When I first saw the trailers for Derek I was concerned as it looked like Ricky Gervais had written what was supposed to be a comedy about what appeared a clichéd depiction of someone with learning difficulties and/or autism. It seemed that if the trailer looked this crass I was either misinterpreting the program, or that the depiction was inaccurate, or just that it was a shit and potentially very bigotted piece of writing. I have to give context here, I do not like Ricky Gervais, I don’t find him particularly funny and as a person he comes across as pretty objectionable. I saw him first on the comic current affairs program the 11 o’clock show many years ago where he was given a brief solo spot, I did not find him at all funny he seemed bland and a little puerile and I did not expect him to return to the screen. Looking back now it is easy to superimpose thoughts I have had since onto how I felt about him then, in truth I simply did not give him much time, he wasn’t prominent or notable enough. Now I could see his performances then as having something of the counter-revolutionary alternative comedy about them, the post-modern Jim Davidson if you like, stripped of any tangible malice or outright bigotry but neither especially witty nor observant. The comedian for Thatcher’s children and that’s still an overriding impression I have. My guess is that he would be very matey if you were in his gang and a right twat if you weren’t. So that does tell you the colour glasses I’d be wearing when casting a critical eye over his output. I hope I have retained some objectivity or at least that my subjectivity has grounds!
The Office was largely well-written and certainly well-acted and had David Brent been played by someone else I think the tragi-comedy element would have been drastically heightened. It is easy for me to find fault with something that has been a huge success, but success means good no more than it means perfect. For me the Ricky Gervais David Brent was consistently annoying, not uncommon in anti-heroes but with few if any redeeming features and here lay the lack of any sympathy for the character it was an exercise in car-crash tv waiting for the next excruciating cringe. Having myself at the time an office workplace and line managers with equally few redeeming features I wallowed in this dramatisation of what seemed like my career it was an identification with rather than a wry regard from without.
Gervais’s next project was ‘Extras” which seemed frankly an excuse to get as many famous actors onto a series as possible, as if simply notches on a slate. I found it disengaging and consequently disengaged. I heard few if any people speaking about it and no evidence that i had made a rash decision.
Gervais then went to Hollywood and the trailer I saw for the film in which he was cast made me think of a vehicle of a Black And White Minstrel show using Gervais as a quirky Englishman playing to American stereotypes. Now this is not fair since I did not see the film and trailers are notoriously biased toward what they think will appeal to the audience they are hoping to attract, but I’ve once written a review of a film I didn’t see that received a favourable comment from someone who had done so I’m no stranger to judgementalism!
And so on to Derek. The only thing I had heard about the program was Gervais’s assertion that this was a favourable portrayal. For the entire program Derek is shown with facial ticks, a perpetual open-mouthed gormless expression, a shuffling gait and a constant repetition of words in what would often be categorised as an autistic fashion. It is the pastiche of how anyone might perceive the autistic, the sort of ‘man in the street’ view of “the afflicted”. Derek’s dress sense is no less clichéd the shirt top button done up, the lack of any colour in the clothing, stereotypical light brown shirt and dark brown jacket with nylon slacks directly out of 1974. Having been very recently to a centre dealing with people with extreme conditions of learning difficulty I can state without fear of contradiction that in those I met fashion sense has moved on at the same pace as everyone else’s.
Ultimately the show was meant to be a comedy and so should be judged in that light but the comedy elements Gervais writes are obvious and badly crafted, the sitting on the bowl on the chair, the falling in the pond are both utterly cringeworthy and tedious. Sometimes being able to see what is coming can be funny others it looks staged and ridiculous and this falls into the latter, it makes standing on a rake or slipping on a banana skin look new and edgy. When he tries to show anything other than a vacant staring open-mouthed simpleton it comes across as clumsy, no more is this better illustrated than when one of the elderly inhabitants dies and Derek is recounting that she has said that it was more important to be kind than clever or good looking at which point he stumbles out that he is neither clever or good looking but is kind. It just seems awkward, something one could not imagine a character that is not autistic saying, one would have expected more self-deprecation from a non-autistic person. It was a scene that could and should have been tender and emotional and with minimum difficulty save for an ability to act. In The Office Gervais had the excuse to look into the camera as this was in the context of it being a fly-on-the-wall documentary, Derek uses the same premise but his continuing to look in the camera gives more the impression that the style is used to allow Gervais to keep attention on him rather than anything else. The character would probably have been a great deal more convincing if less comfortable in from of the camera.
Kerry Goodleman’s performance had some heart and her head butting one of the chavs on the way out of the pub was definitely the funniest moment of the 1/2 hour, admittedly without comparison. Karl Pilkington, who in the limited experience I have of him comes across as a fairly vacuous person, gives a performance that shows Gervais up and this is in spite of Pilkington’s character being very unsympathetic. Where Pilkington’s character performs the task of highlighting how little we think of the treatment of elderly people the defence is mounted in such a way by Gervais as to make it look like it is only normal for it to be so negative since those who do care have something wrong with them. There was little else that offered any redemption and I cannot help but see it as a loss of time in my life that I would like to have back to spend more constructively.
If this is supposed to be sympathetic and demonstrating feeling for a character who may suffer ridicule and stigma due merely to his style and manner it is a horrendous way of doing so and is either the fault of the writer(s) or Gervais’ acting that this does not come across at all. The character and acting of Gervais in this is self-indulgant, ill-conceived and cruel. It strikes me as being one that Gervais has seen in someone somewhere and decided to embellish and exploit for comic purpose in a sniggering and schoolboy way and this perhaps more than anything else shows how we allow certain people to be treated. It is childish in the sort of way that is not merely ignorant humour but has a nastier streak. Whether or not Gervais feels such a critique is unfair this is the way I found the program and I fail to see how anyone else might find it otherwise. The trouble with humour is that whilst it is to be defended in its lampooning of things and I have stood up for Chris Morris in the past for his very sharp and deeply uncomfortable depictions of bigotry and fear it is because I feel that his doing so is not of malicious intent but is designed in essence to be constructive to prick the bubble of malign acquiescence that that which is harmful. Of course once again this is my subjective interpretation of constructive so perhaps I should defend Gervais’s right to be shit, he will certainly continue to be so with or without my blessing.
Song Of The Day ~ Echobelly – Dark Therapy