Operation Good Guys: The Office before The Office

The New Statesman contributors’ reviews of favourite 90s sitcoms have been sublime. But there’s an important omission.

In 2000, the so-called ‘Primrose Hill Set’ released their third, and only good, film, Love, Honour and Obey. One of the reasons why it was so much better than surfer ‘comedy’ Blue Juice (1995) and the self-indulgent circle-jerk of Final Cut (1998) is that the core of the team had spent three years honing their creative skills on the best sitcom of the 90s that you’ve already forgotten about.

Operation Good Guys was a triumph of the mockumentary format before The Office. It was a vindication of cast dialogue improvisation before The Thick Of It. And it was testament to the appeal of bromantic chemistry before Gavin & Stacey and The Inbetweeners.

Set in a Metropolitan Police station, and debuting at the end of 1997, it followed the increasingly hapless attempts at law enforcement of DI Beach, his sidekick DS Ash, and the rest of the station. Beach and Ash were a coincidental (shall we say?) template for David Brent and Gareth Keenan. When Beach takes the team on a murder mystery weekend, he ends up playing multiple characters himself, chilled-out entertainer that he is. His awkward handling of a black officer’s concerns when they go on a survival course with a racist instructor is pure Gervais-Merchant cringe.

DI David Brent.

The nearly all-male cast was a mix of friends and relatives who had worked together before, in some cases since the 70s, and used their real first names for the characters. The Primrose Hill Set may have been the pretty face of this group, but the brains were from a less salubrious corner of the capital. Brothers Ray and Mark Burdis grew up in Holloway. They’re best known to those of us of a certain age as Nick in Three Up, Two Down and Stewpot in Grange Hill. Like many working class kids from that part of Islington, they found a way out through the Anna Scher Theatre, which played the Bash Street to the Sylvia Young Stage School’s Eton. Perhaps some inner London suspicion and derision of the police found expression in OGG.

The camaraderie was heightened by the presence of a genuine ex-SAS holder of the Queen’s Gallantry Medal and various celebrity appearances from the cast’s stable of celebrity lad mates like Jude Law, Jonny Lee Miller, Sean Pertwee, David Seaman, Martin Kemp and Mad Frankie Fraser. The occasional ladette was even allowed in — Denise Van Outen and Donna Air — but it is fair to say that OGG was a masculine adventure in ensemble comedy. Perhaps overwhelmingly so. The only permanent female member of the cast, Kim Taylforth, left after series one.

The dead-pan causticity of the first series — which won a Silver Rose at Montreux — was diluted by the inexplicable addition of a laughter track for series two which is where, like Fawlty Towers and The Office, they should have left it. Series three was far less watchable, with scenes becoming sketches in increasingly ludicrous situations such as a desert island castaway episode. The in-jokes were pushed that little bit too far.

So Operation Good Guys was not a welcoming show but it did take risks with format, style, characters and storylines and is well worth remembering for that. And for Love Honour and Obey after it. In that film’s most famous scene (below), you can see just about every permanent cast member from the TV show and a few guest appearers, joined by Ray Winstone and Rhys Ifans. If it’s your sort of thing, it may be time to dig out the OGG DVDs and enjoy The Office before The Office.