The cast of Derek, from left to right: Kev (David Earl), Hannah (Kerry Godliman), Derek (Ricky Gervais), Vicky (Holli Dempsey), Dougie (Karl Pilkington). Photo: Netflix/Channel 4
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Fresh from baiting the disabled, Ricky Gervais’s “Derek” takes aim at the elderly

Ricky Gervais wrote Derek, and he’s decided it’s not offensive – so it can’t be, can it?

I liked The Office. It’s law you say that before you criticise Ricky Gervais. Then you have to agree that he was jolly decent to eventually apologise for his ignorance of disableist language. Yep, with a bucket of caveats, I suppose he was.

Still, I came to Derek pre-annoyed. I’m aware I could have switched over, but you can’t comment on the emperor’s new clothes if you don’t go to the parade. And yes, I went to the parade knowing he was naked. But like a driver slowing down at the scene of an accident, I came to gawk.

The subjective stuff is subjective. No point saying it wasn’t funny when to some it clearly was. No point saying it was badly acted and written, poorly realised or wasn’t sad, when people took to Twitter in their hordes to point at their tears. That I remained dry-eyed even though I’m as open to manipulation as the next emotionally-labile ninny, is probably my failing. Maybe I was too cross to cry. That’ll explain it.

My pre-annoyance started with Gervais’s appearance on Alan Carr’s Chatty Man sofa. The publicity still for the show he chose (I say “he chose”, I mean “the Gervais team chose”, I suppose) was of the sleazy character Kev (actor David Earl) lying on the floor to get a better view up the skirt of an elderly woman doing yoga. The old money shot. Imagine the horrors of elderly fanny. I bet that thought made you shudder – Gervais certainly hopes so, because that’s the point of it. Old people’s bits are physically repellent aren’t they, and the idea of a younger man getting some kind of kick out of peering at them, that’s BOUNDARY PUSHING. But funny, yeah? Really funny? Oh, and the jokes on HIM, don’t you get it? Oh yeah. I get it.

I moved into full annoyance in episode one of this second series. Derek is set in an old people’s home, and it’s shot for some unexplained reason in Gervais’ preferred mockumentary style, so there’s lots of knowing looks to camera. The “knowing” extends to some of the most cynical product placement I’ve seen on TV – only the product is Gervais himself. Derek is being shown how to use Twitter, of all things, and how to do a hashtag, as if. The audience is given clear instructions on the right hashtag to use (I’m not repeating it here, I can’t quite bring myself to) and WOW! as Derek tweets, there it is! On actual Twitter! Fictional TV meets social media in real time; seems we are all about pushing boundaries tonight. And Gervais does like to trend on Twitter. Maybe he needs the approval.

Because of its setting, there’s obviously lots of old people around, mostly as silent props. Chair fillers. The show is not about them, it’s about the people serving them, so if they seem to be secondary characters, it’s because they are. It’s when they dare to speak where it all gets a bit, shall we say, tricky. Their roles fall into a couple of categories. They might get you all teared up as they sing over-sentimentalised Hallmark-style songs. (Old people and their tragic lives make me cry.) Or they might have to sit unflinching, not reacting as pervy Kev yells “labia” at them, in a kind of twisted version of the game where if you laugh, you’re out. (Old people will tolerate anything because they don’t really get it.) Or if they’re really lucky, as happened this week, a character will get to play flirty with a younger man, much to the horror of Gervais and his crew. If you’re in any doubt that this is meant to be the reaction, witness the way the camera stares. Did she just say that? it asks. The idea that old people might be sexual with each other is barely tolerable. Sexual with “us”? Gross.

Now, I know that if I were to so much as raise an eyebrow at my partner in front of teenagers, it would make them lose their lunch. But Gervais is not a teenager, he’s 25 days younger than me, as it happens. Old enough to have developed empathy. Old enough to know that you don’t lose your personality with age, you don’t become an asinine, empty vessel. You still have all the feelings. Yes, all. Old enough to have realised a slightly more rounded view of human experience; old enough not to point and go “eurgh”. It’s puerile and exploitative. It’s time to accept that you and me, Ricky, we’re getting old. I don’t know about you, but I’m assuming that when I’m an octogenarian, bollocks will still be one of my favourite expletives.

One approach here is an appeal to decency. “Imagine if that was your mum or grandma”, as if personalising a problem is the only way someone can recognise it. It’s not an approach I’ve generally got much time for – but hey, turns out if it that was my mother in the yoga pose, I’d be incandescent. Not because she’s incapable of standing up for herself, but because of all that’s implied. The gaze, the shuddering crudity, the derogatory humour of abhorrence, all at her expense. But Gervais is a slippery sod so he already crafted a generic get-out: I am the writer, and I decided it’s not offensive, so it’s not. But that’s bollocks. Good word, isn’t it? Useful.

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The Last Wolf: Robert Winder's book examines the elusive concept of Englishness

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could this mean there is no such thing any more?

Is there anything more tiresome than debating the essence of “Englishness” – or any other national identity, come to that? Millions of words must have been spilt on this fruitless quest over the past century, generating gigatonnes of wind that could have been usefully harvested for energy. Each time, no “essence” is to be found, and everyone goes back to the beginning and starts again.

That’s how it used to be, anyway. More recently, in the wake of the Brexit vote and the divisions it has laid bare, the debate about who “we” are has become fraught and urgent. England, and Britain more widely, is hardly alone in its soul-searching. Arguments about belonging, culture, nationhood and identity are flooding across the Western world – and beyond – because people are increasingly unsure about who or where they are. The sweeping changes unleashed by hypercapitalism, technological change and unprecedented levels of migration are making rootlessness the norm, and the more people feel rootless the more they want to know where they belong and where they come from.

British politicians often respond to this by attempting to formulate some notion of our collective “values”. Here’s who we are, all 65 million of us, they say, and then proceed to read out a list of uniquely “British” things that only “British” people do, like valuing democracy, being tolerant with each other and standing in queues politely. These attempts at top-down unity are always failures, largely because, with the possible exception of the queuing, all the “values” asserted are pretty much universal. There’s nothing uniquely “British” about valuing the rule of law or freedom of speech (regularly clamping down on freedom of speech is a more reliably British virtue, if history is anything to go by). The failure of anyone to produce a list of “values” that are uniquely British – or English, or Welsh, or Scottish – suggests that they don’t exist. The island is just too teeming, diverse and disconnected now for much to be held in common at all.

So what, if anything, might define that elusive “Englishness”, the subject of Robert Winder’s new book? Cultural quirks, perhaps? I can confidently assert that the English know how to make a good cup of strong tea better than anyone else on earth (with the possible exception of the Irish), and we’re also world champions at dog shows, proper beer and indie guitar bands. But I’m not sure that these are things I would encourage my children to die patriotically in a trench for.

Winder offers a better answer, and it’s one that anyone brave or suicidal enough to pitch in to the contemporary European identity debate should consider. It offers a path through the horrible, thorny maze of arguments about race, ethnicity, migration and the like, towards something that, potentially, could unite people rather than divide them. What makes and forms a “people”, says Winder, in England as elsewhere, is the one thing they all share: the place itself. If there is an “Englishness” it is formed from the nature, literally, of England:

If we really wanted to search for the national identity, I thought, the real place to look was in the natural heritage of hills, valleys, rivers, stones and mists – the raw materials that had, over time, moulded the way we were. Landscape and history – the past and the elemental backdrop – were the only things we could truly claim as our own. Just as some plants thrive in sand and others in clay, so a national character is fed by nutrients it cannot alter.

Early on in the book, Winder quotes the novelist Lawrence Durrell, who makes the same case more provocatively:

I believe you could exterminate the French at a blow and resettle the land with Tartars, and within two generations discover… that the national characteristics were back at norm – the relentless metaphysical curiosity, the tenderness for good living and passionate individualism.

Durrell goes on to suggest that “a Cypriot who settled in London would in time become English, simply because human customs owe just as much to the local environment as to trees and flowers”. I’m in a position to test this hypothesis, because my grandmother was a Cypriot who settled in London. Did she become English? Well, she wore English clothes, lived in a bungalow, cooked roast dinners, won endless rosettes in endless dog shows and had her English friends call her Doris, because they had trouble pronouncing Demetra. On the other hand, she never lost her accent, her language or her connections to her homeland, and until the end of her life she made a mean baklava. I don’t know what any of that means, other than that labels can get confusing pretty quickly.

And that is Winder’s point: forget the labels, look at the land below your feet. That’s where your “identity” comes from. Take the last wolf in England, which gives the book its title. Allegedly killed in the 1290s by a Shropshire knight named Peter Corbet (the king had tasked this “mighty hunter” and other nobles with ridding the land of predators), the wolf’s end freed up the English to transform their landscape – in a way not available to many other European countries, whose wolf populations were too large and interlinked to kill off – into “the biggest sheep farm in the world”. This turned England, in the Middle Ages, into a wealthy wool economy. It was an agricultural revolution, shaping everything from land ownership to diet to class structures to the architecture of the Cotswolds, and it happened not just because the landscape was now wolfless, but because “the country was made for grass”.

The same soil and climate that made growing grass so easy did the same for wheat – which, mainly in the form of bread, has been the staple of the English diet from the rise of agriculture to the present day, when we eat more wheat than ever. Add in the later discovery of coal, which was found in rich seams across the country, and which gave rise to the Industrial Revolution and the British Empire, and Winder suggests, only slightly playfully, that the English national character can be summed up by way of an algebraic equation: e = cw4: “Englishness equals coal x wool, wheat and wet weather.”

The book’s central case – that “natural history might be a branch of political science” – is a necessary corrective to a public debate in which we are increasingly instructed to believe that virtually every aspect of our character is a “social construct”. Winder wants us to understand that much of it is actually a natural construct, which means in turn that our development is not entirely under our control. It’s not a message that many people want to hear in an age of selfies and consumer choice: “Just as each vineyard (or terroir) produces its own unique wine, so human beings are conditioned by their local landscape. We move around more now, so the lines are blurred, but the underlying skeleton of English culture – the bare bones of the national psyche – may have changed less than we think.”

I couldn’t help, as I read, wanting more detail on this “underlying skeleton”. Where are the folk songs, the rhymes and ballads? Where is the mythology? Where are the grainy details of the lives of the people who, throughout English history, were probably shaped by the landscape most of all, and who shaped it in turn – the peasantry? There are glimpses of all this, but there is also too much school-textbooky history of inventors and their inventions, of revolutions and wars. A book like this ought to start at the bottom – in the mud, in the mulch on the forest floor. I wanted an earthier, messier story.

Despite this, there is plenty to chew on here. The question that remained when it was over though, for this reviewer at least, was: is any of it true any more? It may once have been the case that human customs were formed by places, but is it now?

When people in England, or anywhere in the modern world, have more connection, via their handheld screens, with the mill race of global consumer “culture” than they do with the landscape around them, and when only a handful of us work on or really know that landscape, what chance does it have of forming the basis of our cultural life?

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could the reason simply be that there is no such thing any more; that the English, like other denizens of techno-post-modernity, are shaped not by their natural environment, but by the artificial one that is rising to enclose them like a silicon cocoon? When the heavy metals in your smartphone are mined in Indonesia, not Cornwall, what equation defines you – and do you even care? 

Paul Kingsnorth’s books include “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist ” (Faber & Faber)

The Last Wolf: the Hidden Springs of Englishness
Robert Winder
Little, Brown, 480pp, £20

This article first appeared in the 10 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, France’s new Napoleon