An entire television series, all shot in one room, with characters who don’t really like each other and do very little besides relentlessly smoke? It might not sound like a winning idea, but it was, in the form of Brian Dooley’s BAFTA-award winning sitcom, The Smoking Room.
Debuting in the summer of 2004, the show is set in a dingy office smoking room where workers take their breaks. The strength of the series is the characters, which is due, of course, to both Dooley’s brilliant writing and the individual actors. On the surface, they appear to be stock characters: the grumpy old man, the man-hungry divorcee, the ball-busting female boss. While these do appropriately describe them, Dooley deftly develops their personalities, allowing them to surpass the stereotypes to reveal the full beauty and horror of the human experience. The cast then fleshes them out; we’ve all met each of these characters in our own lives, most likely in our workplaces.
Robin (Robert Webb) is the bright but bitterly cynical one: he had set out to live fast and die young, but the fact that he’s still alive and now in his early 30s is only depressing evidence that life never goes according to plan. Barry (Jeremy Swift) is teetering on the edge of a nervous breakdown. His life hasn’t gone to plan, either. He’s approaching 40, afraid and unhappy with most things, including his inability to single-handedly finish the crosswords that continually vex him.
Annie (Debbie Chazen) and Sally (Nadine Marshall) work together in the art department. Annie is always either crying or wittering on — about her troubles, boyfriends and life philosophies (most of which she gets from books, horoscopes or TV characters’ therapists). Annie claims she’s technically not a smoker because she never has her own ciggies, so instead she continually smokes others’ (whether they’re offered or not). Sally finds most of Annie’s behaviour intolerable, but still looks after her.
All four hate their jobs, unlike Clint (Fraser Ayres), the young maintenance man who enjoys attempting (and usually failing) his tasks. He’s a perfect idiot, obsessed with porn, clubbing and rapping. To keep his mind active during his work day, he thinks about the “big questions”, like if dogs with jobs get jealous of those who are pets (such erudite musings have led him to losing at least five step ladders).
Lilian and Len are the elders of the group. Lilian (Paula Wilcox) is in her 50s. Divorced from her alcoholic husband, she sows her oats dancing on pool tables at the Nags Head pub and having a holiday romance with Aristotle, a 25-year-old Greek nightclub owner. Len (Leslie Schofield) is nearing retirement from his security job. He’s foul mouthed whether angry or cheerful, though Lilian reveals that he’s actually quite profound when he’s not swearing after he gives a moving speech on life and death.
Sharon (Siobhan Redmond) is the classic bitch: she’s the boss and, despite pressure from head office to be less remote, she can’t help exerting her power, even during non-work-related conversations. (The unwritten rule of the Smoking Room is “no shop talk”, though this is repeatedly broken by all).
Two non-smokers come to the room. One is uptight Janet (Selina Griffiths), Sharon’s personal assistant, who is usually the butt of others’ jokes. However, her repressed anger occasionally erupts, and she struggles to maintain her unappreciated dedication to work while trying to take some risks in her personal life. We also meet Heidi (Emma Kennedy), who’s just come back from maternity leave. She speaks about little other than her perfect son and perfect husband, though it’s clear that both are rather dangerous and that Heidi is either naive or delusional. Either way, her creepiness is unsettling.
We only witness the characters during their breaks; every scene takes place within the confines of one room. We see very little actually happen — they chase a bee, the coffee machine doesn’t work, some Valentine’s Day chocolates are eaten. Instead, we hear about the action that has taken place elsewhere.
As often happens at work, the colleagues get to know each other through the tales they tell about themselves. Of course, they can’t control all that they share — their gut reactions often unintentionally reveal more to the others (and to us) than they’re aware. The actors’ small gestures and expressions speak volumes. Their individual stories are each intricately weaved throughout all 17 shows. During a practice interview in the very first episode, Barry gives his explanation of office politics and in the second, Robin’s secret is introduced (through a brilliant mime by the unknowing Len); both these stories are slowly developed and finally brought out into the open in the final episode.
The humour is varied and consistent. Barry’s odd crossword puzzle logic leads to clever wordplay (clue: five letter word for egg on, Barry’s answer: toast). There’s bitter irony, such as Sharon’s attempt at friendliness leading an alcoholic back to the bottle and the company’s smoking cessation programme only intensifying everyone’s urges.
There’s also unexpected silliness (like the short “Annie, are you okay?” scene), and the quick little gags are slipped seamlessly into conversations. While talking about his fears, Barry admits that when he was a little boy, he thought he’d be a surgeon. Robin asks, “What happened?” and Barry explains, “They don’t let children perform operations.”
When Sally shares how beautiful snowy Canada is, she tries to compare it to the winter wonderland of Narnia, but can’t think of the title. She says, “What’s that book where they’re all behind the wardrobe?” Anne Frank? Robin offers. Lilian’s concern about which swear words are now all right to use in mixed company (“How rude is tosser? What about beaver? Is it acceptable to refer to it as your beaver?”) is nicely done; the dialogue smoothly plays with the characters’ differences, whether the conversations are heavy, hostile or hilarious.
But as in life, the comedy is balanced with tragedy, and the show has true moments of poignancy: Robin’s internal struggles, Barry’s rejection, Lilian’s loneliness, Janet’s dissatisfaction. The lack of a live audience or laughter track allows us to genuinely respond to the characters, and Dooley’s masterful writing evokes all our emotions.
The series ended in 2005 and was released as a DVD box set in 2006. However, given the way views of smoking have changed, the series feels almost historical, capturing the good/bad old days (delete as applicable to reflect your view on smoking) when it was an acceptable habit. The UK smoking ban in 2007 outlawed smoking in enclosed workplaces, so we can only imagine the characters now, huddling outside the company backdoor, trying to sneak a quick one in the freezing rain.
Current smokers will feel nostalgic watching The Smoking Room, but the anti-smoking brigade will also feel justified — no one gets any real joy from smoking, and the episode when no one has a light exposes the harsh reality of addiction. The characters say they can quit at anytime, but no one does. When there’s a concern that a co-worker is trying to get the room shut down, Robin complains that “everyone knows he’s just thinking of himself… and his emphysema.” Smoking is in no way glamourised, but neither is work, love or hope.
Even though the world of The Smoking Room no longer exists, the realities behind it still thrive. A visiting temp, describing how she is finally chasing her dream to become a dancer, says, “I did loads of boring office jobs in places like this but if I had carried on like that, I would have topped myself by forty — the monotony, the pointlessness.” The quick shots of the empty faces of Barry, Annie, Sally and Robin show she’s exposed a truth they all share, a truth most of us, wherever we work, fear as well: do our lives have meaning? When they come together as a group to put the temp in her place, they (and we) feel relieved.
They might not have her zest for life, but they do have each other. And we have them. I’ll smoke to that.