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
Universal History Archive / Getty Images
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When faith found its Article 50: exploring the theology of Martin Luther

New books by Lyndal Roper and Diarmaid MacCulloch reveal the scatalogy and theology of one of history's best known theologians.

Protestantism was the first great Eurosceptic thing, the setting up of local power bases against a shared wisdom. Almost five centuries have passed since Martin Luther nailed (or glued? – there seems to be some doubt about the matter) his Ninety-Five Theses to the castle door in Wittenberg in 1517. Luther himself never mentioned the event.

In the year before the anniversary of that momentous act by a firebrand Augustinian friar at the age of 33, two of our finest historians have given us food for thought. Diarmaid MacCulloch, whose Reformation: Europe’s House Divided (2003) has achieved classic status, gives us a powerful set of essays, chiefly concerned with the effects of the Reformation in England. He revisits some of the main figures of the period – Cranmer, Byrd, Hooker (an especially good profile) – and gives insightful readings of the changing historiography of the Reformation phenomenon. Lyndal Roper, Regius Professor of History at Oxford, has retold the life of Luther. Hers is the bigger book. MacCulloch has wise things to say about the Book of Common Prayer, the King James Bible and the religion of the Tudor monarchs. But no one on the English scene can quite match the figure of that crazed Wittenberg friar. Indeed, there would not have been an English Reformation at all, had it not already begun in Germany.

Nor would Luther have been so famous, had not Johann Gutenberg (circa 1398-1468) invented printing, and had Luther’s inflammatory tracts – and even more so the anti-Catholic woodcuts to accompany them – not spread like wildfire, the Latin writings among the whole European intelligentsia, the illustrated ones in German among a semi-literate peasantry. At Wartburg Castle today, guides will show you the splodge on the wall where Luther supposedly threw an inkpot at the Devil. Lyndal Roper says this is a misinterpretation of Luther’s claim that he would fight Satan with ink (meaning “with printer’s ink”).

The single feeling I took away from these two inspirational books is that the Reformation was a series of political events, driven by secular concerns, in Germany by the power games of the nobility – above all of Friedrich III, “the Wise”, Elector of Saxony – and in England by the sordid politicking of Henry VIII. Until the Reformation happened, it had been perfectly possible to excoriate abuse in the Church (as when Chaucer mocked the Pardoner) without invoking Article 50.

This tolerance changed when the Holy Roman emperor Charles V convened the Diet of Worms. The assembly was intended to reassert twin bulwarks: the emperor’s personal power over huge tracts of Europe and, more specifically, the maintenance of the Catholic faith against the rumblings of the new teaching. Luther was summoned to appear before it in order either to reaffirm his views or to recant.

There was a crowd of over 2,000 people waiting to see him when he arrived in Worms, in the Rhineland, on 16 April 1521, paraded in an open wagon. The choice of vehicle was deliberate; Luther, and his followers, wanted him to be seen. This austere, still tonsured friar, with his huge, bony face divided by a long, asymmetrical nose, with dark, electrifying eyes and curling, ­satirical lips, was a figure who had become a celebrity, almost in the modern sense.

In the Germany of the 1520s, so superbly evoked in Roper’s book, people knew something “seismic” was happening. Worms is the place where Luther did, or did not, say: “Here I stand. I can do no other.” MacCulloch tells us that these are words that Luther probably never spoke, “but he ought to have said them, because they sum up a little of what it is like being a Protestant”.

Roper’s account of the diet and of ­Luther’s appearance before it is one of the most remarkable passages in her magnificent book. On the late afternoon of 17 April, he found himself standing before John Eck, the imperial orator. The papal nuncio Jerome Alexander had warned against giving Luther such publicity. Even as the titles of his many books were read out, they demonstrated, in Roper’s words, “the depth and range of Luther’s attack on the papacy and the established Church”. In reply to Eck’s questions, Luther spoke quietly, saying he was more used to the cells of monks than to courts. It was his fanbase that reported, or invented, the celebrated words.

Luther, standing alone before that assembly, is a type of what makes Protestantism so alluring. We do not need intermediaries, whether popes or priests or emperors, on our journey towards Truth; our inward conscience is king. Luther can be seen as the archetypical dissident, the instigator of what eventually became Democracy and Romanticism. But Roper’s Luther is deeply rooted in the 16th century, and in his own appalling ego. (When he was a monk, he would spend six hours making his confession.)

A large part of her story is the sheer coarseness of his language, the deranged coprology that fed his many hatreds, in particular of the Jews and of the popes. The “Devil has . . . emptied his stomach again and again, that is a true relic, which the Jews and those who want to be a Jew, kiss, eat and drink and worship . . .” he wrote. “He stuffs and squirts them so full that it overflows and swims out of every place, pure Devil’s filth, yes it tastes so good to their hearts, and they guzzle it like sows.”

The pope, likewise, was castigated by Luther as a sodomite and a transvestite – “the holy virgin, Madame Pope, St Paula III”. In his virulent text “Against the Roman Papacy, an Institution of the Devil” (1545), Luther had him say, “Come here, Satan! And if you had more worlds than this, I would accept them all, and not only worship you, but also lick your behind.” He ended his diatribe: “All of this is sealed with the Devil’s own
dirt, and written with the ass-pope’s farts.”

When you think of a world without proper plumbing, the wonder is that all of our forebears were not faecally obsessed. Luther, however, was a special case. His cloacal and theological preoccupations were inextricably linked. One of the many enemies he made in life – and most of his academic colleagues and religious allies at Wittenberg finally fell into this category – was Simon Lemnius, a pupil of Luther’s sometime ally Philippus Melanchthon. Luther said he would no longer preach in Wittenberg until Lemnius was executed, and in time he was. But not before Lemnius had written a poem that went:

 

You suffer yourself from dysentery and you scream when you shit, and that which you wished on others you now suffer yourself. You called others shitters, now you have become a shitter and are richly blessed with shit. Earlier anger opened your crooked mouth, now your arse opens the load of your stomach. Your anger didn’t just come out of your mouth – now it flows from your backside.

 

It was indelicate but true. After he escaped from Worms in disguise, Luther sometimes went for up to six days without passing a motion. The “Lord strikes me in my posterior with serious pain”, he wrote. “Now I sit in pain like a woman in childbirth, ripped up, bloody and I will have little rest tonight.” And with the constipation came visitations from the Devil. “I have many evil and astute demons with me,” he wrote at this time, surely accurately.

The man’s very name has lavatorial connotations. As he told his table companions in 1532, his “Reformation moment”, his central theological idea – that the just shall live by faith alone – came upon him “like a thunderbolt”, in the privy tower of the monastery at Wittenberg. Thereafter, Luder, which was his father’s surname, became known as “the Freed One” (in Greek “Eleutherios”, in modern German “Luther”). Conversion was a laxative.

Roper argues that “we probably know more about his inner life than about any other 16th-century individual”. As a husband (which he became when he abandoned his Augustinian vows and married Katharina von Bora, a Cistercian nun 15 years his junior), he could be genial and loving. His household was clearly a place of hospitality. And yet, even by the standards of the age, he was harsh. When his nephew Florian took a knife from one of Luther’s sons, he wrote to the boys’ schoolmaster asking him to beat Florian every day for three days until the blood ran: “If the [arse-]licker were still here, I’d teach him to lie and steal!”

On the larger, national scale his political activity makes for painful reading. Without the patronage of Friedrich III he would never have got anywhere. The agricultural workers who heeded his rallying cries did so because of the absenteeism of the Saxon bishops and priests. Yet when the Peasants’ War broke out, inspired mainly by Luther, he accused them of doing the Devil’s work. After thousands had been put to the sword, his comment was that “one must kill a mad dog”. The Magdeburg preachers rightly called him a “flatterer of princes”.

And yet, as Roper leads us through the unfolding of the Reformation by way of the psychological experiences of this monster/master thinker, there is something thrilling going on here. No one has ever equalled Luther in the extent to which he teased out the radicalism of Christianity: Paul’s theology filtered through Augustine, but honed to its existential extreme in the German preacher. “I do not wish to be given free will!” he exclaimed. He anticipated the determinisms of Darwin, Marx and Freud.

His starting point was the sheer irrelevance of either human will or human reason in the grand scheme of things. Other Reformation figures took as their starting point the ineluctable sinfulness of all human action, the impossibility of our earning salvation or working for grace. None expressed himself with quite Luther’s vigour and, yes, poetic force.

Roper reminds us that his translation of the New Testament from the Greek, which was accomplished at top speed, was “a work of genius. Luther’s New Testament reshaped the German language itself . . .” And it is no surprise, she notes, that the Faust legend began to locate the scholar-egomaniac’s journey in Wittenberg. No surprise, either, that Hamlet studied there. This is the place, for good or ill, where the individual consciousness stood up against the group. No sooner had it done so than private judgement, paradoxically, began to debunk the freedom of the will. Luther’s
response to a hundred years of humanist wisdom and the revival of Greek learning was to distrust the “damned whore, Reason”. In this, and in his pathological anti-Semitism, he was sowing teeth that would spring up in later centuries as dragons.

Many would regard the end of monastic life as the greatest tragedy of the Reformation. Civilisations need men and women who retreat from the conventional burdens of property and carnality to find something else, whether they are Pythagoreans eschewing beans or Buddhist monks wandering the Indian countryside with begging bowls. The ruined British monasteries remind us of what was lost from our philistine land (not least, women’s education). Diarmaid MacCulloch, in a fine essay on Henry VIII, says that “at no time” during the eight years when most of the religious houses in Britain were destroyed “did the government officially condemn the practice of the monastic life”. Surely that makes it more, not less, painful. They were eliminated merely for money. At least Luther, in his angry way, did object to the monastic life on principle. He came to oppose the thing that most of us would think religious houses were for, namely their quietness. One of the most fascinating things in Roper’s biography is the discussion of the concept of Gelassenheit, or calm, letting go.

MacCulloch finds this beautiful quality in the Church of England, and concludes an essay on “The Making of the English Prayer Book” with a sense of the “gentle . . . understated hospitality” of Anglican worship, and its feeling, conveyed in George Herbert’s “Love bade me welcome” of . . . well, of Gelassenheit.

No modern pope would dispute Luther’s view that it was wrong to sell indulgences. Most of the abuses of the Catholic Church to which he objected were swept away by the Church itself. Both of these books will divide us. Some readers will finish them with a sense that the Reformation was a spiritual laxative by which constipated Luder became the liberated Eleutherios, thereby loosening and releasing the Inner Farage of northern Europe. Other readers will be ­sorry that the Catholic humanists such as Erasmus and More did not win the day. For such readers as this, Luther and pals must seem like brutal wreckers of a cultural cohesion that we still miss.

A N Wilson is most recently the author of “The Book of the People: How to Read the Bible” (Atlantic Books)

Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet by Lyndal Roper is published by The Bodley Head (577pp, £30)

All Things Made New: Writings on the Reformation by Diarmaid MacCulloch is published by Allen Lane (450pp, £25)

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue