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.
Donmar Warehouse
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Limehouse raises the question of when party loyalty becomes political irresponsibility

Labour's “Gang of Four” are brought to life brilliantly at the Donmar Warehouse.

A star of the Labour Party right wing, exiled from the shadow cabinet for deviating from the dominant orthodoxy, rants about how a decent but weak Labour leader, with an election-losing anti-European, anti-nuclear manifesto, risks letting the prime minister get away with whatever she wants.

Laughter shows that the audience gets what the dramatist Steve Waters is up to. Limehouse takes place on 25 January 1981, when a gentle veteran, Michael Foot, seems to be leading Labour to such sure oblivion at the next election that Dr David Owen has summoned his fellow moderates Shirley Williams, Bill Rodgers and (just back from a stint running Europe) Roy Jenkins to Sunday lunch in his kitchen in east London. This meeting led the “Gang of Four”, as they became known, to make a statement of estrangement from Labour that heralded the creation of the Social Democratic Party.

Waters was inspired by a New Statesman interview in which Rodgers wondered if the left-right divide under Jeremy Corbyn might justify a similar evacuation of the pragmatists now. The debates that the play stages – fidelity to party and national tribes against a fear of political and historical irrelevance – feel hotly topical.

Williams, considering an offer to abandon Labour and teach at Harvard, faced then the dilemma of an Ed Balls or Tristram Hunt now. And Labour members today who fantasise about a new progressive grouping might reflect that, while the SDP briefly seemed a plausible alternative to Thatcherism (winning 7.8 million votes at the 1983 election), the middle-class revolution was squeezed externally by two-party domination and internally by disputes over leadership and direction.

But, for all the parallel relevance, the success of Limehouse ultimately depends on the convincing re-creation of an era and its people. Enjoyable period details include the luxury macaroni cheese to a recipe by Delia Smith that Debbie Owen, Delia’s literary agent, chops and fries on stage to fuel her husband’s discussions with his three wary comrades. Waters also skilfully uses the mechanics of a pre-digital world – having to go out for newspapers, going upstairs to answer a phone – to get one character out of the way to allow others to talk about them.

As a good playwright should, Waters votes for each character in turn. Owen, though teased for vanity and temper, is allowed a long speech that honours his status as one of the most memorable orators in modern British politics. Tom Goodman-Hill samples Owen’s confident baritone without going the whole Rory Bremner.

Playing Jenkins, a man celebrated for both a speech defect and rococo cadences, Roger Allam has no choice but to deliver the voice perfectly, which he does. Waters carefully gives the character an early riff about the “crepuscular greyness” of Brussels, allowing Allam to establish the w-sounds and extravagant adjectives. Actor and playwright also challenge the assumption that for Jenkins both to love fine wine and to advocate social justice was inevitably a contradiction.

Debra Gillett refreshingly avoids the scattiness that caricaturists attribute to Williams, stressing instead her large brain and deep soul, in a portrayal that increases the sense of shame that the Tories should lead Labour 2-0 in the score of female prime ministers. As Rodgers (in Beatles terms, the Ringo of the confab four), Paul Chahidi touchingly suggests a politician who knows that he will always be a bag-man but still agonises over whose luggage to carry.

Unfolding over 100 minutes, Polly Findlay’s production has a lovely rhythm, staging the delayed entrances of Jenkins and Williams for maximum impact. Biodramas about the living or recently dead can be hobbled by a need to negotiate objections of tact or fact. Politicians, however, often purchase even the rudest cartoons of themselves for the loo wall, and the real Owen, Williams and Rodgers laughed warmly during, and strongly applauded after, the first night.

At an impromptu press conference afterwards, a genial and generous Owen astutely observed that what at the time was “a very happy day in our house” has been dramatised as tragicomedy. But, regardless of whether Marx was right about history repeating itself the second time as farce, the possibility that farce is being repeated in Labour Party history has encouraged a compelling play that is sublimely enjoyable but also deeply serious – on the question of when loyalty to party can become disloyalty to political responsibility.

“Limehouse” runs until 15 April

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution