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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Why hasn’t British Asian entertainment built on the Goodness Gracious Me golden age?

It is 20 years since the original radio series of Goodness Gracious Me aired. Over two decades, the UK media portrayal of Asians hasn’t used its success to evolve.

Save for a handful of special one-off episodes, Goodness Gracious Me hasn’t occupied a primetime TV slot for nearly two decades. Yet still it remains the measuring stick for British Asian comedy.

The sketch show, which transitioned seamlessly from radio to screen (it started as a BBC Radio 4 series in 1996), has stood the test of time and is as much a staple of modern British Asian culture as Tupperware or turning up an hour late.

What Goodness Gracious Me did so expertly was to take a set of serious issues facing first, second and now, I suppose, third generation migrants, and turn them on their heads. 

In making light of the pressures of academic expectation or family drama, Goodness Gracious Me wasn’t playing down the poignancy of such concerns; it was raising awareness and combatting their uglier side with humour.

It offered resonance and reassurance in equal measure; it was ok to have an embarrassing uncle who insisted he could get you anything much cheaper, including a new kidney, because other people like you did too.

That Goodness Gracious Me was broadcast on a mainstream channel was also a victory for minorities; it made us feel integrated and, perhaps more importantly, accepted. Against the backdrop of Brexit, what wouldn’t we give for that treatment now?

Really, though, the jewel in Goodness Gracious Me’s crown was its willingness to recognise diversity within diversity. It is a relic of a departed era when discourse on TV around Asians was different, when the broad church of that term was truly represented, rather than reduced to one catchall perception of British Muslims.

Goodness Gracious Me offered insight into the experiences and idiosyncrasies – religious or otherwise – of Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans and even English people. It’s what made it so accessible and, in answering why subsequent programmes have failed to reach similar heights, this is a good starting point.

Without the flexible sketch format, the modern Asian sitcom Citizen Khan has struggled to cover multiple topics, and, by being specifically about a Muslim family, it leaves many non-Muslim Asians wondering: where’s ours?

I hasten to add that I feel plenty of sympathy for the British Muslim community, hounded by tabloid headlines that attack their faith, but it would be disingenuous to suggest that non-Muslim Asians are sitting pretty in 2016 and don’t need a similar level of support in terms of positive public perception.

The current volume of British Asian media products is fairly good. The BBC has its dedicated network, The Good Immigrant essay collection was one of the outstanding reads of the year, and we still have champions of comedy in Romesh Ranganathan and Nish Kumar.

But I think ultimately it comes down to the broadness of appeal, rather than the quantity of products. Goodness Gracious Me was not only able to engage the full spectrum of British Asia; it transcended its target audience and was on terrestrial TV.

The British Asian media on offer now is up against it, released as the country’s attitude towards foreigners completes a full circle back to the same suspicion my grandfather encountered in the Sixties.

Fewer outlets are willing to explore the stretch of what it means to be Asian, either by denying it due consideration in mainstream shows or by peddling their own monolithic observations. The BBC Asian Network, for example, is laudable in its existence, but does little to engage the young Asians who aren’t into techno spliced with Bhangra.

The mainstream representations of Asians in Western film and television that are commissioned, meanwhile, are irritatingly limited and sometimes inaccurate. In an article for the Guardian last year, Sara Abassi lamented the disproportionate appetite for “gritty post-9/11 films about conservative Pakistani families”, and that the researchers of American series Homeland failed to realise that the national language of Pakistan isn’t Arabic.

When I interviewed the actor Himesh Patel for the No Country for Brown Men podcast, he suggested that the answer to re-establishing Asians in mainstream media, both here and in America, was three-fold. The first challenge to overcome was for outlets to acknowledge that not all Asians fit the same religious or cultural profile; the second was to be open to placing Asians in non-Asian specific products to better reflect their presence in society.

Patel, who is best known for his portrayal of Tamwar Masood in the soap opera EastEnders, made his third recommendation based on this role. He felt that characters should be written with only their personality in mind, making the ethnicity of the actor who plays them incidental. Tamwar’s awkwardness but underlying kindness, Patel said, was what defined him – not his skin colour.

Goodness Gracious Me, though a primarily Asian show and a comedy at that, actually taught some salient lessons about representation. It succeeded in providing a window into a multiplicity of cultures, but at the same time wasn’t a total slave to the politics of identity – several of the 100-plus characters needn’t have been Asian at all. It was reflexive to the times we lived in and a perfect advertisement for empathy. That is why we still talk about it today.

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman. He co-hosts the No Country For Brown Men podcast.