Ricky Gervais: “Derek is the kindest, most compassionate character I’ve ever written”

Nicky Clark talks to Ricky Gervais about his new series.

There is and will always be a lingering doubt in the minds of some as to Ricky Gervais’s motivation and intentions in his portrayal of Derek, the kind but vulnerable care home worker in Gervais’s new series of the same name, which starts tonight on C4 at 10pm.

Irrespective of how many times Gervais answers the disability question there will be a tiny but vocal minority who refuse to believe him when he says he’s not.

I just see him as a naive, kind, gentle and vulnerable man, in a harsh, hostile and cynical world.

Ricky Gervais clearly loves Derek; there is no mocking of him, no derision, only truth.

This is a show about kindness, told with kindness for the most part.

The show examines Derek and his world but with a vicious bite in respect of those who Gervais believes, deserve it. Relatives, of the residents for the most part do not fare well and for me it was hard to watch these scenes. Because even if you’re not a monster, when you place a loved one in a residential setting, you believe you are. So do many other people.

Intellectualising it doesn’t change your mind and time doesn’t dim the pain.

I had to face the truth in the writing. The fact is there are many, many relatives who are exactly like the ones portrayed in the show and ultimately they also serve as a conduit for the view of many in the outside world, who pass by care homes every day, on their way to getting on with their own lives.

He’s spoken of his own enjoyment of the creative process for this series on his blog and how reminiscent it is of The Office for him in terms of his enthusiasm as writer director and lead actor. 

There is magic to it definitely. Like, The Office the key lies in the performances, which unfold naturally and gradually as they layer the stories of the lives lived, usually unobserved. As with The Office these stories are wrought from a potentially stifling atmosphere, and laced with the humour that exists in the place where seemingly all hope is gone.

 All the characters are so forgotten, so lost, that they have only each other to rely on and their community draws you in gently, and rewards you admirably.

Hannah, performed brilliantly by Kerry Godliman, is like so many care workers that I’ve met and loved in my 19 years as a carer. She’s down to earth and full of compassion, quiet but with a sharp and dark sense of humour; crucial in a job, which can be as difficult emotionally as physically, whilst navigating the precarious balance between what those in power want and what her clients need. Godliman plays it beautifully.

Karl Pilkington talking in the C4 behind the scenes documentary is typically forthright about the upheaval to his day, by becoming involved in the show but touching when he talks about how angry one scene makes him even after the camera stops rolling.

He needn’t have any concerns. He is a gifted and affecting actor.

David Earl is David Earl and nobody can “play disgusting” with so much pathos and skill. He is also not to be underestimated when it comes to drama. There is a scene to camera in the last episode, which will shore up perceptions of Earl’s abilities as a dramatic actor.

But it is Ricky Gervais as Derek who is the revelation here.

It could be argued that if you don’t like him, you will never like him, so don’t watch him, especially in this.

For anyone however who has an open mind and who liked the pilot, his performance in the series is stellar. He just becomes “Derek".

There is nothing of the “A list” star persona, as he disappears into this character, nothing of the stand up, the director, or the businessman.

There is nothing except quietness and a sweetness of delivery, so all encompassing that even when he wrestles people to the ground, because that is what he does, it’s utterly unthreatening and endearing.

It’s an incredibly moving and centered performance. His ability to disappear in scenes, to be forgotten, as people who are vulnerable in real life, are so often forgotten whilst those around them direct their lives, demonstrates that his acting ability is the most underappreciated of his talents.

He’s simply extraordinary as Derek.

In any event with whatever agenda you take with you when you watch Derek you’ll find great performances, honest stories, believable characters and heartbreaking truth.

This as ever is the stock in trade of someone who after more than a decade at the height of his profession has earned the right to be evaluated on his talent, not his Twitter feed.

 A man who can, in turn be perceived as hilarious, irritating, frustrating, self-deprecating provocative and verbose, repeatedly and determinedly, prefers to let his work speak on its own behalf and with Derek he's giving a voice to those who really need to be heard.

Here’s a Q&A I did with Ricky about the new series:

I loved the show as a carer and as a viewer. It’s a move away from documenting celebrity, how did you research it?
Thank you. All my work has its roots in my experiences. I worked in an office and wrote about that, I moved into entertainment and documented that too. The stories in Derek stem from my own family, many of who work, as carers and I wanted to return to the stories of people who are forgotten. At their heart all my projects look at outsiders and friendships. This is equally true of Derek.

The residents and the people who care for them, are often forgotten by the rest of us, because we often don’t want to remember them. I wanted to represent that.

Some critics still insist that Derek is disabled and that you are mocking disabled people, how do you answer that?
Pre-criticism, before broadcast is a staple of all my work now. Before the pilot, most people commenting hadn’t seen it and even when they had they overlook how positive the show actually was about Derek, because they’re determined to be right. It’s difficult, I suppose, to make a declaration and then have to change your mind. I’ve never seen Derek as disabled, just a gentle person who tries his best to be kind in a cruel world.

Other people see a disability though. Some of the nicest comments were from people with disabilities and parents of autistic children who said how lovely the show was because it showed the difficulties of their lives. This is a really nice unexpected bonus.

I haven’t written Derek as disabled but if it helps people who are, or who have a family member who is, then that’s fantastic. My point in the first episode is that for people who do have a disability or are just different like Derek, being judged on that fact doesn’t change who you are. It just changes how some cruel people treat you.

Derek doesn’t fit into a narrow mould of other people’s idea of perfection but he has something which is much more important than that. He’s the kindest, most compassionate character I’ve ever written and when it comes to his view of other people he’s only interested in the things that matter.

Care workers will really appreciate the representation of them in the show; relatives however don’t fare quite so well. What was your motivation behind these characters?
The relatives were important as they demonstrated two aspects of residential homes. The first being that residents will often form very strong bonds with those who work with them every day, who become like family to them. The second is that the elderly are not valued by our society as they are in other cultures, and can be viewed as an inconvenience. The sad fact is that there are relatives like the ones portrayed in Derek. It’s certainly not a statement on all relatives. Many relatives are dedicated and very caring. I’m not losing sight of this at all but by presenting a sharper counterpoint to the workers in the home, I’m trying to ask questions of wider attitudes and values.

Finally what are your hopes for people’s response to Derek?
I really hope that people will love him as much as I do. Some critics will do what they always do and paint the worst picture of the show. I think that’s a shame but it really doesn’t affect me long term. Since the first reviews of The Office, people have predicted dire warnings about me and my career and that worked out OK. I’m very Darwinian about it now after 12 years.

I do what I do and if the show survives then that’s great but I can’t allow other people’s opinions to affect me.

The creative process isn’t a focus group, it’s not a committee all giving opinions for a minuted meeting. It’s about having the absolute belief in your storytelling and belief in the people working with you to bring that story to life.

I can’t pay attention to the opinions of a few people who will never like what I do and I can’t write to please anyone but myself. If I do that I’m lost. I write for me, if people like it, that’s a bonus if not it’s a pity but I don’t let either view impact on my work.

 

Ricky Gervais as Derek.
David Brent: Life on the Road
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Ricky Gervais thinks his latest brand of David Brent comedy is subversive and clever. It’s not

Unlike The OfficeDavid Brent: Life on the Road is lazy, cheap, dated, and appeals to the lowest human impulses.

I love The Office. This is not a controversial statement. Who doesn’t love The Office? Just this morning, the series came second in a BBC poll of the greatest British comedies of the century. I loved The Office so much as a teenager that I watched every episode so many times I knew them by heart. I even knew parts of the DVD special features by heart. Still, now, if I want to cry with laughter I’ll watch Martin Freeman cracking up in bloopers. If I just want to cry I’ll watch the Christmas special.

It’s the toughest possible act to follow. Ricky Gervais has had to state over and over again that it would be crazy to try and recreate it at this point, and that the David Brent-starring works that have followed the series are not meant to be The Office. Still, the latest instalment, Gervais’s film David Brent: Life on the Road, begins in a (new) office, with the same mock-doc format as the television series. We see Brent making bad taste jokes with colleagues, telling the camera about his love for entertaining, embarrassing himself regularly. This is where the similarities end.

Perhaps deliberately, Life on the Road rejects every structural feature of The Office that made it such a celebrated programme. The Office stuck pretty rigidly to the documentary format, and used the constraints that format placed on the drama to its advantage (with scenes glimpsed through plastic blinds, or filmed from slightly too far away, feeding into the observational nature of the show). Life on the Road never bothers to commit either way, with cinematic shots and documentary style film-making meeting awkwardly in the middle alongside talking heads that would feel more at home in an overly earnest toothbrush advert than a tour doc.

The Office team knew that the best way to deepen our empathy with their characters was to hint at their emotions without ever fully giving them away. The most excruciating feelings in the show remained out of shot and unsaid, with glances across rooms (or the lack of them) becoming as dramatic as a high-octane argument in the rain. The romantic climax between Tim and Dawn in the second season comes when they disappear into a meeting room and take their microphones off – the audience never gets the satisfaction of hearing an explicit conversation about how they feel about each other.

Life on the Road takes the opposite tack – at every turn its characters tell the camera exactly how they feel, or how Brent feels, in detail. A receptionist we barely see interact with him at all wells up as she feels Brent is “bullied”, another female colleague notes that she can see the sadness behind his smiles, and Brent’s band repeatedly explain why he behaves in certain ways (He’s bad around women because he’s insecure! This man is strange because he’s desperate to be liked!) when they really don’t need explaining. It’s the ultimate example of telling instead of showing.

All the drama of the film unfolds this way. There is no real narrative arc to the story (the plot can be summed up as Brent goes on tour, it’s not that great, and he comes home), so instead, it uses talking heads to tell the audience how they should feel. Brent’s backing band are in effect a voice for the audience – they say how cringeworthy Brent is after he does something cringeworthy, they express pity for him in his more tragic moments.

“I didn’t quite know whether to laugh or cry,” one says to camera after Brent injures an audience member at a gig. “There’s been quite a few moments like that.” It’s a line that feels like it could have been written for the trailer – clearly, this is where the makers of this film position their ideal audience.

Of course, there comes a point where this film wants you to have more empathy for Brent. When this time comes, the script doesn’t bother to show any change in behaviour from him, or show him in a more redeeming light. Instead, it shrugs off the issue by getting a few band members and work colleagues to say that actually, they find him quite funny, and that really, he’s not so bad, he just wants to make people laugh.

As Brent reaches the end of his tour, he begins to feel that it’s all been a bit anti-climactic. (So, too, does the audience.) Already in debt, he wants to waste even more money on a snow machine, to provide his tour with “a magic moment”, but is persuaded against it. “I just wanted a magic moment,” he repeats to camera, just so we all get what is coming. In the very next scene, while on stage, he is surprised by falling snow – a bandmate has bought a snow machine for him, and thus the film’s magic moment arrives. But in actuality, it feels limp. You can’t create “a magic moment” by simply telling your audience that it is one. The Office would never speak in such cloying terms in the first place.

All these problems pale in comparison to the issue of Brent himself. The Office realised that the beating heart of the show was not David Brent, but the other office members and their relationships (basically, Tim and Dawn), Life on the Road doesn’t make even a half-hearted effort to engage with any peripheral characters, instead choosing Brent as its emotional centre. Trying to encourage an audience to empathise with such a dislikeable character is tricky territory, but not impossible to navigate. But Life on the Road barely even tries.

In The Office, Brent is a pretty horrible character offered occasional, heartfelt moments of redemption – when he stands up to a sexist, bullying colleague, or challenges his own patronising and cruel approach to dating after he meets a nice woman. In Life on the Road, Brent is self-absorbed, mean, sexist, racist, homophobic, ableist, delusional and exploitative. There is nothing, except the tragedy of his life, that even begins to counterbalance that.

Let’s start with the sexism. Life on the Road has a few female characters who fall largely in to one of three categories: women who we like and see as good because they put up with all of Brent’s shit, and even like him for it, because he’s “funny”; women who don’t like him at all and are therefore condemned as sullen bitches with no sense of humour (men who don’t like Brent, in contrast, are allowed to exist on a spectrum of sensible to awful, heartless cunts); and fat women. And fat women, of course, have no worth, outside of their capacity to be a punchline. Brent’s only response to fat women is to shake his head in disbelief: he does it about a fat woman he accidentally shoots with a tshirt gun, a fat woman he tells us he used to date, and a fat woman he invites into his hotel room.

It’s easy here to claim, in Gervais’s defence, that the joke is actually about Brent’s own sexism, but when the punchline of a scene repeatedly involves zooming in on a fat woman as she eats chocolates and crisps (and focusing in on the wrappers again the next morning), it feels less and less defensible. The portrayal of women as either personality-less voids that take on the burden of Brent’s sexism by constantly making excuses for him, or as tight-lipped, po-faced and joyless (as a woman who doesn’t “get” the point of Brent in his current form, I’m confident that Gervais would see me as one of these), shifts the blame away from Brent and onto the women around him, perpetuating the idea that offence is simply taken, not a product of offensive acts.

Racism functions in a similar way. Brent uses the black people around him as props by which he can demonstrate his own progressiveness – bringing his friend Dom (Doc Brown) to work to “prove” that he is not politically incorrect after he is disciplined for a racist impression of an Asian stereotype (a Chinese man called Ho-Lee Fuk, a character my cinema screening found pretty funny). While Dom is one of the most developed characters (which isn’t saying much) in this film, it sometimes feels as though Gervais is doing the same thing – when Dom excuses Brent for his use of the n-word, the audience is invited to as well, which feels uncomfortable to me.

So, too, does ableism. In what I found to be the most egregiously offensive scene in the film, Brent sings a song called “Please Don’t Make Fun of the Disableds”. The song’s lyrics include references to those “mental in the head or mental in the legs”, “the ones with feeble minds”, “the awkward”, and reminds the listener to “understand you might have to feed the worst ones through a straw: it’s basically a head on a pillow”. Rarely do we hear disabled people dehumanised quite so violently as this. If the joke here is how deeply offensive Brent’s behaviours are, why is he never condemned for his actions? (All that happens at the end of this song are a few pained expressions from bandmates, and an awkward raised pint of semi-thanks from a wheelchair user in the audience.)

No, the joke here is simply the shock of the language, and when you say that shock is funny for shock’s sake, regardless of who you target, you encourage the grimmest forms of oppressive humour. Sadly, the belief that people with severe disabilities are essentially subhuman is far too common to be handled flippantly on screen – never mind perpetuated and left uncriticised. The bad taste of the whole thing rancours even further when you remember Gervais has a history of using ableist language casually. It’s not edgy. It’s lazy, cheap, dated, and appeals to the lowest human impulses.

We also see Brent being occasionally homophobic, and generally inconsiderate towards all those around him. He’s a bad friend, buying people’s time rather than stopping and thinking about how his behaviours make people unhappy to be around him. When Dom, who has consistently and inexplicably supported Brent, starts to become successful, he offers him none of the same kindness and rejects him. He expects endless generosity from his fellow man, but sees no reason why anyone should receive the same from him.

Despite all his stunning flaws, we are meant to love him. “I don’t think there’s any real racism on David’s part,” a band member tells us. “He just doesn’t quite get it.” Clearly, we are meant to agree. On The One Show, Gervais confirmed that he does not see David Brent as genuinely bigoted.

“He’s accidentally offensive. He tries to please everyone, he’s trying to say the right thing, and because he’s not sure . . . It’s about that white, middle-class angst where he knows about political correctness and he doesn’t want to put his foot in it. And he’s not racist, and he’s not homophobic, and he’s not sexist, but he panics, and he digs himself into a hole.”

Let’s be clear, David Brent is all of those things. Life on the Road is not an interrogation of white, middle-class anxiety. It’s a portrayal of a racist, ableist, sexist person who we are encouraged to forgive because he has “good intentions”. I know a saying about good intentions.

When confronted about homophobic impressions, Brent responds, “I never actually specify whether he is a homosexual or not, so that’s in your mind.” Like Dapper Laughs, defences of Brent rest on the idea that if you find him offensive, the joke’s on you – that Brent as a character is actually mocking the Brents of real life. But in Life on the Road, it’s too unclear where the joke truly lies, and Brent is simply let off too easy. Personally, I wish I’d stuck to re-watching The Office.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.