There aren’t many comedy shows that leave a lasting impression on me, but The Smoking Room is one of them; a British sitcom created and written by Brian Dooley. From June 2004 to September 2005 there were two series and a Christmas special transmitted on BBC Three. I fell in love with this series during its initial broadcast and my passion has never faded; I frequently enjoy re-watches over 15 years later. Thankfully, it has aged well and doesn’t feel dated. I just wanted to share some of my love for this oft-forgotten little gem.
The entire series takes place in one company’s grotty and neglected basement smoking room, which appears to double as a storage room for old computers and other junk. The only glimpse we ever get of the world beyond this one room is the corridor outside and a cloudy window. The narrative follows the camaraderie between workers as they visit the room for smoke breaks throughout the workday. Little tends to happen plot-wise, so the element that keeps you enthralled is the characters’ personalities, and the comedy arising from their interactions. I have always preferred character-driven comedy as opposed to wacky plot hijinks and slapstick; some of my other favourites include dinnerladies, The Royle Family and Him & Her, all also coincidentally limited to using just one set. All the characters and events feel realistic and relatable, with each character likely reminding you of somebody you know in real life. The world beyond the smoking room is expanded further via occasional guest characters, the smokers’ frequent references to outside events and unseen (but often mentioned) characters such as Ben (from the post room), all of whom I find myself building up a mental image of.
Compared to other sitcoms, there is quite a large main cast of 10 characters, but this isn’t overwhelming as they often pop in and out of the smoking room at different times to each other. Rarely are all characters together in a scene at the same time. One aspect that I find interesting is that, although the show takes place in a workplace, it’s very much all about the characters and their synergy rather than anything to do with their work. In fact, we know little about the company they work for – not even its name or the kind of work it does. The topic is often skirted around in dialogue with a reminder of the iconic “no shop talk” rule that conveniently prevents characters from letting anything slip to the audience. Essentially, the setting is irrelevant; the show could be set anywhere with very little adaptation of the script needed – such as a school staff room, pub or a supermarket – but a large corporation with different departments provides a greater variety of contrasting characters in a way where they would naturally interact.
You would expect a show with a large cast to feature an audience surrogate character front and centre – perhaps somebody who starts work at the company in the opening episode and through them we learn about everybody else’s quirks – but no, the first episode begins on a normal workday, right in the middle of a situation where everybody is humming to themselves. It’s as if we’ve just entered the smoking room for a smoke break ourselves, and have to work out what our colleagues are in the middle of discussing. It soon transpires that one of the characters is frustrated because they can’t remember the theme tune to Little House on the Prairie, so everybody else is trying to help recall it. This anchor continues to feature throughout the first episode as we meet each new character, which introduces us to each character’s personality based on their response. The magic of this show is that it’s remarkably simple, real, sincere and everybody can relate to it in some way.
There are many ongoing character traits that I really love, and these are what shapes the comedy and thus your investment in the characters:
Robin tends to feature more than any other character; you’d be forgiven for thinking he was the main character – as he is nearly always in the smoking room when he should really be working, but constantly talks himself out of returning to his desk, or pretends he’s only just sat down to smoke when the boss walks in. He’s unmotivated, clearly hates his job and seems to lack enthusiasm for life in general. Perhaps this is linked to his reluctance to truly admit to himself that he’s gay, despite his very obvious infatuation with Ben (from the post room) – which all of his colleagues have already worked out anyway. It’s lovely that nobody ever forces Robin to “come out” – although they come close a few times – they generally just nod along whenever he pretends to be straight.
Lilian is young at heart, enjoying her new lease of life as a divorcee. Her casual bigotry – which makes me squirm in discomfort – adds a layer that makes her feel like a real person. She’d probably be mortified to learn she was a bigot, as I get the impression she would consider herself a good, kind person – and most of the time she is. I don’t expect she’d ever say anything negative to somebody’s face and would wait until they had left the room. For some unclear reason, she has an intense dislike for one of her two daughters, Laura. I’m sure many of us know a Lilian in real life.
Then there’s Len, the security guard – extremely naïve when it comes to his colleague, Ranjit, who constantly takes advantage of him. He struggles to complete a sentence without swearing, to the point where his young grandchild has dubbed him “Grandad Fuck-off”. Lilian and Len appear to have worked with each other for decades and have formed a close friendship which is evident in all their scenes together. Despite them being divorced and widowed respectively, there is never once a suggestion of romance between the pair, which is extremely refreshing on TV; a romantic subplot would have felt clichéd, and wouldn’t have added much value to a series like this.
Where do I start with Heidi? She has a complete lack of awareness of the world around her. She appears to be deluded, and it feels like her off-screen husband Keith takes advantage of this often. I’d probably describe her marriage as emotionally and mentally abusive, but she is convinced Keith is her fairy-tale ending. Her bigotry is very much intentional (in contrast to Lilian’s casual) and flares up a few times throughout the series, but you imagine a lot of it has been spoon-fed to her by Keith. It’s definitely not appropriate for the workplace. I love that Heidi is a non-smoker but insists on popping into the smoking room despite nobody particularly wanting her there. Regardless of what a horrible person she is, I can’t look away when she is on-screen.
Socially awkward Barry enjoys doing crosswords and it’s a recurrent theme that he’s absolutely hopeless at them, always missing the point of the clues. He often relies on Robin to provide him with the correct answers. At one point Barry somehow manages to finish the crossword and gets everything to link up, but with every single answer wrong – which is surely a skill in itself. Barry is a fearful, paranoid, nervous wreck who seems to prefer his own company, always choosing the same seat in the smoking room, away from the rest of the congregation. Despite constantly panicking about imaginary and unlikely disasters, he’s surprisingly nonchalant in a real crisis.
Sharon’s the boss of the branch, and as such a lot of the staff are reluctant to relax around her like they would their immediate colleagues – the room frequently falls silent when she walks in to smoke one of her fancy long cigarettes. You can probably deduce a lot about Sharon by the fact that she doesn’t understand why jokes exist and has a cat that she hasn’t bothered to name. Sharon constantly pushes to be treated as an equal by her employees, but it’s clear she significantly lacks social skills. At one point she is so desperate to appear friendly at an office party, she (unintentionally) encourages a recovering alcoholic to have a glass of wine. Her attempts to socialise leave you feeling awkward on her behalf – particularly when she brags that she can do small-talk and then immediately regrets it when she feels pressured to prove it. I do think it’s lovely that Sharon has identified this as one of her weaknesses and is desperately trying to improve in this area – with only Janet privy to details of her therapy. I think it’s a vulnerability that humanises Sharon and helps me empathise with her. I like the idea that Sharon has been so focused on her career for so long that she has neglected other areas of life that she once considered unimportant, including friends and romance. We learn that when Sharon originally started with the firm as a secretary, she had an unlikely romance with Barry. It later comes out that their relationship ended over a simple mix-up where things could have ended up very differently; Barry clearly still holds on to strong feelings, but Sharon seems uninterested. I like that both characters could possibly have been vastly different people had the butterfly effect done its thing.
Sally and Annie’s “friendship” is always a pleasure to watch. Annie clearly looks up to Sally and leans on her a lot for guidance, whilst Sally gets frustrated by her constant whining – but at the same time genuinely cares for her like a best friend (although she would never admit this). Annie never buys her own cigarettes and expects everybody else to provide handouts. She also doesn’t consider herself a proper smoker because the cigarettes she smokes are Sally’s, not hers. She loves receiving sympathy or attention and will happily use emotional blackmail in the form of fake-crying to get what she wants – although most of her fellow smokers are wise to this and go out of their way to avoid having to console her. Sally often describes her as attention-seeking or melodramatic. She’s the sort of person who gets self-help advice from motivational words printed on mugs and psychologists on reality TV shows.
Sally’s the polar opposite – she just gets on with it, telling it like it is whether it’ll offend or not. No-nonsense, no-filter and feisty, her sarcastic comments hit hard – but she’s quite soft at heart, and you can guarantee she would always have her friends’ backs when it really mattered. Sally makes a point that she keeps her work and private life separate, to the point where she doesn’t truly consider her colleagues to be her friends – or so she would have you believe.
Urgh, Gordon. He’s like a creepy uncle who sees himself as an alpha-male Adonis and doesn’t have any respect for women. He’s somehow managed to be married three times, and all his wives have clearly had enough of him each time. Like Heidi, he’s another character whom nobody appears to really like, but they must tolerate him in a professional environment. He was an ex-smoker and recovering alcoholic at the beginning of the series but eventually relapses. It’s following this relapse that he very nearly sexually assaults Lilian – which was very unexpected and uncomfortable to watch in a sitcom, but Lilian takes full control of the situation and puts him in his place quite firmly.
Clint is the youngest of the bunch. As the maintenance man, the company unjustly sees him at the very bottom of the hierarchy. He’s not particularly good at his job, and apparently has had quite a few formal warnings in the past. He’s very fond of the ladies and will often spontaneously burst into beatboxing. He seems naïve and innocent at times too, perhaps due to his young age. It’s nice to see the interaction between him and some of the other characters – most see him as a peer, whereas others like Lilian take on more of a parental role, urged to guide and protect him.
Last but certainly not least, it’s lovely Janet, Sharon’s personal assistant. She is a practising Christian, well-spoken and can be quite prudish when it comes to strong language and risqué discussion topics – although every so often she will reach breaking-point and snap, which is always fun to watch. Janet is a non-smoker, however, frequently joins the others when she needs a break from Sharon. She fills the role of liaison between management and the workforce, most of whom have no respect for her and can be quite unkind – in fact, it borders on bullying at times. She considers the smokers to be her friends and a valued presence in her life, even though the feeling isn’t mutual, which makes me feel sad for her. I feel a lot of affection towards Janet; I just hope she found happiness with Noel in the end.
Some of my favourite lines in the show seem to revolve around Heidi. In the episode where the smoking room is vandalised, dippy Heidi looks through the hole in the broken window and asks, “Is this the broken window?”. As she walks through to the other side, she declares “It’s much more smashed from this side”. The other one is when Lilian accidentally sets off her rape alarm, and Heidi walks towards the door to escape the noise. When the noise suddenly stops Robin says, “You might as well just go now Heidi, seeing as you’re at the door…”. Another line I enjoy comes from Sally, as the smokers are talking about their friends – meaning each other – and she says, “I’m seeing my friends later” before realising how rude that sounds and adding “…my other friends…”.
The cast in this show is just spot on. I couldn’t imagine anybody else playing any of these roles – they all play them to perfection. Some of the actors I had seen before in other projects, but for the majority, this was my introduction to them. I think my favourite characters, based on who I enjoy watching the most (as opposed to who I’d want to be friends with in real life), would have to be Sally, Janet, Heidi and Lilian – but there aren’t really any dud characters in the show. They’re all so well-rounded and layered. I do quite like how hardly anybody is politically correct – not because I lean towards that sort of world, but because it feels realistic among a diverse bunch of personalities in an environment like this – it’s the characters who have these thoughts and say these (often shocking) things, rather than a writer with an agenda out to offend people. Although generally when somebody does say something ignorant they are called out on it, or we see someone roll their eyes – so there is some responsibility applied alongside the realism.
My favourite episodes are probably:-
– Light My Fire because I’m fascinated by the fact that half an hour of TV could centre around something as simple as nobody having a lighter.
– No Place Like Home due to everyone being trapped at work after-hours (with no choice but to drink vodka and pasta sauce!). I particularly like that the dynamic of the relationships is changed slightly due to them being off-the-clock.
– 1987 where we learn a bit of backstory for some characters including some shocking revelations.
To be completely honest, there is no single episode that I feel an urge to skip over on re-watches. I don’t know how Brian Dooley managed to write all 17 episodes of the show to such consistently high quality. That’s almost 8 hours of characters talking bollocks, and yet I can never peel myself away – the man’s a genius. I love how much I connect with everything about this show – it somehow feels so warm and welcoming despite the dull set and miserable characters. It makes me smile, and it makes me feel good. I love the real and relatable problems that crop up over the series, such as the faulty drinks machine. I’m grateful that there is no canned laughter or a live audience; I don’t think those would have suited the kind of subtle humour playing out here, and might have cheapened a lot of the dialogue if it was being presented for laughs.
I was so upset when it became clear the show wasn’t getting a third series. Granted, most characters experienced some form of closure in the series finale, so maybe it was for the best to finish on a high rather than dragging it on past its sell-by date. Perhaps the smoking bans being introduced in the United Kingdom around this time would have made it unrealistic to continue anyway – although secretly I had always hoped it would transition into a retitled The Smoking Shelter instead.
If you’ve never watched The Smoking Room but perhaps I’ve piqued your interest, or maybe you just want to watch it again, you can buy it on DVD or Digital from the links below. Unfortunately, at the time of writing, the series does not appear to be available for free streaming.