Ricky Gervais's 'Derek': the reality of a life of otherness

Previously sceptical of his work, a disability rights campaigner speaks with the comedian about cont

So, Ricky Gervais has got the green light to turn Derek – a bittersweet tale of a vulnerable care home worker - into a full series for Channel 4. 

Although the show was popular with viewers – gaining 3.2 million – the response was not universally positive. Some of its critics had watched it. Some hadn’t. To my mind, the predicted “cruelty” didn’t manifest – I found the show warm and funny, and at times poignant.

Why was the response to Derek so hostile? Perhaps because in October 2011 Gervais used the word “mong” on Twitter. He was trying to make a point about the evolution of language, but it quickly became a story about how the comedian was “mocking children with Down’s syndrome”.

As a disability rights campaigner, and someone with personal experience of caring for those with disabilities, I was one of Gervais’s critics over Mong-gate, as it inevitably came to be known. But with Derek, the assumptions by some that the show would be predicated on cruelty proved to be unfounded. 

Add to this the fact that Gervais has been responsible for providing more acting opportunities for disabled people, in positive roles, than any other writer I can think of. Perhaps people may have him confused with Frankie Boyle - who ultimately recognises which side his “hate dressed up as satire” bread is buttered. 

To be Frank, or rather to be Ricky, a multi millionaire global star really doesn't need to reduce himself to shock tactics to sell a show. They sell themselves. Nor does he need to contact me to apologise for any harm that his thoughtless tweeting generated. The fact that he did says much more about the man behind the myth than a perceived desire to be seen as the king of controversy. 

We’re not friends but since we spoke initially I’ve challenged him privately and repeatedly in a friendly way. For a man often publicly perceived as arrogant and intractable, he is politely receptive to challenge – while remaining resolute that above all, he wants his work to speak for itself.

A few months ago, Gervais sent me the pilot episode of Derek and asked me to tell him what I thought. I was worried that this would be the watershed of my opinion of Ricky Gervais, because I actively campaign against people “playing disabled”. 

Since he sent it to me I’ve watched it several times and each time I’ve laughed and cried. I haven’t seen cruelty, I haven’t seen Gervais “playing disabled”, but I have seen reality in the subject matter, having spent a lot of the last seven years in and out of my mum’s nursing home until she died in December from Alzheimer’s.

Instead of it being a mocking disintegration of a learning-disabled man paraded for the amusement of comfortable unaffected people, it’s a story that really needs to be told at the moment.

It’s the story of a socially isolated, gentle, vulnerable man surrounded by other people who society wants to forget, but told with humour, heart and real warmth. It’s a comedy which shows the reality of a life of otherness.

Derek is not bright, he’s good. He’s not sophisticated, he’s kind. He’s not beautiful, he’s compassionate.

Gervais as David Brent saw a documentary film crew as a ticket to becoming an entertainer, Gervais as Derek hopes the film crew are from “Secret Millionaire” because he’s looking for a champion and protector for himself and his friends.

The show deals with themes of loneliness, love, vulnerability and hope, told with humour and told from the perspective of people who as a society, we seem keener to laugh at than with.

I think that whatever criticisms are levelled at Ricky Gervais , despite how far he’s travelled from Reading, or how far up the entertainment ladder he’s climbed,  “Derek” shows us that his view from the top is of the stories that matter told with warmth, humour and truth.

Reproduced below are the questions I asked Ricky Gervais before the screening of the pilot of Derek.

1. You’ve often spoken about how offence is “taken and not given” but does criticism or controversy ever cause you to question artistic decisions?

I see offence as the collateral damage of free speech. I hate the thought of a person's ideas being modified or even hushed up because someone somewhere might not like to hear them.

Outside actually breaking the law or causing someone physical harm "hurting someone’s feelings" is almost impossible to objectively quantify. 

What some people might find offensive, others will not. Such is life. Offence is rarely about right and wrong but rather about feelings. Feelings are personal. Trying to have a consensus about what is objectively offensive is rather like arranging books in a library in order of merit. We'd all have a completely different order in mind. 

We can't go round not saying what we want to say in case it offends someone somewhere. It will. Some people are offended by equality. Mixed marriage. Being gay. So you're offended? So fucking what? 

Recently the New York City Departmentt of Education banned 50 terms from being used in tests administered to students for fear that they could offend. One of these words was "dinosaurs". 

2. Derek Noakes, as a character, first surfaced in 2001. Irrespective of your assertions that he isn’t learning disabled, why do you feel this belief still persists?

Well firstly there is no argument. Derek is a fictional character and is defined by his creator. Me. If I say I don't mean him to be disabled then that’s it. A fictional doctor can't come along and prove me wrong. 

He's different. But then so are a lot of people. He's not the smartest tool in the box but he's cleverer than Father Dougal, and not as different as Mr. Bean. He's based on those people you meet who are on the margins of society. Nerds, loners, under achievers.

If he had any specific and defined disability I would either get an actor with that disability to play the role or I would make sure I was an expert in that disability and the best person for the job. There are of course times when it is necessary for an able bodied actor to play a disabled role. Born on the 4th of July for example needed an actor to play both a disabled character and an able bodied character. It was naturally easier for Tom Cruise to sit in a wheelchair for half the movie than for a paraplegic to run around for half the movie. But I think it's a good rule of thumb (no offence if you don't have thumbs) to use actors with the disability of the character they are portraying. 

3. Derek is gentle and compassionate and the way you present his world is too. How important is compassion towards difference, in your worldview and in your writing?

I think compassion in creating fiction is important on two levels. Firstly, as an actor it's important to have compassion for the characters you are portraying because at some level comedy and drama relies on empathy. Secondly, and on a more personal level I like to consider the members of society that portrayal affects.  But I actually think in some ways that equality is even more important than compassion towards difference. 

Some people were offended by Life's Too Short because a character with dwarfism was an asshole. He was an asshole. But he was an asshole because of all the things he did and said. Not because of his height. Being an asshole is a staple of comedy. Are disabled performers banned from having a meaty villain role because they should always shown to be perfect? No. 

Him being an asshole was nothing to do with his disability. Some people are assholes. Some assholes are disabled. David Brent was an able bodied asshole. (Fat, with crooked teeth is not a disability.) 

Derek is not an asshole. He's better than me. He's better than most people. He's kind, loving, funny, sweet, honest, open minded, hard working and most of all resilient to everything a harsh selfish brutal world can throw at him. 

4. You’re regularly described as controversial and seemingly have a love/hate relationship with the press, which seems to inform the pre-publicity of some of your projects. Is this a price worth paying creatively speaking?

It doesn't affect me really. As long as they don't influence the creative process I don't really care that much. Luckily, people make up their own minds about things. As you get more and more successful you get more and more people with an opinion about you. The less anodyne and homogenized your work is, the greater the connection and reaction. I wouldn't have it any other way. I'm flattered that people care enough to either rush out and buy a ticket or a DVD, or sit at home angrily blogging about how many idiots rushed out and bought a ticket or a DVD. Vive la difference. 

5. As you know I campaign against disability hate crime. Studies have shown hate crime always begins with verbal abuse, which has risen by 70 per cent on the streets of the UK in the last 12 months. What are your feelings on the comedy of cruelty and do you feel it can be linked?

In comedy, particularly satire, the problem comes when people mistake the subject of a joke with the actual target. This happens to me all the time, as I tend to explore contentious and taboo subjects. Everyone has their own particular taboo, of course, and as I've already said, there is no real consensus on what is acceptable. Personally, I think no harm can come from exploring taboos, and fear of them is their very propagation. I often deal with these subjects because I like to take the audience to places it hasn't gone before. Comedy is about surprise, and I think the job of a comedian is not just to make people laugh but also to make them think.

I don't like gratuitous cruelty because it fails on a comedic level. I don't like racist jokes, not because they offend me but because they are based on a falsehood. Comedy is an intellectual pursuit, not an emotional one. As soon as you stray away from truth you veer into rallying and it's harder to find that funny. I'm not sure that you can ever hold "jokes" responsible for bullying. It's like holding weapons responsible for killing. As we've already discussed, some people are just assholes. 

6. Karl Pilkington gives an amazing performance as Dougie in Derek. He is famously interested in “freaks” which has led to criticism of him mocking people with facial disfigurement and impairments. How would you answer these comments?

I can't speak for Karl obviously, but I can tell you that he hasn't got a malicious bone in his body. I have never heard him "mock" people with disfigurement, facial or otherwise, but I have heard him talk about them in a fascinated and naive way. He is rather like a 5 year old child in a supermarket who points and says "Mummy why has that man got a weird shaped head" The mother is often mortified but she knows the child wasn't being nasty. Just inquisitive. 

Karl is fascinated by difference.  But he will get on with anyone. He has no pretensions and no filter. He says what he thinks and this can sometimes come across as harsh if you don't know him. He treats everyone equally and gives everyone the respect they give him. People have to remember, this is a man who thought that Anne Frank was just avoiding paying rent. He believes that Dinosaurs co-existed with cave men, and that a seal is a cross between a fish and a dog. 

Nicky Clark is a writer and disability rights campaigner. A version of this interview appears on her blog, at nickyclark.blogspot.co.uk

Karl Pilkington and Ricky Gervais in 'Derek', Channel 4
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Smart and politically alert, Black Panther will inspire a generation of film students

Plus, Wakanda has a border control system to make Theresa May swoon. 

Before I went to see Black Panther, I had no idea whether or not it would be any good. That might sound strange, given the positive buzz around it, but I did have a nagging suspicion that “being nice about the first black-led Marvel film” might have got mixed up with “parading my anti-racist credentials on social media”.

Well, that suspicion was an unworthy one. Black Panther is not just smart and politically aware for a superhero film – it’s smart and politically aware, full stop. Its central conflict springs from its alternate-reality vision of Africa: specifically, a country called Wakanda, home of the world’s only reserves of “vibranium”. This has allowed Wakanda to become more technologically advanced than the West – “it’s as easy as riding a hoverbike”, the country’s chief scientist says to a bemused American at one point – and it has not only never been colonised, but never been mapped. It hides its lush plains and skyscrapers inside a holographic mountain.

A rare, mystical natural resource might be a staple of fantasy films (think of Avatar’s Ronsealishly named unobtainium), but putting it in the middle of Africa gives the film both a historical resonance – untold misery was caused by the 19th century efforts of European powers to secure the continent’s mineral wealth – and a contemporary one. It’s impossible to make a smartphone without rare earth metals, and some of the places where these are found, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, suffer from what economists call a “resource curse”. Without strong governments and infrastructure, the vast wealth obtainable by mining creates opportunities for corruption, and funds militias and civil wars.

Rare resources also attract vultures: which is exactly what Wakanda’s rulers fear. If they share the source of their power,  and give away their only advantage over the West, how will they be treated? A glance at their continental neighbours would be anything but reassuring.

That question – could you honestly advise Wakanda to share its vibranium with the world? – is interesting enough. But the film’s politics go even deeper, into uncomfortable questions about culture and immigration. All Wakandans have a tattoo on their inner lips, which grants them access to the kingdom: it’s a border control system that would make Theresa May swoon.

Early in the film, King T’Challa (whose alter ego is the superhero Black Panther) discusses with one of his closest advisers whether or not they have a duty to their fellow Africans, particularly refugees. W’Kabi (played by 28-year-old British actor Daniel Kaluuya) offers an argument we are more used to hearing from Trump voters in those worthy American newspaper profiles of flyover states: won’t mass migration mean the end of our unique culture? Putting that sentiment in the mouth of someone from an uncolonised African country is deeply provocative, helping audiences scale what the anthropologist Arlie Russell Hoschchild calls an “empathy wall”. The film ultimately rejects W’Kabi’s position, but it does give it space to be heard.

There’s another layer of sophistication to the political allegory here. The film’s true villain is not the white South African arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (although the parents who gave him that name really only have themselves to blame that he turned to crime and prosthetic augmentation). It’s the deeply conflicted figure of Killmonger, King T’Challa’s first cousin.

 Killmonger (Michael B Jordan) fights T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman). Photo: Marvel.

The king’s father killed his own brother back in 1992 after discovering that he had arranged the theft of a cache of vibranium. The plan was to distribute it to black people around the world, so they could rise up against their (white) oppressors. “I think the best villains are ones that have a point of view that’s relatable and that you can empathise with,” screenwriter Joe Robert Cole said in a recent interview. “Sometimes it’s how far you take things that makes you a villain, and not necessarily the perspective.”

Again, the film gives Killmonger’s argument space to breathe. Raised by a single mother in America, when his dead father asks him in a vision why he has no tears for him, he says that life is cheap here, meaning: black life. The Wakandans are not pacifists – Black Panther can, and will, kill people with his claws – but Killmonger experiences violence as chaotic, meaningless and random. He has been brutalised by the reality of life as a black man in America, and later as a soldier in America’s foreign wars. How radical is that: a $200m Hollywood film where the villain is a personification of America’s domestic and foreign policy?

There is so much more richness in the movie that (I hope) it will inspire a generation of film students. How should we react to a king and his subjects making monkey noises at someone in an ethnic minority, trying to intimidate him into silence? (In this case Martin Freeman’s white CIA agent.) How do black Africans feel about the film’s essentially American perspective, implying a commonality between black citizens in countries with such huge disparities in average income? How do the kind of internet writers who worry about “cultural appropriation” feel about a cast which includes black British, West Indian, Zimbabwean-American and German actors doing Xhosa accents? (“The implicit statement in both the film’s themes and its casting is that there is a connection, however vexed, tenuous, and complicated, among the continent’s scattered descendants,” noted Jelani Cobb in the New Yorker.)

As a white British viewer, the most uncomfortable moment for me was when Killmonger promises that the “sun will never set” on the new Wakandan empire. It reminded me of the developed world’s anxious hope for the future: that the rising nations of the world will treat us better in their pomp than we treated them in ours.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and BBC1’s Sunday Politics. 

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia