Entertainment

Life as Big Keith from ‘The Office’: Ewen MacIntosh Reflects On His Defining Role

"I got through a lot of Scotch eggs."
Big Keith the office
Image: Helen Frost
Speaking to actors whose careers have been defined by one role, about learning to live with – or even embrace – that character.

Actors pride themselves on being versatile, moving seamlessly from one role to the next. But some inadvertently become typecast or pigeonholed, one performance enduring in the public consciousness for years to come. It’s possible for a single character to eclipse the rest and define your career, as Ewen MacIntosh knows all too well

Twenty years ago, he played the laconic Keith Bishop in The Office, a mockumentary that defied expectations to become a classic, living on through parody, knowing references and meme culture. There were only 14 episodes in total, ending with the Christmas specials broadcast in December of 2003, but they changed Ewen’s life. He was working in market research while hoping to break into the entertainment business full-time, and Keith made that possible

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Ewen wasn’t one of the big stars of The Office. Far from it. However, while his screen time was limited, Keith certainly made his presence felt. With his slow-paced speech and varied interests (Peak Practice, wet T-shirt competitions and Scotch eggs), he became a fan favourite. More than just an eczema-afflicted accounts expert, he was a superstar DJ and pitch-perfect Ali G impersonator

An astute cultural commentator (“Fanny means your arse over there, not your minge”) and a generous lover (“I very tenderly explain to them that I will guarantee them at least one orgasm”), Keith would share his wisdom on any topic. Two decades on, how does Ewen feel about still being associated with him and enjoying a curious kind of fame as result?

VICE: Hi Ewen. I had to remind myself not to call you Keith then, because that’s what I instinctively think of you as. Is that a common problem?
Ewen MacIntosh:
I wouldn’t say it’s common, but it’s recurring. It’s even happened on sets, which is the last place you’d expect. They feel awful about it as well, which is amusing, because I’m not really that bothered. It’s a little bit unprofessional, but it’s not something I’m particularly arsed about. If you were working with Ian McKellen, and you called him Gandalf, you’d probably be out of a job pretty quick.

Is there any overlap between you and Keith?
Well, we look identical and have a similar voice, so I’d say there’s quite a lot of overlap. Maybe not personality-wise.

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How did you get the role of Keith?
There was no specific role when I started. With the original script, a lot of the lines just said “office worker”. Ricky [Gervais] and Steve [Merchant] wanted the office workers to be actors, rather than extras, because they didn’t know where the camera might be, or where someone might be sat, at any point, so you might have to suddenly do a line.

How did your role develop?
We filmed the first series in order, roughly, in terms of the interior stuff. The first morning it was Ricky introducing the new guy to everyone. He did a little bit of improv with me, where he went, “Oh, here they are, the number bods. They’re mental.” I just sort of stared at him and he started laughing. Then we did it again and he pointed at me and went, “Especially that one.” He just liked my take on it, I guess. He gave me more of the office worker lines and it grew from there.

There was famously a lot of corpsing on set. Were there any scenes that were particularly difficult to film?
My first scene with Martin [Freeman], where I eat the Scotch egg – we had trouble doing that for some reason. It took ages to get that done. I got through a lot of Scotch eggs.

I’ve always wondered about the Scotch eggs. Why was it decided that they would be Keith’s signature food?
I don’t know if anyone can remember, but I wasn’t told about it. The props guy nipped out and bought them last minute.

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Has your willingness to buy them been compromised by playing Keith?
I kind of feel the same about them as I do about sausage rolls or pork pies. If they’re in a buffet, I might partake, but I don’t have any in my fridge, most of the time. You don’t come across them that often really.

Did Ricky and Steve give you much instruction on how to play Keith? Or did that come from you?
I knew it was a mock documentary, and I was a big fan of Spinal Tap. I always remember Christopher Guest, playing Nigel Tufnel, would just chew gum and look vacant. I thought, ‘I’ll try that and see what happens.’ It worked out. If I ever meet Christopher Guest, I’ll definitely remember to thank him for my career.

When The Office first aired, what do you remember about the response to the show in general, and your character in particular?
It was a very slow burn. It wasn’t until the first series was repeated that it started to get a bit of heat. The second series was when it really took off. Even then, it was a good couple of years before I was getting recognised a lot. It died down and then it came back again. I was in a couple of episodes of Little Britain, and there were three or four years in the mid-2000s when I was getting recognised on the street much more for that. Nowadays, that’s gone. It’s all The Office again. There’s something weird in the zeitgeist where shows float away and then float back again. It definitely wasn’t one straight line on a graph.

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How do you feel about being recognised as Keith? How often does that happen?
A lot less since masks came in. Before this all kicked off, I’d get recognised quite a lot. I’m used to it, because it’s been so many years now. But I’m lucky in that at least I didn’t play a villain in a soap or a paedophile in a big cop show. No one’s spitting at me. Everyone’s always really nice and friendly.

When people recognise you, what kind of things do they say?
The two questions I used to get asked the most, when civilisation was still a thing and you interacted with people, were probably, “What’s Ricky Gervais really like?” and, “Do you actually like Scotch eggs?”

What is Ricky Gervais really like?
He’s pretty normal, really. He’s like David Brent without any of David Brent’s opinions. If David Brent was quite a liberal, animal-loving vegan, and wasn’t sexist or racist, then that would be what Ricky’s like.

Is it weird to see how famous he’s become?
Not so much Ricky, because he basically still does the same thing he was doing on The Office, which is writing and directing himself in comedies, whereas Martin Freeman now does Hollywood blockbusters, playing a hobbit, which is a bit weirder. Martin was the star of the highest-grossing film of all time. That’s a bit weird, because back then he was a known actor, but he wasn’t really a star. Then he went on to become amazingly high-profile.

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How does it feel to be remembered for a role you first played 20 years ago?
It’s made me money, so I can’t really complain. I’m very proud I was in it. I think it holds up well, and long may it continue. I do these video messages [on Cameo] now, which are great fun. People always want a message from Keith, never from me. He’s still getting me work, which is quite amazing when you think about it. When the lockdowns started, I was doing about 30 a week. Now it’s down to maybe ten or 20.

If you had to pick one line that defines Keith, what would it be?
For someone who just can’t handle a social situation, or is always putting his foot in his mouth, it’s one of his lesser-known ones. They’re having a meeting and Gareth’s asking for suggestions for the Christmas party, and Keith says, “Invite girls. Not the girls that work here. Other girls. Pretty girls.” He says it in front of three of the girls who work there! It’s typical Keith, wading straight in without thinking.

I suppose Keith sees himself as a bit of a ladies’ man. Did you ever feel awkward delivering his lines about sex?
At the time I didn’t. We knew we were satirising what happened in workplaces, because that sort of language and behaviour did happen. Now, you’d be sacked. Some of the stuff that Gareth and Keith say, you’d be out the door. I didn’t feel bad, because I knew we were taking the piss out of that sort of culture.

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How did your career develop after The Office?
Immediately after The Office, I focused more on writing for a while, which, in retrospect, was probably a bad idea. But at the time, me and the guys I was writing with had a lot of irons in the fire. It didn’t go the way we wanted it to, and I got a little bit tired of that part of the industry, which I think is an incestuous and not very nice place to work. If I’d focused more on my acting career straight after The Office, I might have got better roles, but it has definitely helped get me work, because a lot of writers and directors coming through were fans of it.

As a relatively minor character, why has Keith stayed with fans of the show?
I never really thought about it, but then someone mentioned to me that him, Brent, Gareth – and maybe Finchy – are the only characters who get laughs. So even though Tim, Dawn and the bosses are bigger characters, they’re playing it straight.

Is it strange to think that, in some sense, you will always be Keith to so many people?
I’m very much at peace with it. I always remember the fact that Leonard Nimoy wrote two autobiographies. The first one, quite early on in his life, was I Am Not Spock. Then the one he wrote years later was I Am Spock. I feel you come to terms with it, and you accept it. You can actually be quite happy and proud that you’re associated with something that’s made a lot of people happy. There’s maybe the odd day here and there where you want to get away from it, but that’s easy because you just stay in and read a book or something.

Why do you think The Office has endured quite so well?
I think because of its quality, really. It just got to people. It got under their skin. I don’t think it’s dated. I think it still looks quite relevant. I think it works really well in memes, which is quite important. I think a lot of people take pride in introducing their children to it, or their younger siblings or whatever, when they hit a certain age. I just found out a few weeks ago that my niece, who’s 16, has watched it. I was absolutely mortified.

Why were you mortified about her watching it?
It’s looking at Keith now, out of context, and thinking he’s a monster. For a 16-year-old girl, looking at that and not understanding that that’s how people used to behave, it must look a bit odd! The last time we were all there, my brother took me to one side and told me she’d watched The Office. I was like, ‘Oh no.’ But she said she enjoyed it. If she wants to discuss it, she can, but I don’t want to open up any talks at the moment.

@seanccole