Ricky Gervais's 'Derek': the reality of a life of otherness

Previously sceptical of his work, a disability rights campaigner speaks with the comedian about cont

So, Ricky Gervais has got the green light to turn Derek – a bittersweet tale of a vulnerable care home worker - into a full series for Channel 4. 

Although the show was popular with viewers – gaining 3.2 million – the response was not universally positive. Some of its critics had watched it. Some hadn’t. To my mind, the predicted “cruelty” didn’t manifest – I found the show warm and funny, and at times poignant.

Why was the response to Derek so hostile? Perhaps because in October 2011 Gervais used the word “mong” on Twitter. He was trying to make a point about the evolution of language, but it quickly became a story about how the comedian was “mocking children with Down’s syndrome”.

As a disability rights campaigner, and someone with personal experience of caring for those with disabilities, I was one of Gervais’s critics over Mong-gate, as it inevitably came to be known. But with Derek, the assumptions by some that the show would be predicated on cruelty proved to be unfounded. 

Add to this the fact that Gervais has been responsible for providing more acting opportunities for disabled people, in positive roles, than any other writer I can think of. Perhaps people may have him confused with Frankie Boyle - who ultimately recognises which side his “hate dressed up as satire” bread is buttered. 

To be Frank, or rather to be Ricky, a multi millionaire global star really doesn't need to reduce himself to shock tactics to sell a show. They sell themselves. Nor does he need to contact me to apologise for any harm that his thoughtless tweeting generated. The fact that he did says much more about the man behind the myth than a perceived desire to be seen as the king of controversy. 

We’re not friends but since we spoke initially I’ve challenged him privately and repeatedly in a friendly way. For a man often publicly perceived as arrogant and intractable, he is politely receptive to challenge – while remaining resolute that above all, he wants his work to speak for itself.

A few months ago, Gervais sent me the pilot episode of Derek and asked me to tell him what I thought. I was worried that this would be the watershed of my opinion of Ricky Gervais, because I actively campaign against people “playing disabled”. 

Since he sent it to me I’ve watched it several times and each time I’ve laughed and cried. I haven’t seen cruelty, I haven’t seen Gervais “playing disabled”, but I have seen reality in the subject matter, having spent a lot of the last seven years in and out of my mum’s nursing home until she died in December from Alzheimer’s.

Instead of it being a mocking disintegration of a learning-disabled man paraded for the amusement of comfortable unaffected people, it’s a story that really needs to be told at the moment.

It’s the story of a socially isolated, gentle, vulnerable man surrounded by other people who society wants to forget, but told with humour, heart and real warmth. It’s a comedy which shows the reality of a life of otherness.

Derek is not bright, he’s good. He’s not sophisticated, he’s kind. He’s not beautiful, he’s compassionate.

Gervais as David Brent saw a documentary film crew as a ticket to becoming an entertainer, Gervais as Derek hopes the film crew are from “Secret Millionaire” because he’s looking for a champion and protector for himself and his friends.

The show deals with themes of loneliness, love, vulnerability and hope, told with humour and told from the perspective of people who as a society, we seem keener to laugh at than with.

I think that whatever criticisms are levelled at Ricky Gervais , despite how far he’s travelled from Reading, or how far up the entertainment ladder he’s climbed,  “Derek” shows us that his view from the top is of the stories that matter told with warmth, humour and truth.

Reproduced below are the questions I asked Ricky Gervais before the screening of the pilot of Derek.

1. You’ve often spoken about how offence is “taken and not given” but does criticism or controversy ever cause you to question artistic decisions?

I see offence as the collateral damage of free speech. I hate the thought of a person's ideas being modified or even hushed up because someone somewhere might not like to hear them.

Outside actually breaking the law or causing someone physical harm "hurting someone’s feelings" is almost impossible to objectively quantify. 

What some people might find offensive, others will not. Such is life. Offence is rarely about right and wrong but rather about feelings. Feelings are personal. Trying to have a consensus about what is objectively offensive is rather like arranging books in a library in order of merit. We'd all have a completely different order in mind. 

We can't go round not saying what we want to say in case it offends someone somewhere. It will. Some people are offended by equality. Mixed marriage. Being gay. So you're offended? So fucking what? 

Recently the New York City Departmentt of Education banned 50 terms from being used in tests administered to students for fear that they could offend. One of these words was "dinosaurs". 

2. Derek Noakes, as a character, first surfaced in 2001. Irrespective of your assertions that he isn’t learning disabled, why do you feel this belief still persists?

Well firstly there is no argument. Derek is a fictional character and is defined by his creator. Me. If I say I don't mean him to be disabled then that’s it. A fictional doctor can't come along and prove me wrong. 

He's different. But then so are a lot of people. He's not the smartest tool in the box but he's cleverer than Father Dougal, and not as different as Mr. Bean. He's based on those people you meet who are on the margins of society. Nerds, loners, under achievers.

If he had any specific and defined disability I would either get an actor with that disability to play the role or I would make sure I was an expert in that disability and the best person for the job. There are of course times when it is necessary for an able bodied actor to play a disabled role. Born on the 4th of July for example needed an actor to play both a disabled character and an able bodied character. It was naturally easier for Tom Cruise to sit in a wheelchair for half the movie than for a paraplegic to run around for half the movie. But I think it's a good rule of thumb (no offence if you don't have thumbs) to use actors with the disability of the character they are portraying. 

3. Derek is gentle and compassionate and the way you present his world is too. How important is compassion towards difference, in your worldview and in your writing?

I think compassion in creating fiction is important on two levels. Firstly, as an actor it's important to have compassion for the characters you are portraying because at some level comedy and drama relies on empathy. Secondly, and on a more personal level I like to consider the members of society that portrayal affects.  But I actually think in some ways that equality is even more important than compassion towards difference. 

Some people were offended by Life's Too Short because a character with dwarfism was an asshole. He was an asshole. But he was an asshole because of all the things he did and said. Not because of his height. Being an asshole is a staple of comedy. Are disabled performers banned from having a meaty villain role because they should always shown to be perfect? No. 

Him being an asshole was nothing to do with his disability. Some people are assholes. Some assholes are disabled. David Brent was an able bodied asshole. (Fat, with crooked teeth is not a disability.) 

Derek is not an asshole. He's better than me. He's better than most people. He's kind, loving, funny, sweet, honest, open minded, hard working and most of all resilient to everything a harsh selfish brutal world can throw at him. 

4. You’re regularly described as controversial and seemingly have a love/hate relationship with the press, which seems to inform the pre-publicity of some of your projects. Is this a price worth paying creatively speaking?

It doesn't affect me really. As long as they don't influence the creative process I don't really care that much. Luckily, people make up their own minds about things. As you get more and more successful you get more and more people with an opinion about you. The less anodyne and homogenized your work is, the greater the connection and reaction. I wouldn't have it any other way. I'm flattered that people care enough to either rush out and buy a ticket or a DVD, or sit at home angrily blogging about how many idiots rushed out and bought a ticket or a DVD. Vive la difference. 

5. As you know I campaign against disability hate crime. Studies have shown hate crime always begins with verbal abuse, which has risen by 70 per cent on the streets of the UK in the last 12 months. What are your feelings on the comedy of cruelty and do you feel it can be linked?

In comedy, particularly satire, the problem comes when people mistake the subject of a joke with the actual target. This happens to me all the time, as I tend to explore contentious and taboo subjects. Everyone has their own particular taboo, of course, and as I've already said, there is no real consensus on what is acceptable. Personally, I think no harm can come from exploring taboos, and fear of them is their very propagation. I often deal with these subjects because I like to take the audience to places it hasn't gone before. Comedy is about surprise, and I think the job of a comedian is not just to make people laugh but also to make them think.

I don't like gratuitous cruelty because it fails on a comedic level. I don't like racist jokes, not because they offend me but because they are based on a falsehood. Comedy is an intellectual pursuit, not an emotional one. As soon as you stray away from truth you veer into rallying and it's harder to find that funny. I'm not sure that you can ever hold "jokes" responsible for bullying. It's like holding weapons responsible for killing. As we've already discussed, some people are just assholes. 

6. Karl Pilkington gives an amazing performance as Dougie in Derek. He is famously interested in “freaks” which has led to criticism of him mocking people with facial disfigurement and impairments. How would you answer these comments?

I can't speak for Karl obviously, but I can tell you that he hasn't got a malicious bone in his body. I have never heard him "mock" people with disfigurement, facial or otherwise, but I have heard him talk about them in a fascinated and naive way. He is rather like a 5 year old child in a supermarket who points and says "Mummy why has that man got a weird shaped head" The mother is often mortified but she knows the child wasn't being nasty. Just inquisitive. 

Karl is fascinated by difference.  But he will get on with anyone. He has no pretensions and no filter. He says what he thinks and this can sometimes come across as harsh if you don't know him. He treats everyone equally and gives everyone the respect they give him. People have to remember, this is a man who thought that Anne Frank was just avoiding paying rent. He believes that Dinosaurs co-existed with cave men, and that a seal is a cross between a fish and a dog. 

Nicky Clark is a writer and disability rights campaigner. A version of this interview appears on her blog, at nickyclark.blogspot.co.uk

Karl Pilkington and Ricky Gervais in 'Derek', Channel 4
MARK GERSON
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It's unfashionable to call someone a "genius" – but William Empson was one

Father than denying the contradictoriness of being human, Empson revelled in it, as The Face of Buddha reveals.

William Empson was a genius. Describing anyone in this way is distinctly unfashionable nowadays, because it suggests a level of achievement to which most of humanity cannot aspire. There is nothing you can do to acquire genius. Either you have it or, like the rest of us, you don’t – a state of affairs that cannot be remedied. The very idea smacks of elitism, one of the worst sins in the contemporary moral lexicon. But if talk of genius has come close to being banned in polite society, it is hard to know how else to describe Empson’s astonishing originality of mind.

One of the most influential 20th-century literary critics and the author of two seminal books on language, he was extremely receptive to new thinking and at the same time combative in defending his views. He was a poet of the first rank, whose spare and often cryptic verse was immediately understood and admired by Ludwig Wittgenstein. Incomparably more thoughtful than anything produced by the dull atheist prophets of our own day, his book Milton’s God (1961), in which he compares the Christian God to a commandant at Belsen, must be one of the fiercest assaults on monotheism ever published. And as a socialist who revered the British monarchy, he had a political outlook that was refreshingly non-standard.

Empson’s originality was not confined to his writing. He led a highly adventurous life. Expelled from his research fellowship and his name deleted from the records of his Cambridge college in 1929 when one of the porters found condoms in his rooms, he lost any prospect of a position in British academic life. For a time, he considered becoming a journalist or a civil servant. Instead his tutor I A Richards encouraged him to apply for posts in east Asia, and in 1931 he took up a position at a teacher training college in Japan. For some years he taught in China – mostly from memory, owing to a lack of books, and sleeping on a blackboard when his university was forced to move to Kunming during the Japanese siege of Beijing. By the late Thirties he was well known in London literary circles (written when he was only 22, his best-known book, Seven Types of Ambiguity, was published in 1930 and a collection of poems appeared in 1934) but just scraping a living from reviewing and a small private income. During the Second World War he worked at the BBC alongside George Orwell and Louis MacNeice.

He returned to China in 1947 to teach in Beijing, living through the stormy years just before and after Mao came to power and leaving only when the regime’s ideological demands became intolerably repressive. He continued his academic career, first at Kenyon College in Ohio, briefly at Gresham College in London, and finally at the University of Sheffield, where he was appointed head of the English department in 1953 and remained until his retirement in 1972, but always disdained academic jargon, writing in a light, glancing, conversational style.

Inordinately fond of drink and famously bohemian in appearance (T S Eliot, who admired his mind and enjoyed his company, commented on Empson’s scruffiness), he lived in a state of eccentric disorder that the poet Robert Lowell described as having “a weird, sordid nobility”. He was actively bisexual, marrying the South African-born sculptor Hetta Crouse, equally ­free-spirited, and with whom he enjoyed an open relationship that was sometimes turbulent yet never without affection. His later years were less eventful, though rarely free from controversy. In 1979 he was knighted, and awarded an honorary fellowship by the college that half a century earlier had struck his name from the books. He died in 1984.

The publishing history of this book is as extraordinary as the work itself. “The real story of The Face of the Buddha,” the cultural historian Rupert Arrowsmith writes in his richly learned introduction, “began in the ancient Japanese city of Nara, where, in the spring of 1932, the beauty of a particular set of Japanese sculptures struck Empson with revelatory force.” He was “bowled over” by three statues, including the Kudara Kannon, a 7th-century piece in the Horyuji temple representing the Bodhisattva of Mercy, which fascinated him because the left and right profiles of the statue seemed to have asymmetrical expressions: “The puzzlement and good humour of the face are all on the left, also the maternity and the rueful but amiable smile. The right is the divinity; a birdlike innocence and wakefulness; unchanging in irony, unresting in good works; not interested in humanity, or for that matter in itself . . . a wonderfully subtle and tender work.” Gripped by what the art historian Partha Mitter describes as a “magnificent obsession”, Empson travelled far and wide in the years that followed, visiting south-east Asia, China, Ceylon, Burma and India and ending up in the Ajanta caves, the fountainhead of Mahayana Buddhist art. First begun in Japan in 1932, The Face of the Buddha was written and repeatedly revised during these wanderings.

Empson made no copy of the manuscript and in a succession of mishaps it was lost for nearly 60 years. The story of its disappearance is resonant of the boozy Fitzrovia portrayed in Anthony Powell’s novels. On leaving for his foreign travels in 1947, Empson gave the manuscript to John Davenport, a family friend and literary critic, for safekeeping. The hard-drinking Davenport mislaid it and in 1952 told Empson he had left it in a taxi. Davenport’s memory was befuddled. He had in fact given the text to the Tamil poet and editor M J T Tambimuttu, who must have shelved it among the piles of books that filled the rat-infested flat vividly described in the memoirs of Julian Maclaren-Ross. When Tambimuttu retur­ned to Ceylon in 1949 he passed on Empson’s manuscript to Richard March, a fellow editor of Poetry London, which ­Tambimuttu had founded. March died soon afterwards and his papers mouldered in obscurity until 2003, when they were acquired by the British Museum. Two years later an enterprising curator at the museum, Jamie Anderson, spotted the manuscript and informed the author’s descendants of its rediscovery. Now Oxford University Press has brought out this beautifully illustrated volume, which will be of intense interest not only to devotees of Empson but to anyone interested in culture and religion.

Although a fragment of his analysis appeared in the article “Buddhas with double faces”, published in the Listener in 1936 and reprinted in the present volume, it is only now that we can fully appreciate Empson’s insight into Buddhist art. His deep interest in Buddhism was clear throughout his life. From the indispensable edition of his Complete Poems (Allen Lane, 2000) edited and annotated by his biographer John Haffenden, we learn that, while working in the Far Eastern department of the BBC, Empson wrote the outline of a ballet, The Elephant and the Birds, based on a story from Buddhist scriptures about Gautama in his incarnation as an elephant. His enduring fascination with the Buddha is evident in “The Fire Sermon”, a personal translation of the Buddha’s celebrated speech on the need to turn away from sensuous passions, which Empson used as the epigraph in successive editions of the collected poems. (A different translation is cited in the notes accompanying Eliot’s Waste Land, the longest section of which is also titled “The Fire Sermon”.)

Empson’s attitude to Buddhism, like the images of the Buddha that he so loved, was asymmetrical. He valued the Buddhist view as an alternative to the Western outlook, in which satisfying one’s desires by acting in the world was the principal or only goal in life. At the same time he thought that by asserting the unsatisfactoriness of existence as such – whether earthly or heavenly – Buddhism was more life-negating and, in this regard, even worse than Christianity, which he loathed. Yet he also believed Buddhism, in practice, had been more life-enhancing. Buddhism was a paradox: a seeming contradiction that contained a vital truth.

What Empson admired in Buddhist art was its ability to create an equilibrium from antagonistic human impulses. Writing here about Khmer art, he observes that cobras at Angkor are shown protecting the seated Buddha with their raised hoods. He goes on to speculate that the many-headed cobra is a metaphor for one of the Buddha’s canonical gestures – the raised hand with the palm forward, which means “do not fear”:

It has almost the same shape. To be sure, I have never had to do with a cobra, and perhaps after practical experience the paradox would seem an excessively monstrous one. But the high religions are devoted to contradictions of this sort . . . and the whole point of the snake is that the god has domesticated him as a protector.

It was this combination of opposite qual­ities that attracted Empson. “A good deal of the startling and compelling quality of the Far Eastern Buddha heads comes from combining things that seem incompatible,” he writes, “especially a complete repose or detachment with an active power to help the worshipper.” Art of this kind was not only beautiful, but also ethically valuable, because it was truer to human life. “The chief novelty of this Far Eastern Buddhist sculpture is the use of asymmetry to make the faces more human.”

Using 20th-century examples that illustrate such asymmetry, Empson elaborates in his Listener article:

It seems to be true that the marks of a person’s active experience tend to be stronger on the right, so that the left shows more of his inherent endowment or of the more passive experiences which have not involved the wilful use of facial muscles. All that is assumed here is that the muscles on the right generally respond more readily to the will and that the effects of old experiences pile up. The photograph of Mr Churchill will be enough to show that there is sometimes a contrast of this sort though it seems that in Baudelaire, who led a very different kind of life, the contrast was the other way round. In Mr Churchill the administrator is on the right, and on the left (by which of course I mean the left of the person or statue, which is on your right as you look) are the petulance, the romanticism, the gloomy moral strength and the range of imaginative power.

With such a prolific mind as Empson’s, it is risky to identify any ruling theme, but he returns repeatedly in his writings to the thought that the creativity of art and language comes from their irreducible open-endedness and susceptibility to conflicting interpretations. As he wrote in Seven Types of Ambiguity, “Good poetry is usually written from a background of conflict.” Rather than being an imperfection that must be overcome for the sake of clarity, ambiguity makes language inexhaustibly rich. In The Structure of Complex Words (1948) he showed how even the most straightforward-looking terms were “compacted with doctrines” that left their meaning equivocal. There was no ultimate simplicity concealed by the opacity of language. Thinking and speaking invoked deep structures of meaning which could be made more intelligible. But these structures could not be contained in any single body of ideas. Wittgenstein’s early ambition of reducing language to elem­entary propositions stating simple facts was impossible in principle. Inherently plural in meaning, words enabled different ways of seeing the world.

Empson’s message was not merely intellectual but, once again, ethical. “It may be,” he wrote in Complex Words, “that the human mind can recognise actually in­commensurable values, and that the chief human value is to stand up between them.” The image of the Buddha that he discovered in Nara embodied this incommensurability. Rather than trying to smooth out these clashing values into an oppressive ideal of perfection, as Christianity had done, the Buddhist image fused their conflicts into a paradoxical whole. Instead of erecting a hierarchy of better and worse attitudes in the manner of the “neo-Christians”, as Empson described the pious humanists of his day, the asymmetrical face of the Buddha showed how discordant emotions could be reconciled.

Whether Empson’s account of asymmetry can be anything like a universal theory is doubtful. In support of his theory he cited Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals to show that human emotions were expressed in similar ways in different cultures, and invoked speculation by contemporary psychologists on the contrasting functions of the right and left sides of the brain. But the scientific pretensions of Empson’s observations are less important than the spirit in which he made them. Entering into an initially alien form of art, he found a point of balance between values and emotions whose conflicts are humanly universal. Rather than denying the contradictoriness of the human mind and heart, he gloried in it.

It takes genius to grasp the ambiguities of art and language and to use them as Empson did. But if we can’t emulate his astonishing fertility of mind, we can learn from his insights. Both in his life and in his work he resisted the lure of harmony, which offers to mitigate conflicts of value at the price of simplifying and impoverishing the human world. Instead, Empson searched for value in the ambiguities of life. He found what he was looking for in the double faces of the Buddha described in this lost masterpiece.

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer

The Face of Buddha by William Epson, edited by Rupert Arrowsmith with a preface by Partha Mitter, is published by Oxford University Press (224pp, £30)

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain