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
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Measure for pleasure: sex, money and Shakespeare

Like sex, money is something that a lot of people spend a lot of time thinking about (and wanting more of). Shakespeare was no exception.

A hundred years ago this month, preparations for the Battle of the Somme were no impediment to national remembrance of the tercentenary of William Shakespeare’s death. He had been buried on 25 April 1616, but it was generally agreed that he had died two days earlier, on what may well have been his 52nd birthday (we can be sure about the date of his baptism in 1564, but not that of his birth). So, on 23 April 1916, St George’s Day, celebrations were staged in Stratford-upon-Avon and London. Also in Prague and Madrid, New York and Copenhagen. And, with special fervour, in Berlin. Back in the 18th century Goethe and Schiller had claimed Shakespeare as Germany’s national poet. In their adopted town of Weimar, as Germany geared up for war in 1914, the president of the Deutsche Shakespeare-Gesellschaft (German Shakespeare Society) had aligned Shakespeare to the spiritual rearmament of the German people. “O God of battles!” he had declaimed from Henry V, “steel my soldiers’ hearts;/Possess them not with fear”.

The two most notable Shakespearean publications of that tercentenary year were both published by Oxford University Press. First there was a stout, two-volume set called Shakespeare’s England: an Account of the Life and Manners of His Age. It began with an
“Ode on the Tercentenary Commemoration of Shakespeare” by Robert Bridges, the poet laureate. “And in thy book Great-Britain’s rule readeth her right,” Bridges wrote. “Her chains are chains of Freedom, and her bright arms/Honour, Justice and Truth and Love to man.” Thanks to Shakespeare – the poem proposed – the Union Jack has been hailed around the world as “the ensign of Liberty”. Shakespeare was lauded as the vessel of a kind of benign gunboat diplomacy: “And the boom of her guns went round the earth in salvos of peace.”

The book proceeded with a paean to “The Age of Elizabeth” by the aptly named Sir Walter Raleigh, Merton professor of English literature at Oxford, and then with an array of essays on almost every aspect of the culture of Shakespeare’s age, from religion, the military, education, travel and agriculture to law and medicine, commerce and coinage, heraldry and costume, city and town life, homes and gardens, sports and pastimes, rogues and vagabonds, and ghosts and witches. A century later, Shakespeare’s England remains a valuable compendium of historical lore, though it does not have much to say about the subjects that most 21st-century academic Shakespeareans focus on – women and gender, race and ethnicity, questions of cultural ecology and social anthropology.

The other OUP volume of 1916 was ­entitled A Book of Homage to Shakespeare. It contained over 160 tributes to the Bard, in more than 20 languages, contributed by scholars and writers from every corner of the globe. As Andrew Dickson reveals in his wonderful Shakespearean travelogue, Worlds Elsewhere, published last autumn, there is even an essay (written anonymously) by Sol Plaatje, the founding general secretary of what became the African National Congress, arguing that William “Tsikinya-Chaka” (that’s “Shake-the-Sword”, translated into Setswana) would one day belong to all South Africans, not just white men.

In contrast to the impassioned celeb­rations and the hyperbole of the claims about Shakespeare in 1916, the marking of the 400th anniversary of his birth in 1964 was fairly low-key. There was a set of Royal Mail stamps, a spike in academic publications, a ramping up of the annual Stratford-upon-Avon birthday jamboree, and not much more.

The two most notable books on Shakespeare published that year were modest in scale compared to the hefty tomes of a half-century earlier – though not modest in ambition. One was a bestselling biography by the historian A L Rowse, in which he announced that he had “shed light upon problems hitherto intractable [and] produced results which might seem incredible” by solving, “for the first time and definitely”, the riddles of the sonnets, as well as effecting “an unhoped-for enrichment of the contemporary content and experience that went into a number of the plays” – claims that Rowse pushed ever further in subsequent books on Shakespeare, each more hubristic and less scholarly than the last. Alas, poor Rowse: his credibility on the subject of Shakespeare’s sonnets disintegrated when another scholar noted that his case for the poet Aemilia Bassano as “Shakespeare’s Dark Lady” was based primarily on a misreading of a manuscript. He had thought it said she was “very brown” in her youth, but the actual wording was “very brave”.

The second bestseller from 1964 has stood up rather better. Anthony Burgess’s Nothing Like the Sun is by some distance the best contribution (save perhaps for the wonderfully comic No Bed for Bacon by Caryl Brahms and S J Simon, published in 1941) to the never-ending genre of novels about Shakespeare. Burgess the wordsmith had a terrific feel for the verbal pyrotechnics of the young Shakespeare, but also for his rootedness in the Warwickshire countryside. Fragmentary biographical gems – such as the weirdness of Shakespeare’s brother Gilbert – are interwoven with phrases and psychological insights drawn from the plays. And there is lots of very good Elizabethan sex.

***

Sex – now there’s a subject dear to Shakespeare’s heart, but one on which 1916’s Shakespeare’s England was unsurprisingly silent. Those two hefty volumes end with a rich subject index, but “sex” is not to be found between “setting-dog” and “shadow, in muster-roll”, nor “pox” between “powdering tub” and “praemunire”. Actually, the “powdering tub of infamy” was the sweating cure for syphilis, to which Shakespeare alludes in his final two sonnets as well as in several plays, but the author of the chapter on medicine in Shakespeare’s England (Alban H G Doran, consulting surgeon to the Samaritan Free Hospital) couldn’t bring himself to use any phrase for the pox other than “contagious disease”.

Sex is an area where Shakespearean scholarship has advanced immensely in recent decades. In 1994, Gordon Williams of the University of Wales at Lampeter published an astonishingly well-researched, three-volume Dictionary of Sexual Language and Imagery in Shakespearean and Stuart Literature, which enumerated the sexual double entendre of about 2,000 words and phrases in the plays and poems of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. Williams also produced a spin-off in 1997 providing a comprehensive glossary of Shakespeare’s sexual language. It was never far from our hands when we were compiling the glosses for the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 2007 Complete Works, which one reviewer described as “the filthiest edition of Shakespeare ever produced”.

Never mind the gunboat diplomacy – a Shakespeare who is honest, funny, messy and, above all, unashamed about sex might just be a useful 400th-anniversary present to those parts of the world where ­homosexuality remains illegal (as it was in Shakespeare’s England, though that didn’t stop him celebrating homoerotic passion) or where people live in fear of the modern-day, Islamist equivalents of the Puritans in Elizabethan and Jacobean London who excoriated plays, the theatre, sexual puns, female pleasure and cross-dressed boys.

For this reason, I predict that one of the two books published in this 400th year that will spark great debate and make a difference is Jillian Keenan’s Sex With Shakespeare: Here’s Much to Do With Pain, But More With Love. Simultaneously a memoir, a work of literary criticism and a love song (to Shakespeare much more than to the other men who pass through its pages), it is an extreme example of the genre of “self-discovery through literature” that was pioneered in such books as Alice Kaplan’s French Lessons and Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran.

It is the kind of book about Shakespeare that would have been inconceivable, in the full sense, in 1964, let alone in 1916. We have feminism – from its first shoots in the essays of Virginia Woolf through the full flowering of écriture feminine in the late 20th century – to thank for the eruption of the personal voice and self-conscious reflection on sexual identity into Shakespearean criticism. I know of few straight men who would dare to write a book as brave as this one.

What’s it about? Shakespeare and spanking. My first reaction was quizzical, but Keenan swiftly won me over, with her brisk prose, her playful self-flagellation and, above all, her perceptive attention to the nuances of Shakespeare’s language.

Think about it: if our claim about Shakespeare is that he speaks for all of us, that he addresses every dimension of human ­experience, is it surprising that a reader preoccupied with the symbiosis of desire and pain should find things in the plays with which to identify? Keenan’s heroine is Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which she rightly describes as “a play about sexual awakening and sexual exploration . . . at its core, a play that grapples with questions about sexual freedom, self-determination and consent”. When Demetrius tells Hel­ena that he can in no circumstances love her, she replies:

And even for that do I love you the more:

I am your spaniel; and, Demetrius,

The more you beat me, I will fawn on you.

Use me but as your spaniel; spurn me, strike me . . .

This rather turns Demetrius on. When all the story of the night is told, he and Helena are a couple.

Speaking for myself, I don’t “get” the whole BDSM thing. I suppose I’ve always assumed that it comes from childhood trauma: the Victorian poet Swinburne was a masochist because he was constantly whipped at Eton, that sort of argument. But great art – and good criticism – can teach you that choices unimaginable to you may be embraced by other people. Shakespeare’s greatness lies precisely in his capacity to enter into other minds, to show spectators and readers what it might be like to be a person with very different emotions, experiences and desires from our own.

Thus, Keenan offers a powerful reading of The Taming of the Shrew, proposing that the “taming” (which involves physical as well as verbal abuse) is a game in which the woman is complicit from the start. After all, the first sexual spark jumps between Kate and Petruchio in their opening encounter when they share a joke about cunnilingus. As Keenan puts it, “To Petruchio, Kate comes first (in every sense of the phrase).” The play itself takes place within a frame (the Christopher Sly plot) which is there to remind the audience that the whole thing is a fantasy, a piece of wish-fulfilment. Most of us are uncomfortable with the taming narrative because it seems to involve beating a witty and independent woman into physical submission and marital subservience. For Keenan, by contrast, Kate isn’t “broken” at the end of the play, she is broken at the beginning (by her father, by the patriarchy). She is liberated at the end: “If she and I be pleased,” says Petruchio, “what’s that to you?” Keenan (who is just occasionally a little too glib) adds, “I couldn’t put it better myself.”

The discourse of command and obedience, the sound and tingle of the slap, the hand beneath the foot: it’s all a game, and one that both parties enjoy to the full. In readings such as this one, the critic works with the dramatist to loosen the stays of the vanilla spectator and the middle-aged, heterosexual male scholar.

Shakespeare uses the word “beat” or “beaten” nearly 300 times. Of course the context is often that of military defeat and equally often of wanton cruelty. But sometimes it is comic knockabout and just occasionally there’s a dynamic whereby pain is pleasure, as when Cleopatra says: “The stroke of death is as a lover’s pinch,/Which hurts, and is desired.” Such lines are true to a dimension of human experience and it is cause for celebration when a writer as original, witty and self-deprecating as Keenan takes them seriously.

***

Like sex, money is something that a lot of people spend a lot of time thinking about (and wanting more of). Shakespeare, it seems, was no exception. My second pick from the plethora of quatercentenary publications could hardly be more different in tone or style from Sex With Shakespeare, but it will without doubt prove indispensable to future scholars and biographers. While Jillian Keenan has been spanking her way around Spain and Oman, Robert Bearman, a sometime archivist at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, has been closeted in Stratford-upon-Avon examining tithe-holdings, tax assessments of the value of moveable goods, notes on the storage of malt, property conveyances and monographs with such titles as Warwickshire Hearth Tax Returns: Michaelmas 1670. The results, in his book Shakespeare’s Money, are as rewarding, in their way, as Keenan’s frisky textual entanglements.

In many respects, Bearman’s scrupulous and comprehensive trawl through the archives confirms the familiar story. John Shakespeare, the playwright’s father, rose to a position of some prominence as a tradesman in Stratford-upon-Avon but then fell into financial difficulty. William went to London to try to improve the family fortunes, as well as to earn money to support the wife he had got prematurely pregnant and his three young children. After a slow start as a bit-part player, he found his niche as the rewrite man, patching, improving and eventually displacing old plays in the repertoire. In 1594, he and his fellow actors became sharers in a joint stock company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men.

The combination of aristocratic patronage and business acumen – a share in the profits as opposed to the piecework payments on which other dramatists relied – allowed Shakespeare to purchase the title of “gentleman” and to buy a large house back in his own town (at a knockdown price) by the late 1590s. In the early 1600s, when the theatres were struggling through closures prompted by the plague, Shakespeare spent more and more time in Stratford-upon-Avon. The pace of his writing slowed as his property portfolio grew. When he died in 1616, his status was such that he could be buried inside the parish church, and a monument was raised in his honour some time after.

Bearman is especially illuminating on the intricacies of the transaction that marked the high point of Shakespeare’s financial fortune: his purchase in the summer of 1605 of a half-share in the lease of a portion of the Stratford tithes. Bearman explains how, following the Reformation, the tenth part of agricultural produce traditionally due to the parish rector became a commodity that could be bought and sold (a modern analogy might be the futures market). Shakespeare paid the very considerable sum of £440 for his entitlement. Bearman never tries to translate early-modern values into present-day equivalents, which is an impediment for the lay reader, but I would say that this equates to about £100,000.

At this point, though, the author questions the usual narrative. He notes that after 1605 Shakespeare made no other significant capital investments of this kind. A prosperous man would have kept on growing his property and investment portfolio. Furthermore, the marriages of Shakespeare’s two daughters in later years were not to wealthy or well-connected men, as they would have been if he had achieved unquestionably prominent status in his community. And, by comparing the bequests in Shakespeare’s will to those of the other lesser gentry in Stratford at the time, Bearman shows that he was by no means a rich man when he died.

Though wealth is always relative, and the dying Shakespeare still had the big house and the best and second-best beds, Bearman’s careful weighing of the evidence does suggest a trajectory of decline, as opposed to continuing prosperity in the last decade of the playwright’s life. He also points out that the notion of Shakespeare’s voluntary “retirement” to Stratford is anachronistic. Puzzles remain: why did he sell his lucrative shares in the playhouses and the acting company? What exactly were his intentions in purchasing a property in London in 1613, never having done so while he was living and working there? Above all, why did the pace of his writing slow, and why was it that, from 1612 to 1614, his only works were partial contributions to plays in which the younger dramatist John Fletcher increasingly took the upper hand?

One possible answer might connect money back to sex. From 1603 onwards, a deep vein of sexual disgust runs through several of Shakespeare’s plays – notably Measure for Measure, Troilus and Cressida and parts of King Lear and Pericles. Again and again, there are images of sexually transmitted disease. Furthermore, there are fragments of biographical evidence from this period suggesting a whiff of scandal around Shakespeare’s name. He stopped acting with his company early in the reign of King James. And then there is the hair loss. And those references to the sweating or powdering tub in the sonnets. People with marks of the pox were kept out of the royal presence. Could it be that when King Lear – with its startling images of female genitalia as a sulphurous pit – was performed before the king at Whitehall on Boxing Night 1606, a syphilitic Shakespeare was in exile out in the country, on a path of bodily decline to that premature death on his 52nd birthday, 400 years ago?

Jonathan Bate’s “The Genius of Shakespeare” is newly republished as a Picador Classic

Sex With Shakespeare: Here’s Much to Do With Pain, But More With Love by Jillian Keenan is published by William Morrow (352pp, $25.99). Shakespeare’s Money: How Much Did He Make and What Did This Mean? by Robert Bearman is published by Oxford University Press (196pp, £30)

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism