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.
ROBERT RAUSCHENBERG FOUNDATION, NEW YORK
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"Someone was screwing here": the cryptic art of Robert Rauschenberg

Dense with allusion and synecdoche, Rauschenberg's art work reveals an extraordinary “stream of unconsciousness”.

Before he was established, Robert Rauschenberg had the following jobs. He was a neuropsychiatric technician in the US navy at San Diego. (Unsurprisingly, he preferred the patients when they were insane.) He worked for Ballerina Bathing Suits as a packer and at the Atlas Construction Company in Casablanca, where he conducted inventories of stock for $350 a week. As he made his way in the art world, he was a janitor at the Stable Gallery. He did window displays at Bonwit Teller on Sixth Avenue, as well as Tiffany & Co and Reynolds Metals. (When window-dressing in penurious tandem with Jasper Johns, they used the pseudonym Matson Jones.) Rauschenberg was also stage manager and lighting designer for the Merce Cunningham dance troupe. He was an occasional emergency choreographer (Pelican). You see? Hand-to-mouth, improvised, a “career” made from whatever was ready to hand.

Then, in 1964, he took first prize at the Venice Biennale and arrived. The jobs are, in their way, a perfect emblem of Rauschenberg’s art – unrelated, aleatoric agglomerations of items that happened to stray into the force field of his personality. In Alice Oswald’s long poem Dart, we hear at one point the voice of a stonewaller: “. . . you see I’m a gatherer, an amateur, a scavenger, a comber, my whole style’s a stone wall, just wedging together what happens to be lying about at the time”. This, too, could be Rauschenberg, ransacking the junkyards, with one eye on the gutter, for the found object, the overlooked, the discarded, the down-at-heel detail of daily life. In the Tate catalogue (but not in the exhibition) is a work called Hiccups. One visual burp after another, it consists of separate, one-size, totally heterogeneous items silk-screened and zipped together. Rauschenberg was said by Jasper Johns to have invented more things than anyone except Picasso. A slight exaggeration. Rauschenberg’s central inventive coup was the combine: that notorious stuffed goat with the automobile tyre round its middle will serve as an example.

For the New Yorker critic Calvin Tomkins, this was the legacy of the European surrealists – Breton, Duchamp – who took refuge in America during the Second World War. Rauschenberg’s combines are as arbitrary as the unconscious. His scrolls, his late work The 1/4 Mile or 2 Furlong Piece, are a kind of stream of unconsciousness, works of instinct and intuition held together by his assumed authority. (He once forgot to make a portrait of the Paris gallery owner Iris Clert, so sent a last-minute telegram: “This is a portrait of Iris Clert if I say so – Robert Rauschenberg.” The French loved it.) The results are a deliberate unconscious chaos, which, like dreams, give off the sensation, but not the substance, of reason.

This important and vibrant show at Tate Modern usefully complicates this accepted narrative – with its implicit emphasis on the artist as magus, performing a kind of magic, of visual hypnosis. To give one example, there is a big billowing work called Glacier (Hoarfrost) (1974). It is an emperor-sized sheet, with solvent transfer of newsprint on satin and chiffon. There is a pillow underneath, more or less invisible, to create the billow. It is a work of straightforward representation, of realism. It is a glacier in which the illegible newsprint serves as shadow, as a great and exact donation of texture. There is an Elizabeth Bishop poem, “Varick Street”, which describes a factory at night: “Pale dirty light,/some captured iceberg/being prevented from melting.” All the grime, all the dereliction and detritus of the glacier is captured in the Rauschenberg.

Leo Steinberg, a shrewd but not uncritical supporter of Rauschenberg, rejected the idea, first mooted by Robert Hughes, that Monogram’s stuffed goat forced through a tyre referred to anal sex. Steinberg preferred to think of the work as “funny”. Indeed, just behind it is a brown tennis ball like a (large) goat dropping. I thought of Alexander Calder’s chariot in his Circus: when Calder started to improvise performances around the work, he would scatter then sweep up droppings behind the horses. Here the tennis ball’s appearance is prompted by the representation of the tennis player Earl Buchholz on the hinged platform supporting the goat: providing an alibi. There is also a rubber shoe heel, which has trodden in something – bright-blue lapis lazuli – another ambiguous allusion to excrement, here transfigured and glorified. Here, too, a man is crossing a gorge on a tightrope (signifying danger), and there is a high-ceilinged room with several pillars (easily read as phallic). “EXTRA HEAVY” is stencilled in one corner, a touch not without ­significance, to nudge us away from frivolity. Goats are a traditional byword for lechery. Two more possible indicators: we have to ask why the tyre isn’t whitewall but painted white on the tread of the tyre, a deviation from the norm. Is it prurient to wonder if this represents sperm? The second touch is a man with his arms akimbo, casting a long shadow – a doubling at once different but identical and therefore perhaps a figure for homosexuality.

We are used to the idea that Rauschenberg was interested in eliminating the artist’s presence and personal touch. At the beginning of this show, we have Automobile Tire Print, the black tyre track on 20 sheets of typing paper that was laid down by John Cage driving his Model A Ford; it is an artwork whose execution is twice removed from Rauschenberg by the driver and his automobile. There are, too, the dirt paintings, as arbitrary as Warhol’s later piss paintings – which produce, in Dirt Painting (for John Cage) (1953), very beautiful, random, blue-grey mould. These are works in which the artist cedes agency to natural process. Nevertheless, it is impossible, I think, to look at the Cage dirt painting and not be forcibly reminded of the marginalised artist and his palette with its attractive, accidental accretions of pigment.

Despite this posture of disavowal, Raus­chenberg’s work isn’t devoid of same-sex iconography. For example, he is drawn, time and again, to Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus and Rubens’s Venus. Both are quoted several times, reproduced in silk-screen. Why? Partly an act of magisterial appropriation and a demonstration of self-confidence. (An act of felony itself stolen from the Picasso who repainted Velázquez’s Las Meninas, part of a sustained campaign of annexing the overbearing classics. No false modesty in Picasso.) Rauschenberg’s Monogram goat is also an attempt to replace Picasso’s signature goat – said by Picasso to be more like a goat than a goat – by a monogram, a sign of ownership, like a pair of monogrammed slippers or shirts.

The other reason for the quotation of Rubens and Velázquez is that both nude women are contemplating and presumably admiring themselves in mirrors, mirrors that in both cases are held up by cupidons. The perfect topos of self-love – and therefore of same-sex eroticism. Originally, the stuffed goat (stuffed!), with its horny horns, was set against a painting called Rhyme (a not insignificant title, suggestive of sameness and difference). Rhyme (1956) has an actual necktie on the left. On the tie are grazing cows and a four-bar corral fence. In the centre of the picture are dense squiggles and squirts of colour – again like an artist’s palette, but which here represent a pallet or bed. Above the bed is a bit of lace and adjacent to the lace a red ball. What we have here is an aubade, dawn through lace curtains, and the tie as an indication of (male, out-of-towner) undress. Of course, nothing is explicit. Yet the self-censorship, the furtive and necessary concealment, is represented – by some kind of structure that has been removed, leaving behind trace elements. And what are they? Angular outlines and screw-holes, a sexual metaphor you can find in Maupassant’s Bel-Ami. Someone was screwing here.

Bed (1955) features the famous stolen (and very beautiful, subtly patterned) quilt. At the point where the sheet turns back and the pillow is on view, both are liberally stained with paint. The paint is both fluids and (deniable) paint – paint as itself and a synecdoche. Leo Steinberg wants to restrict the combine to a self-referential aesthetic statement – the flatbed horizontal as opposed to the vertical hang, which he sees as Rauschenberg’s primary revolutionary innovation. But while Steinberg is right to dismiss ideas of murder and mayhem in Bed, the action painting mimicked here is also surely mimicking action in the sack.

None of this is certain. The illegality of homosexuality in 1955 made explicitness out of the question. But I think it unlikely that something so central to Rauschenberg’s identity – his sexistentialism – should be completely absent from his work. Even aesthetically programmatic work such as the very early 22 The Lily White (1950) has references to homosexuality. It is an off-white painting with outlined sections like a street map, each of them numbered. The numbers are sometimes upside down. Steinberg believes this is a strategy to subvert the accustomed vertical hang, because it is not clear which way up it should go. I think the numbers are upside down because they are inverted, with everything that adjective denotes in the sexual context. And the shapes are revealing, too: it is made up of extended interlocking jigsaw shapes that mirror and fit into each other. The title refers to the lily-white boys of “Green Grow the Rushes-O”.

Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953) can be dismissed with Harold Rosenberg’s ­famous quip: “The less there is to see, the more there is to say.” Rauschenberg, the junior artist, persuaded Willem de Kooning to give him a drawing that he would then erase. De Kooning chose a drawing that used oil crayon so that Rauschenberg would have a proper task. It took him a long time. And actually, though no one says this – they are too interested in the sacrilege, in the idea of erasure, in destruction, in the concept – the erasure isn’t complete. It  isn’t the promised blank that you don’t need to see to understand. You have to see it to see the Wunderlay.

What does it mean? Partly, obviously, the picture is Oedipal, an act of aggression against a prior master by a junior. Second, the end product is “poetry”, according to Rauschenberg. You can just make out the ghostly marks so that the surface is like a veronica – or like a romantic fragment. It brings to mind Coleridge’s imitation of fragments of antique poetry, creating an aura of irresolvable suggestiveness. On the surface are extra marks, 12 of them, whose provenance is uncertain, but whose presence is as indisputable as the vague but redolent under-image.

Suggestion is the ground note you take away from this show. In Untitled (1955) there is a sock and a parachute – the combine of paint and actuality, somewhere between painting and sculpture – but also to the left, some crumpled paper, overpainted in white, that reveals an eye, nostrils and a retroussé upper lip with phantom teeth. There is painted cloth, taken from pillow-slips or bedlinen, with a decorative milling effect, which makes this Rauschenberg’s bed scene, a long time before Tracey Emin. Similarly, Short Circuit (1955) incorporates work by Jasper Johns and Rauschenberg’s ex-wife, Susan Weil, hidden behind doors. It is a work all about concealment, reveal and suggestion.

There are many, many beautiful things on show here, exemplary energy, and a few empty failures. Don’t miss Untitled (1958) which hangs, from two tarnished safety pins, a khaki handkerchief, treated and soaked, so that you can make out the pattern in the weave. The humble snot-rag transfigured. Its square is a warp of frail rust, a tuille. Above it is a frame of grey-painted cloth, showing a trouser loop and that milling effect again. It is stunning. And so are his majestic cardboard boxes – Nabisco and Alpo for Dogs – makeshift sculptures that read as solid wood, charismatic brand-name Brancusis.

“Robert Rauschenberg” runs until 2 April 2017. For more details visit: tate.org.uk

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage