This article was originally published in The Courier on 17th May 2014.
Derek: Wednesday, Channel 4
Before we talk about Derek, some historical context is required. Only when familiar with the evolution of Ricky Gervais’ extraordinary paean to kindness and innocence can we truly get to grips with its myriad complexities.
It’s 2002. Following the initial success of The Office, Gervais starred in an ensemble stand-up show at the Edinburgh Fringe. He introduced a character called Derek Noakes. The mannerisms were already in place: the shuffling gait, jutting jaw and forehead-flattened hair were all recognisable as the Derek we know and love today.
The important difference is that this iteration of Derek wasn’t a wise, holy fool deserving of respect. He was a figure of fun, a lonely, deluded man with learning difficulties who existed purely as a vessel for cheap “shock” humour. We were being invited to laugh at an able-bodied comedian brazenly performing a cruel playground caricature.
Gervais frequently broke character to cackle at his own outrageousness, clearly thrilled by the buzz of getting away with it. That was the “point” of Derek: an act of childish mockery from someone who should know better.
As the years went by, Gervais would occasionally slip into Derek during his stand-up act as a way of deriding those he deemed beneath him, namely “sad” autograph hunters and Britain’s Got Talent fans. Weirdly, autograph hunting and BGT are two of the “favouritest” things of Derek from the heart-warming Channel 4 sitcom.
Gervais then got in trouble for repeatedly using the word “mong” on Twitter and on stage (he described Susan Boyle as such; the newer, nicer Derek is a big fan of Boyle). Despite being widely recognised as a disablist insult, Gervais denied any knowledge of this. As far as he was concerned, it was just a harmless way of describing the comical face-pulling he’s so fond of. And yet his Boyle routine blatantly contradicts this claim: he obviously knew what it meant.
Stung by the backlash, he hastily revived Derek for an embarrassingly mawkish, heavy-handed comedy-drama about an elderly care home. We’re now expected to accept him as an inspirational figure whose unwavering kindness is a lesson to us all. And yet Derek, which resembles an inept pantomime written by an earnest teenager, constantly undermines this simplistic message.
Kindly Derek wrestles an elderly resident to the floor; a woman is mocked for being overweight; alcoholism is debilitating yet hilarious; OAP sex is repulsive; older people should be listened to, just as long as they’re given as few lines as possible; it’s perfectly acceptable for a care home assistant to have sex with her boyfriend on the premises.
What a fascinating, jaw-dropping mess. Nothing about it makes sense. And yet some have fallen for it. Viewers who cared little for the choice highlights of his earlier work now regard Gervais as a saintly purveyor of valuable life lessons. His cynical volte-face worked. Maybe he’s a genius after all.
The latest episode featured a visit to the zoo. Its whimsical celebration of the animal kingdom would’ve had Attenborough reaching for an air rifle. Meanwhile, Hannah’s mission to conceive ended in disappointment. Cue Derek: “I wanted to ‘old it… I never knows what to say, so I just hugs. And that sort of says it all.”
I don’t think Gervais is a bad person. He’s doubtless convinced himself that Derek is a sincere plea from the heart. The reality is it’s one of the most addictively incompetent works ever produced by a major comedian. I loves it, me.