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.
SIPA PRESS/REX
Show Hide image

"By now, there was no way back for me": the strange story of Bogdan Stashinsky

Serhii Plokhy’s The Man with the Poison Gun is a gripping, remarkable Cold War spy story.

On the morning of 12 August 1961, a few hours before the supreme leader of East Germany, Walter Ulbricht, announced the sealing of the border between East and West Berlin, a funeral took place for a four-month-old boy at the Rohrbeck Evangelical Cemetery in Dallgow. Numerous KGB agents and officers of the East German ministry of security were in attendance, but the boy’s parents were missing. Instead, Bogdan Stashinsky and Inge Pohl were preparing their imminent escape from Soviet-occupied territory and into the West. They had intended to flee the following day, but the funeral provided a moment of opportunity when their surveillance was relaxed. If they wanted to go, they had to go now.

“The KGB operatives present at the child’s funeral were puzzled by the parents’ absence,” a Soviet intelligence officer later wrote. “By the end of the day on 13 August 1961, it was clear that the Stashinskys had gone to the West. Everyone who knew what tasks the agent had carried out in Munich in 1957 and 1959, and what could happen if Stashinsky were to talk, was in shock.”

Those “tasks” were the state-sponsored assassinations of Lev Rebet and Stepan Bandera, two exiled leaders of the Ukrainian anti-communist movement who had been living in Munich. Stashinsky, one of the KGB’s top hitmen, and the focus of Serhii Plokhy’s gripping book, had been given the task of tracking and killing them with a custom-built gun that sprayed a lethal, yet undetectable poison. It was only after Stashinsky’s defection to the Central Intelligence Agency, and then to the West German security services, that the cause of Rebet and Bandera’s deaths was finally known.

For decades, the KGB denied any involvement in the assassinations, and the CIA has never been entirely sure about Stashinsky’s motives. Was he telling the truth when he confessed to being the assassin, or was he, as some still claim, a loyal agent, sent to spread disinformation and protect the true killer? Plokhy has now put to rest the many theories and speculations. With great clarity and compassion, and drawing from a trove of recently declassified files from CIA, KGB and Polish security archives, as well as interviews conducted with former heads of the South African police force, he chronicles one of the most curious espionage stories of the Cold War.

Stashinsky’s tale is worthy of John le Carré or Ian Fleming. Plokhy even reminds us that The Man With the Golden Gun, in which James Bond tries to assassinate his boss with a cyanide pistol after being brainwashed by the Soviets, was inspired by the Stashinsky story. But if spy novels zero in on a secret world – tradecraft, double agents, defections, and the moral fallout that comes from working in the shadows – Plokhy places this tale in the wider context of the Cold War and the relentless ideological battle between East and West.

The story of Stashinsky’s career as a triggerman for the KGB plays out against the backdrop of the fight for Ukrainian independence after the Second World War. He was a member of the underground resistance against the Soviet occupation, but was forced to become an informer for the secret police after his family was threatened. After he betrayed a resistance cell led by Ivan Laba, which had assassinated the communist author Yaroslav Halan, Stashinsky was ostracised by his family and was offered the choice of continuing his higher education, which he could no longer afford, or joining the secret police.

“It was [only] a proposal,” he said later, “but I had no alternative to accepting it and continuing to work for the NKVD. By now, there was no way back for me.” He received advanced training in Kyiv and Moscow for clandestine work in the West and became one of Moscow’s most prized assets. In 1957, after assassinating Rebet, he was awarded the
Order of the Red Banner, one of the oldest military decorations in the Soviet Union.

Plokhy’s book is about more than the dramas of undercover work; it is also an imaginative approach to the history of Cold War international relations. It is above all an affective tale about the relationship between individual autonomy and state power, and the crushing impact the police state had on populations living behind the Iron Curtain. Stashinsky isn’t someone of whom we should necessarily approve: he betrayed his comrades in the Ukrainian resistance, lied to his family about who he was and killed for a living. Yet we sympathise with him the more he, like so many others, turns into a defenceless pawn of the Communist Party high command, especially after he falls in love with his future wife, Inge.

One of the most insightful sections of Plokhy’s book converges on Stashinsky’s trial in West Germany in 1962 over the killings of Rebet and Bandera, and how he was given a reduced sentence because it was deemed that he had been an instrument of the Soviet state. The decision was influenced by German memories of collective brainwashing under the Third Reich. As one of the judges put it: “The accused was at the time in question a poor devil who acted automatically under pressure of commands and was misled and confused ideologically.”

What makes Plokhy’s book so alarmingly resonant today is how Russia still uses extrajudicial murder as a tool of foreign policy. In 2004 Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western future president of Ukraine, was poisoned with dioxin; two years later Aleksandr Litvinenko, the Russian secret service defector, unknowingly drank radioactive polonium at a hotel in London. The Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya survived a poisoning in 2004 after drinking tea given to her by an Aeroflot flight attendant (she was murdered two years later). The collapse of the Soviet Union did not bring the end of the Russian threat (Putin, remember, is ex-KGB). As le Carré noted in a speech in the summer of 1990, “The Russian Bear is sick, the Bear is bankrupt, the Bear is frightened of his past, his present and his future. But the Bear is still armed to the teeth and very, very proud.”

The Man with the Poison Gun: a Cold War Spy Story by Serhii Plokhy is published by Oneworld (365pp, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge