The IT Crowd: The Red Door
Dredged up from the NtS Archive Of Stuff We Never Quite Got Around To, here’s a rumination on a classic IT Crowd episode.
The One With…
Richmond! Okay, he’s in others too, but the main thrust of the episode is the cheery goth’s origin story. The other main plotline sees Roy trapped under a desk, leading to the creation of the wholly-appropriate term ‘desk rabbit’, and the sight of the Diet Coke builder’s real-life counterpart.
I Love Willies
Almost everything Richmond does, particularly in his first scene. From pointing out a machine’s ‘double flash’ to supping from Moss’s mug, he’s that rarest and most metaphor-mixing of creations: a character that’s completely locked down right out of the gate. The melding of Linehan and Fielding is a glorious one, and could easily support its own bizarre, monochrome spin-off series.
Richmond’s middle-distance stare cueing the flashbacks, made gold by the cast’s reactions. Parkinson, in particular, plays the first one spot-on, not too huge but with confused, flicking eyes as she wonders what the hell he’s looking at. The flashbacks themselves are great, augmented with a romantic glow and Richmond’s mostly-superfluous (and therefore brilliant) voiceover: “Here’s me with a graph…”
A great scene of the three eating lunch very quietly, and completely, nails a key element of sitcom – jokes that come from character, situations that everyone responds to differently. Roy’s eating from a bucket of chicken (it comes in an actual bucket), Jen’s got a goat’s cheese salad thing which Roy finds repulsive, and Moss is wondering if it would blow everyone’s mind if he ate dessert first. Whenever The IT Crowd starts to move fast, backing away from lengthy dialogue scenes in the workplace, I always feel that this is the stuff we’re missing out on. Stuff nobody will mention the next day, but which provides the true ticking pacemaker for the show.
The ecosystem explanation from Roy, with helpful mime from Moss, is as good a set-piece as the show has ever done, and it’s just two characters in a single shot on the regular set. It’s a perfect mix of performance and writing, speaking organically to character and situation (Roy and Moss as the old hands, Jen as the newcomer) even as it goes for deicious silliness.
“Richmond’s out of his room!” Moss’s reactions in general. “But the rain-forest…” Also Moss’s errant mug provides a great running gag, and a nifty Radiers of the Lost Ark coda.
The usual plethora of drop-in-anywhere gags – the birds in the CD tray, Moss laughing at circuit board, Roy in no rush to respond to the call from upstairs. (A variant of the joke in episode one, this time handled by Jen, revealing an implication that The Red Door was really meant to go out second.)
You’ve Got Shit On Your Head
The sections revolving around the window providing more light, particularly the gag of Roy tripping over as he insists it’s not that gloomy, would have worked much better if the room was gloomy. At that moment Roy needed to be it least partially in shadow – difficult with a studio audience shoot, but worth getting right. It would also have helped a couple of moments later on, too: Jen’s approach to the red door, where more moody lighting would have increased the horror movie visuals being attempted by the POV camera; and the final moment of Richmond reacting to the bright light of the window, which is nowhere near as extreme on-screen as it needs to be for the moment to work.
The green door final gag doesn’t play especially well. Hard to say why, perhaps it’s just too conventional a joke. Or perhaps the true nature of the red door simply means we’d like to see what’s behind the next one.
The attempt to resolve Richmond’s relationship with Denholm doesn’t quite work dramatically or comedically. (See below.)
What Graham Says
On the subject of the room beyond the red door: “This whole room might actually not be necessary. That’s something I would love, actually, if it turns out that Noel is down here and he doesn’t actually have to be in this room.” It’s a funny idea, but, in fact, this is already how it plays. Because there’s nothing else in the server/phone relay/whatever room – no table, no paper, no computer – and because Richmond states clearly that he doesn’t know whether the flashing lights indicate something good or bad. Deliberate or not, we’ve already come to the conclusion that the lads just want him in there, locked up, out of the way. (Plus Renholm Industries already thrives on its vague setting – who knows what they do there? – so an extra layer of vague probably doesn’t take us anywhere.)
Linehan talks, in fairly negative ways, about “I.T. 101 ideas” – a tech guy getting trapped under the desk and risking ‘pervert’ accusations, or the nerd also being a slob. “That’s as basic as they come,” he bemoans. Basic it may be, but another way to phrase that is fundamental. These things speak directly to people’s understanding of the situation and the characters. Indeed, the slobby and sexual elements of Roy’s personality are part of what specifically separates him from the obsessive-compulsive and positively eunuch-like Moss.
“I love Chris when he’s being silly” begins a brilliant rant abut Chris Morris fans who don’t really understand their idol. “I like the way, with Denholm, Chris can just relax and be really silly.” So do we. No performer has to do the same thing all the time – ‘silly’ comedy isn’t beneath satire, or any other style. Nice to see the more fascistic wing of comedy fandom dressed down a little by someone who knows their stuff.
“The funeral scene was the very first thing shot, and stupidly we hadn’t had enough meetings about how the progression of make-up would work… A silly catalogue of errors led to the fact that when Richond arrives at the funeral, when you see him, it doesn’t have the big impact, because the makeup that we’ve seen before that is much more elaborate and extreme. When you see him come into shot and he’s just got a single tear it’s actually a step back from the Kiss make-up, and as a result it just doesn’t work, that moment. And I wanted that reveal of him at the funeral to be a big moment.”
While he’s right – the funeral is talked about as this huge faux pas then revealed to have a lot less than the implied impact – more drastic make-up, even Linehan’s suggestion of a skull (as seen in series two) probably wouldn’t have been enough. The funeral requires a much more egregious breech of etiquette, beyond the face-paint – not least because we’re already accustomed to that version of Richmond; we’d already assume he’d be dressed that way, and so should his colleagues. While I do think the single tear make-up does have value – Richmond’s version of being sensitive – he’s already broken the conventional dress code at his workplace. If Denholm didn’t like it, we’d expect him not to be invited in the first place.
It’s hard to know what would have made this work as intended. Maybe the work montage needed to include the clothes and hair, but no real make-up, with the full face only happening for the first time at the funeral. Or maybe he needed to play Cradle of Filth in sudden, unexpected tribute. Ah well, can’t win them all.
Linehan says Raiders is Moss’s favourite movie. Good call. I’d have plumped for The Goonies – I think he lets out a huge, snorty laugh every time Chunk does the Truffle Shuffle.
Finally, the killer: “I can reveal now, ahead of time, that we’ll be killing off the ‘Have you tried turning it off and on again?’ line for series two. I don’t think anyone needs to hear that again, to get that observation.”
No, sure, the observation isn’t news any longer. But it’s not just about that. The repeated dull cutaways in The Office indicate the boredom and monotony – do we need that observation after the first use either? Not really, but it contributes to the overall mood, it lends the show a specific tone. More importantly, ‘Have you tried…’ is a character joke, too. You’ll notice that Moss, for example, has never said it. Why not? It’s the same department, the same job, the same problems will come up. Moss may answer the phone less often, but still – never?
Just because a line doesn’t get a laugh, or gets its main one from simple recognition, doesn’t mean it’s worth less. So long as there’s still variety available, alternatives to be plundered, it’s worth using. It speaks too neatly to tone and character to be dropped. We don’t need it every week, it’s not an applause-getter (thank God). But it’s a worthy part of the formula. (The line did show up a little in series three, so it may well be that the baby/bathwater reaction has calmed a little.)
An unfortunate episode for Denholm, this one. His best stuff is in the Richmond flashbacks – and his reaction at the funeral just about saves the episode’s main bum note. The other bum note, sadly, is Denholm’s own storyline, where Jen encourages him to reunite with Richmond. While inventively shot (you can’t help but love Jen’s eyes peering over her boss’s shoulder) and featuring a lovely “Enjoying this mug of tea” gag, Jen’s plea that “Goths are people too” just doesn’t seem convincing enough to change the boss’s mind.
It’s a shame, in fact, that we couldn’t have seen Jen be a little more cunning – her understanding of those on the upper floors is already a key factor in this episode thanks to the Diet Coke moment, and playing Denholm as she’d previously played the two women would have been wholly appropriate. Even if it had backfired.
So Denholm comes down to the basement for the reconciliation. Well, firstly we don’t really believe it, we don’t believe he was so easily convinced. Secondly, there’s nothing particularly funny about the reconciliation scene. Thirdly, we don’t want Richmond to go back upstairs. This last one is especially important, in fact – the audience want good things for the characters they love, but not at the expense of their role in the show. We want Del Boy to be happy, but we don’t want him to have enough cash to stop grafting. Not ever.
There’s an odd moment in the reconciliation scene where Morris has been redubbed, which is unusual for a studio-shot scene. There’s no mention in the commentaries, but it feels like this was done to tone down his performance somehow. Could it be that they were pushing for a more eccentric performance to bulk up the scene and it ended up too drastic? Or was it just that a microphone battery ran out?
Regardless, having accepted Richmond once more, Denholm suddenly changes his mind, abandons his gothic protégé, and leaves. And while this does continue the character trait of Denholm being basically irrational and utterly changeable, it totally undersells the little bit of drama being played with. Richmond’s ostracism came from a place of punishment – in the boss’s eyes, he deserved his banishment. Making its continuation irrational undercuts the character’s place in the show, following the already-slightly-misjudged funeral.
And yet, weirdly, it’s only Denholm changing his mind for no reason that’s the problem. Had it been for a slight and ridiculous reason – something as inconsequential as, say, he decides he doesn’t like the way Richmond pronounces a word (something would then speak to the theme of communication running through the episode) – somehow it would be better. I guess it’s just that a character, even one as erratic as Denholm, shifting position for no reason at all feels like the writer at work. It feels forced, plot-created, artificial. A shame – but, in the end, not enough to unbalance arguably the best episode of the series.
The red door dweller emerges – and, in a moment of charming visual comedy, loses a milky contact lens behind his eye.
His full name, according to the plate on his office door, is ‘Richmond Avenal’. We get to see Richmond as he used to be, which is unsettling – Noel Fielding as a blond normo? It seems so wonderfully wrong!
Early implications suggest Richmond may be a vampire, though, a few Nosferatu gestures aside, this turns out to be Jen’s paranoia. It’s entirely coincidental, of course, but Channel 4’s not-dissimilar Nightingales – another a surreal sitcom based around three outsiders in a big company – actually had a recurring werewolf character. Had Richmond been revealed as supernatural – as he sometimes almost is, with his ceiling-climbing abilities – we would have accepted it.
The reason the guys keep Richmond locked in his room is made clear as Moss realises it would be “so easy” to kill himself. He brings everybody down, is the problem – a full week out from behind the red door and the entire IT department would be hanging from the light fittings.
Bodie, Doyle, Tiger, The Jewellery Man
Cordelia Bugeja – who played Kate in 2006’s most underrated sitcom, Respectable – pops up for a couple of lines in the office scenes. She returns for the fleetingest of moments in series two’s Smoke and Mirrors.
Susannah Wise – who would later turn down Mark, despite his remarkable museum access, in Peep Show – gets her computer fixed. Her legs get more screen time than her face.
Have You Tried Turning It Off And On Again?
The phone call that triggers the catchphrase leads directly to Roy’s difficulties as a ‘desk rabbit’. The small laugh is one of recognition, but – back to the tone thing – when Roy discovers that the computer’s only ‘fault’ is that it isn’t plugged in, it really only confirms everything we know he thinks: that people are generally too stupid to use computers. And we know he thinks this because of the catchphrase. It’s simple, harmonious storytelling.
Roy claims the room with the red door is where they keep the ‘snippets’. (“It’s a kind of plange,” apparently.)
Don’t Google The Question
“The nature of the thing that is happening has changed slightly, rendering it yet more interesting.”
The whole of The Red Door is steeped in various uses of language and communication. Moss can’t speak the native lingo to persuade the women to leave their desks and free Roy; the more he says, the less he seems likely to achieve his goal. Jen, on the other hand, knows just what to say – look at how simple, specific and clear the words “like in ads” are. This was, initially, a big part of the show’s structure, with Jen’s place as a bridge between the basement-dwellers and the beautiful people upstairs. (Do bridges go up stairs? Never mind.) You’d never know it, and it surely can’t be planned that way, but the dialogue quickly, simply and hilariously describes the shape of the series and the nature of those in it.
The IT boys have their own language – talk of the rain-forest and “desk rabbits” shows a mode of communication evolved in isolation from the real world. Note how Moss is unable to keep track of who’s being addressed when there are three people in the room. (This happens in several episodes, not least the ‘other best one’, The Work Outing.)
Moss’s inability to speak the language of a regular office is further revealed by his need to brand a mug with a picture of himself. Somehow he’s not able to communicate his need to keep something ‘his own’, to simply ask people not to take it. Most would put their name on the side of the mug, Moss puts his picture on the base. It’s like a bungled translation, the grammar’s right but the words are wrong.
Richmond’s communication, meanwhile, is preternatural, fourth-wall-aware, cine-literate. He speaks movie – knowing how to instigate his own flashbacks – yet at the same time he’s able to share a warm moment with Jen as they deconstruct the literal meaning of ‘Cradle of Filth’. How effortlessly this one sweet giggle invokes their shared history – the ‘upstairs’ people consigned to the catacombs. (Cradle of Filth, when we hear them, have their own primal form of communication – leaking out of Richmond’s headphones are a ghastly collection of screams.)
Richmond’s also a visual communicator, using his face and body to fully express himself. (Ah, that single tear painted on for the funeral!) In scenes cut from the final episode, but thankfully included elsewhere on the DVD, there’s a storyline abut a baby wearing make-up – a story which, in fact, brilliantly mirrors Richmond’s own. Upstairs, the made-up baby is fine for the normos while Richmond is deemed ‘too strange’. Downstairs, with the people we like and agree with, it’s the opposite. We see Richmond’s make-up as a personal expression, where the baby is wearing the slap her mother put on her. This isn’t the baby’s chosen mode of expression at all. At once we question the value of a society that mocks goths but happily gives babies earrings.
I’m suddenly wishing the scenes had stayed in…despite the poor execution of the baby make-up.
Also cut was a nice bit of Moss business where he leaves the scene knowing that Jen is likely to go right for the red door. He leaps back in and yells “A-ha!”…only Jen hasn’t moved, so he has to create a bluff about a the 80s Norwegian band and shuffle away. Leaping back a second time with a yell of “Busted!”, well, he has to bluff again, this time regarding the defunct boy band. A third attempt reveals “I couldn’t think of any more bands, but please don’t open the red door”.
Unsurprisingly, then, it’s another language joke in an episode that successfully returns to that well again and again.
As with the lunch sequence, the question of how different characters react to the same thing recurs later on. While Roy answers the phone with his confrontational “off and on again”, Jen is shown going for the far more conducive “Relationship manager?” greeting. Better yet, Jen, Roy and Moss also have their own specific responses to seeing Richmond. Moss is left confused and impotent, his world is shattered by change and he doesn’t like it. Roy, on the other hand, gets angry and shouts. Jen goes for fear initially, then switches to heavy empathy. Richmond could, in fact, be her best friend down in the basement. He’s the most emotionally articulate of the boys, that’s for sure, and theirs is arguably the warmest and most healthy personal relationship in the show.
Meanwhile there’s another ‘original thesis’ moment, with the upstairs exclusively populated by the sexy and fabulous. (Whatever became of the original Channel 4 series promo? It’s not included on the DVD, yet it set up this aspect of the programme very specifically, showing the staff upstairs in he midst of a sexy office party while our three leads look on, dejected. Bung it on the series four disc, guys!) The IT department as underground outsiders – it’s easy to relate to, easy to cheer for, and a rich source of laughs.
Overall, this is one of my absolute favourite episodes of the show to date. The attention-grabbing guest turn is terrific, and all the regular ‘bonkersness’ and ‘self-aware’ buttons are pushed with precision. But the reason it really works is because of what the new arrival does to the leads. In performance as well as on the page, it’s an exemplary 25 minutes. Now – surely it’s time to see Douglas and Richmond together. What on Earth would they make of each other?!