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Since its arrival on BBC2 in August 2001, The Office has gradually built up a reputation as a classic sitcom. Written by Stephen Merchant and Ricky Gervais, the comedy could have been mistaken for a fly-on-the-wall documentary, as this was the pretence of the show. It followed the rather mundane nine-to-five life of a group of office workers in Slough, led by the incompetent David Brent (Gervais), who was assisted by his slimy assistant Gareth (Mackenzie Crook). There was no studio audience, no laughter track, and no real plots. Fortunately there were genuine laughs out of some subtle humour.

Office: The Christmas Specials, The
While not an overnight success, the series had enough buzz appeal to ensure gigantic sales figures for the first series DVD, and an army of loyal fans were firmly in place when the second series arrived in Autumn 2002. But as the second series came to a close, it appeared that this would be our last visit to the employees of Wernham Hogg. Brent had been sacked, and the office romance of Dawn (Lucy Davis) and Tim (Martin Freeman) had hit a dead end with the news that Dawn was off to America with her boyfriend.

As stunning as this episode was, the BBC did not want to end the series at the height of its popularity. Merchant and Gervais agreed that the show could return in two forty-five minute episodes for Christmas 2003. Finally promoted to BBC1, the specials were a festive hit. Hoping to repeat this success, the BBC has released them on DVD just in time for Christmas 2004. Trouble is, fans will have no doubt recorded these episode already. So, is this disc worth your hard-earned cash?

Continuing the simulation of a documentary, these final episodes act as a ‘three years later’ return visit. Picking up the story, David Brent is now scraping a living by doing the occasional night-club gig with z-list celebrities ranging from ‘Howard from the Halifax Ads’ to ‘Bubble from Big Brother’. Tim is still working at the office, but now has to answer to the power-hungry Gareth who has assumed Brent’s position, while Dawn is living in America with her boyfriend Lee.

With the festive season approaching, the office staff begin to turn their attention to the Christmas party and, armed with the news that Dawn will be making a visit, Tim considers his feelings for her. Meanwhile, Brent foolishly promises that he’ll be bringing a lady-friend.

These events take us up to the end of episode one, and it must be stated that this is a pretty disappointing entry for the series. Far too much time is spent setting things up for the pay-off in episode two, and while the comedy and characters still delight, it meanders through with a string of scenes that seem barely related. While the show was always very ‘loose’, narrative-wise, there was always the indication that what we were seeing had been edited together to form a coherent episode of a documentary. Here, that effect is slightly lost. Fortunately, moments such as Brent’s musical rendition of ‘If You Don’t Know Me By Now’ redeem things wholesale.

Office: The Christmas Specials, The
The second episode, which concerns the party itself, is far superior. There’s an indication here that the two episodes only really have an hour of material, but have been stretched out to fill an extra half an hour. Finally, in the second part, relationships are allowed to develop and we broach the tricky subjects of Tim and Dawn’s relationship and Brent’s shaky self-esteem. The ex-manager has been forced to use the services of dating agencies in his search for a companion for the party.  Scenes in which Brent meets various blind dates may stray too far into traditional sitcom territory, but when they're this amusing, one can’t complain.

As things progress at a tighter pace in the second episode, things gets better and better. Even the atmosphere of a cheesy office party has been lovingly recreated and the awkward conversations, at which this show always excelled, are present and as cringe inducing as ever.

If there’s a fault it that’s Mackenzie Crook’s Gareth is given little to do, but there are too many crowd-pleasing moments to get bogged down with negatives. And thumbs-up too for the finale, which manages to be funny, touching and true to the characters.

Most of The Office was shot on video with the colours never overly bright to emphasis the bland, genuine quality of life at Wernham Hogg. The picture is never pretty to look at and that's the intended point. Moments of grain are still visible in the opening credit sequence (the only part of the series shot on film). Unusually for the series, there is plenty of location filming, and these moments are handled pretty well. Conveniently, the layer change occurs between the two episodes meaning there's no irritating pause between scenes.

You know the deal with BBC comedy discs: a Dolby Digital 2.0 mix with all sound handled by two speakers. The dialogue is sharp and clear, although when the background music kicks in for the Christmas disco, the effect can be a little distracting. However, special credit must go to the music videos on the extras which both sound great through limited means.

Office: The Christmas Specials, The
The obvious omission from the previous DVDs of The Office were commentaries. As Stephen Merchant and Ricky Gervais indicate, it's a format with which their not entirely comfortable, but they have a stab at it here. There are numerous silences between interesting nuggets of information and, although it's frequently funny due to the banter the pair share, it is something of a missed opportunity. One wishes that the whole cast could have been assembled to make it a livelier affair.

The Office: Closed For Business proclaims itself as a documentary, but is more specifically a group of interviews with the principal cast and writers, interspersed with clips. All of the interviewees give good insight, although there was a clear delay between the interviews of Davis, Crook and Freeman and those of Merchant and Gervais, who take great pleasure in mocking everything that they have said. Unfortunately, most of the clips are outtakes, denying the disc of a specific reel.

The Golden Globe Featurette is a fairly short look at the cast’s experience In America for the famous awards ceremony.

If you can’t get enough of David Brent’s wonderful rendition of ‘If You Don’t Know Me By Now’, the complete video is included here. Predictably, the effect is lessened as the video continues but fans will appreciate its inclusion.

For fans of The Office, Brent’s earlier song from series one, episode four will always be remembered fondly. Inevitably, Ricky Gervais has finally found his way into a recording studio for a full band version of ‘Free Love Freeway’. He is ably assisted on vocals by a famous musician, but since the identity of this person is supposed to be a surprise, I’ll keep schtum over just who it is.

Extras-wise, this is a slightly disappointing batch when compared to the earlier releases. The lack of out-takes is unfortunate, and more noticeable by their absence are deleted scenes, which were some of the best extras from series one and two.

Office: The Christmas Specials, The
There will be some who just can’t ’get’ this type of humour and, if that’s the case, then these two entries will do little to change any opinions. For fans though, it’s worth pointing out that while these aren’t the best episodes of the series, it’s still a fitting send-off for perhaps the best British sitcom since that one about a Hotel in Torquay.