Thursday, 31 January 2013

#Derek: self-indulgence, saccharine and disability

Last night saw the first in Ricky Gervais's new series Derek. I posted about the pilot when it was screened last April, and I've never made any secret of the fact that I wasn't a fan. It seemed unfair for me to dismiss the series without seeing it, though, so I watched last night. The result was many, many thoughts - and here are some of them.

It's in Gervais's customary fly-on-the-wall mockumentary style. 50 year old Derek is a volunteer helper in a care home. His best friends are manager Hannah, odd job man Dougie, and a homeless man, Kev. I couldn't quite work out the purpose of Kev. He is unpleasant, smelly, alcoholic, and sexist, and really just hangs round on the periphery. Perhaps he's meant to be the antithesis of Derek's goodness and innocence?

The first episode had perhaps the most predictable plot possible for a show set in a care home. It was threatened with closure and the characters rallied round to save it. Additionally, of course, this is a timely story, with the current social care cuts.

Channel 4 billed  Derek as as a "bittersweet comedy drama", but to me there was neither enough tension for drama nor enough laughs for a sitcom. I was annoyed by the attempts to signal what emotion we should be feeling:  the sub-Einaudi piano music to show that this was a poignant or sad moment was a prime example. At times I was in danger of dying from a saccharine overdose, such as when Hannah explained the importance of caring.

It has to be said that many people loved the programme. The tweets below are just a couple of many examples.
was an emotional rollercoaster, had me crying & laughing in 30mins. Funny, sad but true and very insightful. (Emma J Fonzarell)
Just caught up with ! Absolutely Fantastic, more comedy brilliance from :) (Lisa Marwick)
But others took issue with the accuracy of the setting:
Have you ever set foot in a care home? I know you think it's hilarious to be misinformed but come on, is lazy writing. (Bitsy)

One issue that keeps coming up is whether the character Derek is disabled. Ricky Gervais continues to insist that he's not, that he's simply naive and innocent, whereas many viewers are in little doubt that Derek has some kind of learning disability. Actor and comedian Peter Serafinowicz questioned:
Why has David Brent got Down's Syndrome? (Peter Serafinowicz)
In  possibly a direct response to criticisms of the pilot, this was raised in the programme, with "man from the council" Roger asking Derek whether he'd ever been tested for autism.
'If I'm autistic would it change me? Would it kill me? Would it make me a different person?' 'No.' 'Then leave it.'
Now that's all fine for Ricky Gervais, but in real life, a diagnosis can be hugely comforting to the parents of a child with autism. A rather glib and uninformed attempt at manipulating the emotions of the viewers.

Derek has been around since the late 1990s. Back in 2001, Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant discussed the character. 
"Derek," Ricky begins, "is just a nice, simple lad who sees the world differently." "Yeah," says Steve. "That's the corporate party line. Toeing the party line. The man who sees the world differently. Brilliant."

In the end though, does it matter if Derek is disabled or not? A lot of comedy is about people doing stupid things. The problem comes when it goes beyond "mainstream" stupidity. Are we laughing at the characters or with them? In sitcoms like I'm With Stupid disabled characters are played by disabled actors, and the disabled man who originated the idea was story consultant for the series. A character with a disability being played by a non-disabled actor - particularly in a comedy - can raise questions about how accurate and sensitive their portrayal is.

And what effect will the portrayal have on public attitudes to disabled people? Comedian Stewart Lee, writing about the original YouTube videos of the character, said:
"...watching Gervais's Derek Noakes on YouTube, I imagined feral children trailing real Dereks around supermarkets, chanting "Derek Derek", as they doubtless would were the series to be made, and wondered if, sometimes, discretion is not the better part of valour." 
The evidence was on Twitter:
  try an guess who i sm ya fucking beaut!! Bet ya dnt know cause ya (Bernie Wog)
. hey man! Saw ! So glad someone is finally making a sitcom where we can laugh at retards! Classic Mate! (Alex)
And as I recounted in my previous post about Derek, I have had a group of kids shouting "Oi, Derek!" at me in the street.

I suspect what Gervais was aiming for was a version of Forrest Gump, where innocence and goodness triumph in a confusing and wicked world. Did he succeed? Not for me. It was too maudlin. Ricky Gervais can be very funny, but he needs someone - Stephen Merchant does it par excellence - to keep him from tipping over the edge into self-indulgence.

Perhaps if there's another series of Derek, the title character should be played by a disabled actor. I'd take more interest in that.


  1. Some nice points there. I'll watch the recording this evening as I had to miss it last night. And I suspect some of the points you raise will be hitting me with some force as I watch. I'm diagnosed bipolar (always interesting to see scriptwriters' takes on that) and a frequent visitor to a care home where my mum's been for 10 years. *deep breath*.. :)

  2. An interesting article and not altogether dissimilar from my own. I also find Ricky Gervias very funny but was unfortunately disappointed by this. Glad I'm not the only one as I thought that I'd seen a different show to everyone else.

  3. Just to point out that a diagnosis of autism can be comforting to the autistic person as well, especially in adulthood (my diagnosis at age 21 made no difference to my parents, but a lot to me). Sorry, autism being considered just about the parents is one of my irritants :-)

    I also know of adults who are probably autistic but take the exact view as expressed above- they are who they are and a diagnosis won't change that. So they don't see the point of going through the long process of diagnosis when it won't change their life in any way. That can be very healthy.

    I've not seen Derek (TV viewing is impossible right now) and it sounds like it's not my kind of thing anyway. But criticising that view (especially implying it'll be comfort to his parents, rather than Derek himself) feels very wrong.

    1. Thank you for those excellent points, Danni. Fully taken on board. Apologies if what I said annoyed you!

  4. each time i saw the trailer for Derek, it really made me angry. my teenage lads complained that on one hand, Channel 4 were showing ads attempting to take the stigma away from mental disabilty while on the other hand, laughing at it.
    i watched the series I'm Spazticus and while many hated it, i found it hilarious and wondered what made this acceptable in my eyes. as you stated above, it makes a big difference these character being played by disabled actors.
    as for Ricky Gervais, what do we expect from a pig but a grunt. from the man who tried to bring the word "mong" back into every day conversation.