How many geeks does it take to fix a computer?
Stereotyped as nerdy or socially inept, the ignored world of 'techies' is to come centre-stage in a new sitcom, writes Tom Leonard
Your screen has gone blank, that box thing under the desk is making a buzzing noise and you cannot remember when you last "saved" the 12,000-word presentation you were writing. Who you gonna call?
Erm, that tall, skinny guy with thick specs - can't remember his name but he wears horrible ties and a "Resistance is Futile" badge.
Of course you can't remember his name - he works for your IT (information technology) department. But he knows your name, oh yes, and he remembers how off-hand you were with him the last time he re-booted your hard drive. Good luck.
The techie has become the common denominator of modern working life. Just as the computer has inveigled itself into almost every job we do, so, inevitably, has the person who sorts it when things go wrong. Whether you work from home or in an office, he - or she, but usually he - is a frantic phone call away. If you can get through.
It seems inexplicable - given that Bill Gates is the world's richest man, Apple is the coolest company, and there have been two dotcom booms - that computer people still have an image problem. But they do, don't they? We all think we know the type of people who work in IT.
You may even be one yourself (not that you'll know what you're like, you're probably in denial). A Telegraph colleague with a techie background remembers them at university as always being interested in solitary, sometimes risky, pursuits - such as juggling, hang-gliding and unusual Japanese board games.
Personally, I would plump for the type of A-level maths students at school who used to recite huge chunks of The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy to each other. And they are always in the kitchen at parties, because that's the only place quiet enough for them to listen to their iPod.
Such are the stereotypical images with which IT people are saddled. Accurate or not (and I'd like to say now that they certainly are not in the case of The Daily Telegraph's wonderful technical support team - a truly great bunch), techies are so ubiquitous that the writer of hugely loved C4 comedy Father Ted and the producer of The Office feel they can build an entire sitcom series around them.
The IT Crowd, which starts on Channel 4 on February 3, centres on the dreary, daylight-starved existence of Roy, Moss and Jen - together constituting the IT department of Reynholm Industries, an undefined but thrusting London company presided over by a dictatorial boss (played by the Brass Eye satirist Chris Morris), and populated by glamorous people in power suits.
All except for our three heroes, who inhabit a squalid boot-hole in the basement, whiling away the hours when they are not summoned upstairs to save some helpless technophobe by answering the phone with the standard greeting: "Have you tried turning it off and on again?"
But in what its creators describe as a "corporate Upstairs, Downstairs", they are definitely the heroes in this scenario rather than the cool but grey people upstairs. There is no denying that the show's writer, Graham Linehan, has not ignored the stereotypes - Roy and Moss are both geeks.
The former (played by Chris O'Dowd) is loud, slobby, tells bad jokes and wears T-shirts with nerdy logos, while Moss (Richard Ayoade) is gauche, not very smart and wears the smarter sort of nerdy clothes, notably short-sleeved shirts.
They both have a problem with girls, including their colleague, Jen. She is not geeky, but then she lied on her CV and knows nothing about computers.
Linehan, who also wrote the sharp C4 comedy Black Books, last week sounded off about the "depressing and crude cynicism" of today's television comedy and called for a return to old-fashioned family viewing. Like Father Ted, The IT Crowd - which is the same sort of knockabout comedy - gently sends up its protagonists rather than skewering them.
"There's no point served in being unpleasant about people, especially people who have access to my computer," says Linehan. "I like geeks, I count myself as a bit of one myself as I like computer games. They're sensitive people who are bullied and ignored, and some don't have social skills, but they're very intelligent."
Father Ted performed a similar role with Catholic priests and Linehan insists they have something in common with IT people. "They're quite like priests in the sense they're doing something mysterious that other people don't have access to," he says.
"I've read that's why a lot of IT people like Star Wars so much, because they associate with the Jedi."
The scripts were heavily informed by input from the IT department of a big television company. Its members told the show's creators they felt invisible, so much so that if one IT person asked a colleague who had just sorted out a member of staff, "Did you hit it off with them?", he actually meant, "Did they still talk to you once you had fixed their computer?"
These IT people told Linehan about one incident, which he has used in the series, when the chief executive threw a party to celebrate an IT project.
He thanked every department in the building, including the cleaners, except for... well, you can guess. And while everyone will say their call to IT is urgent, the techies told Linehan that they always answer calls from attractive women first, and that if a member of management has been rude, they will let the phone ring and ring.
In general, they will prioritise depending on how people have treated them in the past.
"From that derives their power," says Ash Atalla, the series producer. "When you're at work and your computer doesn't go on, you are powerless and they have a five-minute window when they have ultimate power. And they like that."
Atalla, who produced The Office, says he is surprised there are not more television shows set in the workplace, given how much time we spend there.
The IT Crowd, he insists, is "a rejoinder to our style-obsessed society", adding: "It's all about glamour now - how good your job sounds when you mention it at a party and not at all about profile. I imagine that anyone who says, when asked, that they work in IT doesn't get many follow-up questions."
Linehan hopes that IT people will grow to like his comedy, just as - he claims - priests generally liked Father Ted. "I hope they like it. In the end, it was written from their point of view."
Will IT people see it that way? Neil - who works in IT for an investment bank that employs 3,000 technical staff - says he will be able to laugh but is not sure about some of his colleagues. Still, even he gets tired of friends joking that all he does is pull the fluff out of computer mouse balls.
He admits there is some truth in the stereotypes. "There are some IT people who are more isolated and just interact with their computer, but - for me - it's just a job. I don't even have a PlayStation at home," he says.
Having seen a preview, Steve Singh, 35, who works in IT for Barclays Capital at Canary Wharf, was not sure whether to be offended. "It's funny but it just panders to stereotypes about nerdy people in glasses who talk a language you don't understand," he says.
"You'll find one or two like that if you're lucky and you look under rocks. But IT is much more mainstream and integral to businesses nowadays. I did work in a basement once, but that was 10 years ago."
There is one inaccuracy in the series which he finds particularly glaring. "You don't get good-looking women working in IT. I've worked in it for 13 years and I've met two."
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