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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When do you step in when a stranger is in distress?

Methodically, he lined up four cans of beer, spirit miniatures and a glass of wine, and got to work on them. In a very British way, I pretended to ignore it.

A little while ago I was on a commuter train during rush hour – on my way to a show somewhere in the Home Counties – when a man got on and sat next to me. In appearance he was just like the sort of businessman you’d expect on these trains: a middlingly expensive suit; short, neat hair; an iPad on which he was surely planning to open a spreadsheet, close it again, and catch up on Game of Thrones instead.

But when the drinks trolley came round it became obvious that all was not well. My new companion – whom I’d barely glanced at – ordered enough booze to kill an elephant. Methodically, he lined up four cans of beer, a couple of spirit miniatures and one of those depressing glasses of wine with a foil lid that you have to peel back. He began drinking them, one at a time, with absolute joylessness. He was clearly trying to usher himself into something as close to oblivion as possible. Plenty of people have felt like this on the outskirts of Stevenage before. Yet I couldn’t help worrying – and all the more so when I noticed he was red-eyed and seemingly on the point of tears.

Everybody else was studiously, Britishly ignoring his behaviour, but I’m a citizen of the world and so I took the more moral approach: pretending to ignore it while sneakily checking out the texts he was sending. They painted a bleak picture. He’d split up with his girlfriend. I don’t like to come across as some sort of voyeur, but her name was Becky, she lived in Guildford, and she had broken his heart. The tone of his texts was somewhat apocalyptic.

I was faced with a classic human dilemma: how much should we poke our nose into each other’s lives? I responded with a classic human decision: to do nothing until he stumbled off the train at Knebworth, and then exchange wry glances with everyone around.

A few months later I glanced at a newspaper and saw that recently a man had jumped on to train tracks, killing himself, very close to where we’d been. My heart froze for what felt like a few seconds. I made myself look at the picture.

It wasn’t the same man. It was a mere coincidence. It felt like a happy ending, in fact, until I reminded myself that it was still a very sad one.

How would I have felt, though, if it had been the same man? Appallingly guilty, I think. Even though I probably had no chance of changing the way things were for him, it would have felt as if I’d shirked my duty to another human being. Yet if I see another distressed commuter on today’s train (to Sheffield) will I make the effort to overcome personal diffidence and social taboos, and utter the question: “Are you all right?” I want to believe that I will. But a part of me suspects I’ll do the same as last time: observe from afar, let the situation take care of itself and hope that one day there might be a column in it.

Mark Watson is a stand-up comedian and novelist. His most recent book, Crap at the Environment, follows his own efforts to halve his carbon footprint over one year.

This article first appeared in the 19 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Huckster