rule this out for the future.
I asked Steve what he would be doing if he were a student today. ‘Studying Philosophy, using Facebook and blogging... a lot’, he says. Naturally, he’d also have an online radio show. Steve’s message to today’s students: enjoy every moment of it. ‘Try everything on... you never know what will be the best fit for you’, he advises. He sees university as probably the only opportunity many of us will have to try so many new experiences.
Steve is one of the brightest stars of today – but what if he hadn’t entered the world of entertainment? There are plenty of careers he fancied but didn’t have the aptitude for them:
‘I would have loved to have been a musician, but I can’t play any instruments. Similarly, to be a doctor, but couldn’t get my head around chemistry – way too complicated. But most of all, I’d be a successful businessman. What I mean by that, I don’t know, but I quite like the idea of having an office, an intercom and a secretary and waiting for Tokyo to call. I really wish I could understand the stock market, but I don’t...’
The future isn’t mapped out for Steve – no grand plans right now, but he expects he will get together soon with Ricky to discuss new projects. Steve quite enjoys downtime: ‘I like twiddling my thumbs – just like a student...’
Unfortunately, my time with Steve was coming to an end, but I wanted to ask him one final question... can you sum up your Warwick experience in three words?
‘Three words? Crumbs...’ It seems I had stumped Mr Merchant, but he just needed more words to truly encapsulate his feelings. I was in a kind mood, so allowed him another two to make it easier. And I wasn’t disappointed with the reply. ‘My five words would be – I enjoyed myself, thank you’. What more is there to say?