I had a reputation for being funny

18th November 2005 at 00:00
I like to think that Mr Taylor found me funny, but maybe he just thought I was a prat. Portrait by Nick Wilson

I loved school. I have only fond memories of Ashmead comprehensive in Reading. Well, all except for the winter mornings, when sometimes there would be ice on the inside of my bedroom window. I mean, actual sub-zero temperatures, in my bedroom. I'd lie there, dreaming I'd already got up and dressed. Then I'd wake for real, gutted. This was before central heating had reached Reading.

There are so many teachers I could name that I got on with at the time. But if, now, I had to choose a teacher that had an influence on me, it wouldn't be one I'd have picked back then. Mr Taylor was my English teacher. His age is hard to pinpoint; he could have been anything between 25 and 35; all that mattered was that he was a grown-up. I don't even know his first name.

He was cool, and that meant a moustache and a suit and tie. You never heard him coming, because he wore Hush Puppies. This was the mid-1970s, remember.

I wore platforms to school for a while, before I finally realised: God, this is so uncomfortable.

At that time I didn't care much for English. I was into science. But I had this conviction that I was going to go to university - weird, really, because hardly anyone else from our school did - so I knew I needed all eight O-levels. Besides, I was a bit of a Lisa Simpson. I did the bare minimum work, because I knew I'd pass anyway, but I wanted all the teachers to like me and know that if in doubt, no, it wasn't me who burned down the canteen.

Mr Taylor kept an orderly classroom. He didn't use sarcasm, he played it straight down the line. All he had to do was look at you and you'd stop behaving like an idiot. I had a reputation that I'd cultivated for being funny; it was a rough school and humour was one way around that. In my family, if you couldn't take a bit of ribbing, you were a pariah. I had three older siblings, so I had to learn fast. And, of course, I carried that into class, even Mr Taylor's. I'd be the one making funny asides while he talked about Shakespeare. I like to think that Mr Taylor found me funny, but couldn't laugh because he knew that would be a slippery slope. Maybe he just thought I was a prat.

The reason, though, that I've chosen Mr Taylor is because of a maxim that he tried hard to drum into me: "Write what you know." From age 11, whenever I was asked to produce a story, I'd write as if for bad American television. At 13 I did this story about a New York cop who shoots first and asks questions later. Mr Taylor gave it back: "B, too melodramatic."

That's what he always said. My next story was about a kid in the Wild West who investigates a murder. He kneels on his friend's grave and shouts: "I will avenge thee!" Mr Taylor's mark: "B, too melodramatic. You've never been to the Wild West, Gervais. Write what you know."

Finally, I decided on a different tactic. I wrote about a neighbour. I thought it was the most boring thing in the world. When I got it back, Mr Taylor had written: "A, much better." Just then, a realisation dawned: people want the truth. When I came to write The Office I remembered that.

Our aim was to keep the situations and language as truthful as possible.

I'd worked in an office for seven years, and authenticity was central to making the show what it was. I wrote what I knew.

I had Mr Taylor right up to O-level. I still remember the texts: war poets, The Mayor of Casterbridge and Romeo and Juliet. Even after my realisation about writing, though, I still preferred science. In fact, I went to university to study biology. Both the last Flanimals book and the new one, I suppose, combine my old love for science, and my more recent love for language. I dropped biology after four weeks, and changed to philosophy. It seemed ridiculous to spend time in lectures when I could be in a band instead. Anything seemed possible. But because of what I've ended up doing, it's Mr Taylor who was the teacher who made a difference to my life.

Actor and comedian Ricky Gervais was talking to David Mattin

The story so far

1961 Born in Reading, Berkshire

1966-72 Whitley Park infant and junior school, Reading

1972-79 Ashmead comprehensive school (now Thamesbridge college), Reading

1979-82 University College London

1989-1996 Events manager at University of London students' union

1997-98 Producer at radio station Xfm

1998 TV career begins with regular slot on The 11 O'Clock Show, Channel 4

2000 Chat show, Meet Ricky Gervais, airs on Channel 4

2001-03 Co-writes and stars in The Office on BBC2. The show, which runs to two series, wins six Baftas and two Golden Globes

2005 Co-writes and stars in Extras, BBC2. October Cartoon book More Flanimals, sequel to Flanimals, published by Faber

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