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.
Almeida Theatre
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Rupert Goold: “A director always has to be more of a listener”

The artistic director of the Almeida Theatre on working with Patrick Stewart, the inaccessibility of the arts, and directing his wife in Medea.

Eight years ago Rupert Goold’s Macbeth made his name. The critics were unanimous in their praise, with one calling it the “Macbeth of a lifetime”. Goold’s first Olivier Award soon followed (Enron won him a second in 2009, King Charles III nearly won him a third last year). It was a family triumph; Lady Macbeth was played by Goold’s wife, Kate Fleetwood.

Now the pair has finally reunited and Fleetwood is his undisputed lead. She is playing Medea in the Almeida’s latest and final play of its Greek season. Directing your wife is one thing. Directing her in a play about a woman who murders her children because her husband abandons her is another. And it’s been harder than Goold expected.

“You live with someone every day, and they don’t age because the change is so incremental, and then you do something together and you realise how much you’ve changed. It’s like playing tennis with someone after eight years: you’re completely different players.”

As it is, Goold thinks the director-actor relationship is inevitably fraught. “There is an essential slave-master, sadomasochistic, relationship,” he says. “The incredibly complicated thing about being an actor is you’re constantly being told what to do. And one of the most damaging things about being a director – and why most of them are complete arseholes – is because they get off at telling people what to do.”

Goold doesn’t. He’s as amicable in person as the pictures – bountiful hair, loose jacket, wide grin – suggest. And when we meet in the Almedia’s crowded rehearsal rooms, tucked away on Upper Street, 100 yards from the theatre, he’s surprisingly serene given his play is about to open.

He once said that directing a play is like running towards a wall and hoping it becomes a door just before the curtain goes up. Has the door appeared? “It’s always a funny moment [at the end of rehearsal]. Sometimes you do a show and it’s a bit dead and the costumes and set transform it. Then sometimes it’s perfect and the design kills it.”

We meet shortly before last Thursday’s press night, and he can’t tell how good it is. But it “certainly feels quite private. The idea that loads of people are going to come and watch it now feels a bit weird. You bring a lot of your sense of relationships and parenting into it.”

Goold has always argued that the classics wither without intervention. So in this revival of Euripides’ 2,446-year-old play, Medea is a writer and her husband, Jason (of Argonauts fame), is an actor. “But it’s not really about that… it’s more about divorce, about what it means to separate.”

“It’s about the impact of a long-term relationship when it collapses. I don’t know whether there is a rich tradition of drama like that, and yet for most people, those kind of separations are far more profound and complicated and have greater ramifications than first love; and we have millions of plays about first love!”

Every generation discovers their own time in the Greek plays. Goold thinks he and playwright Rachel Cusk were shaped by the aftermath of the 1970s in interpreting Medea; “That’s the period when the idea of the family began to get tainted.” And when critics praised Oresteia, the Almeida’s first Greek play and a surprise West End transfer, they compared it to the Sopranos.

Yet there is something eternal about these plays. Goold says it’s the way they “stare at these problems that are totally perennial, like death,” and then offer answers that aren’t easy. Medea kills the kids and a mother rips her son to shreds in the Bakkhai (the Almeida’s predecessor to Medea). Where’s the moral compass in that?

Except there is a twist in Goold’s Medea, and it’s not one every critic has taken kindly to. It was enough to stop the Telegraph’s Dominic Cavendish, otherwise lavish in his praise, from calling it “a Medea for our times”. Nevertheless, the reviews have been kind, as they often are for Goold; although The Times’ Ann Treneman was vitriolic in her dislike (“Everyone is ghastly. The men are beyond irritating. The women even worse.”).

In theory, Goold welcomes the criticism. “I’d rather our audience hated something and talked about it than was passively pleased,” he tells me ahead of reviews.

Controversial and bracing theatre is what Goold wants to keep directing and producing; as the Almeida’s artistic director he is in charge of more than just his own shows. But how does he do it? I put a question to him: if I had to direct Medea instead of him, what advice would he have given me?

He pauses. “You’ve got to love words,” he begins. “There’s no point doing it unless you have a real delight in language. And you have to have vision. But probably the most important thing is, you’ve got to know how to manage a room.”

“It’s people management. So often I have assistants, or directors I produce, and I think ‘God, they’re just not listening to what that person is trying to say, what they’re trying to give.’ They’re either shutting them down or forcing them into a box.”

“Most people in a creative process have to focus on what they want to say, but a director always has to be more of a listener. People do it different ways. Some people spin one plate incredibly fast and vibrantly in the middle of the room, and hope all the others get sucked in. It’s about thriving off of one person – the director, the lead performer, whomever.”

“I’m more about the lowest common denominator: the person you’re most aware of is the least engaged. You have to keep lifting them up, then you get more creativity coming in.”

It’s not always simple. When actors and directors disagree, the director can only demand so much, especially if the actor is far more famous than them. When Goold directed Macbeth, Patrick Stewart was his lead. Stewart was a movie star and twice his age.

“Patrick’s take on Macbeth… I didn’t think it should be played that way. I’d played him as a student and I had an idea of what he was.”

“But then you think, ‘Ok, you’re never going to be what I want you to be, but actually let me get rid of that, and just focus on what’s good about what you want to be, and get rid of some of the crap.’”

Goold doesn’t think he’s ever really struggled to win an actor’s respect (“touch wood”). The key thing, he says, is that “they just feel you’re trying to make legible their intention”.

And then you must work around your lead. In Macbeth, Stewart was “a big deep river of energy… when normally you get two people frenetically going ‘Uhgh! Is this a dagger I see before me! Uhgh!’ and there’s lots of hysteria.”

“So we threw all sorts of other shit at the production to compensate, to provide all the adrenalin which Patrick was taking away to provide clarity and humanity.”

Many people want to be theatre directors, and yet so few are successful. The writers, actors and playwrights who sell shows can be counted on a few hands. Depressingly, Goold thinks it’s becoming harder to break in. It’s difficult to be discovered. “God, I don’t know, what I worry – wonder – most is: ‘Are there just loads of great directors who don’t make it?’”

 The assisting route is just not a good way to find great new directors. “The kind of people who make good assistants don’t make good directors, it’s almost diametrically opposite.” As for regional directors, newspaper budgets have collapsed, so they can no longer rely on a visit from a handful of national critics, as Goold did when he was based in Salisbury and Northampton. And audiences for touring shows have, by some measures, halved in the past twenty years.

Theatre has also evolved. When Goold was coming through, “There were not a lot of directors who felt they were outside the library, so for me to whack on some techno was radical! Now it’d be more commonplace.” New directors have to find new ways to capture our attention – or at least the critics’.

But the critics have changed too. A nod from a critic can still be vital in the right circles, but the days when critics “made” directors is long over. “I remember Nick de Jongh saying, ‘Oh Rupert Goold, I made him.’ Because he’d put Macbeth on the front page of the Standard. I owed my career to him, and in some ways I did! But it's an absurd idea, that would not happen now.”

“It’s all changed so much in literally the past three years. There was a time, for better or worse, when you had a big group of establishment critics: de Jongh, Michael Billington, Michael Coveney, Charlie Spencer – they were mostly men – Susannah Clapp. And if they all liked your show, you were a hit.” (“They could be horrible,” he adds.)

“Now I get more of a sense of a show by being on Twitter than reading the reviews.” It’s “probably a good thing”, Goold thinks, and it certainly beats New York, where a single review – the New York Times' – makes or breaks plays. But it’s another problem for aspiring directors, who can no longer be so easily plucked from the crowd.

It’s no longer a problem Goold needs to overcome. His star could wane, but he seems likely to be among the leading voices in British theatre for a while yet.

Harry Lambert is a staff writer and editor of May2015, the New Statesman's election website.