After “mong-gate”, Ricky Gervais returns with a new sitcom in which he plays a character with learning difficulties…never one to court controversy, is he?
When I was 16 my Mother was in hospital over Christmas about to undergo a serious operation, the culmination of an illness she had suffered with her whole life. It wasn’t a great time for me personally, having to see my supremely strong and inspiring mother in such a vulnerable and fragile state. However, one thing helped her, and us as a family, through that period, and that was The Office. We’d missed the first run of episodes and were catching up on repeats, my Mother too, and we would continually call each other and burst into fits of laughter on the phone, endless quoting the show. This is why I will always love Ricky Gervais and defend him to the hilt.
Thankfully, he’s rarely let me down over the years. Extras was another great sitcom, a brilliant look at fame and includes to my mind the best indictment of celebrity that’s ever been seen on television, when Andy Millman talks to camera in the Big Brother house lambasting the whole sick process he’d got himself involved in.
Even on the big screen I like what he’s done. Ok, The Invention of Lying should probably have been a 10 minute sketch rather than a feature film, but Ghost Town put me in mind of old classics like It’s A Wonderful Life, and Cemetery Junction felt like a genuinely new direction for British cinema – beautiful cinematography, great young actors, a move away from social realism and into something more optimistic, though my girlfriend still hasn’t forgiven me for going to see it on my own rather than with her – in my defence, I was paying her back for taking me to see Dear John with her girlfriends. Fucking nightmare.
Recently though I think Gervais has been resting on his laurels. I wanted to like Life’s Too Short so much, I really did, but I just couldn’t get on board with it. The mockumentary style was consistently spoilt with extensive framing and re-framing of shots. The Office worked because it felt like everything was being captured there and then. In Life’s Too Short you can spot the editing, and it completely ruined the conceit of the show for me.
Also, Warwick Davies was basically David Brent, but a dwarf, and unlike Brent who we still have a soft spot for, making us genuinely happy that he finds a girlfriend and tells Finchy to fuck off in the final episode, Warwick Davies in Life’s Too Short is totally and utterly unsympathetic. When in the final episode he gets a call from the girl he’s on several occasions treated like shit, I wanted to shout “WHY ARE YOU CALLING HIM? HE’S AN ABSOLUTE SHIT-FUCK”.
Then, there was mong-gate. Oh mong-gate, how pointless you were, so pointless in fact, that I’m going to describe it in one short sentence: “Ricky Gervais says the word ‘mong’ and people go fucking mental”…probably shouldn’t have used “mental” there. Anyway, I actually agreed with some of the points he made – offence is taken not given, you can’t put a word in jail etc., but the ferocity with which he fought his corner really didn’t colour him in a good light at all. He was becoming harder and harder to defend.
Now he returns with Derek, a character who he’d been performing on the stand up circuit since before his 11 O’Clock Show days, when he’d traipse around London sharing the stage with Jimmy Carr and Sean Lock.
Derek is a care worker and an autograph hunter, and according to Guardian journalist Tanya Gold in her scathing attack on the show, he lies somewhere on the autism spectrum. However, according to Gervais, Derek is not disabled – though to everyone watching, he will probably come across as such. The show, in keeping with all of Gervais’ work, is a study of a character rather than a pursuit of a narrative, and it seems that much of the comedy is going to come from Gervais’ go-to-guy for laughs, Karl Pilkington, playing Derek’s disgruntled landlord…I’m not certain of this, but I think the character’s name might be Karl Pilkington, or it may as well be.
That aside, one look at the trailer dispelled any concern I had over the tone of the show. I don’t really know what I was expecting, but the poignant soundtrack and the sweet, simple nature of the title character made me sure that this wasn’t the kind of show I’d been reading about. If the 30 second clips I’ve seen are anything to go by, then we are being invited to like Derek, not laugh at him, and this is a massive, chiasmic difference.
Comedians most certainly should take responsibility for their material, especially if its controversial, and they must realise that even though they may not intend to cause offence, that’s not to say that offence will be taken. But here, if people are worried that Gervais is feeding bigots their lines, then we should be targeting the bigots, not Gervais. Gervais isn’t a bigot, he’s a writer, and is entitled to approach any subject he wants to if he feels like he can get a story out of it.
It remains to be seen whether Derek will be a success or not, or whether it will be developed from tonight’s pilot into a full length series, but in light of all the raft of criticism it has received, maybe you should make your own minds up? I remember the powerful effect The Office had on me to this day. I still have faith in Ricky Gervais.