When I first heard that Ricky Gervais’ new comedy drama, Derek, would see the writer play an adult with severe learning disabilities, I was apprehensive. This, after all, is a man who just months ago was using pejorative terms for people with disabilities. On the other hand, the same Guardian writer who criticised him in that piece had previously — and quite rightly — praised him and writing partner Stephen Merchant for improving the representation of disabled characters on screen.
True, Gervais and Merchant’s most recent series, Life’s Too Short, came in for some criticism — but, having read the autobiography of its star and co-creator Warwick Davis (and interviewed him for a 2010 edition of The Stage Podcast), I do think that series does not deserve any criticism towards its portrayal of short people in general. My main beef with that series was it seemed to retread ideas and situations which had already been mined to death in The Office and Extras.
But still, Gervais’s stock in trade is making humour out of situations that skirt close to offensiveness — even in interview situations, such as during this recent conversation with The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart, where (in a segment not in that clip) he suggested that Nazis were “stupid” for not finding Anne Frank earlier. So I was apprehensive about Derek.
I needn’t have been. It turned out to be a beautiful, warm story of people who need love, who give love and yet are all too often sidelined in society.
It wasn’t perfect, though. And the biggest fault was, sadly, Gervais himself.
Derek as a half-hour comedy drama showed a gentler, even romantic side to his writing — a side which has always been present, of course, as evinced by the conclusion to The Office being dominated by supporting characters Dawn and Tim finally getting together. But with Derek the character, Gervais showed that his skill lies in the pen rather than the performance. A shuffling gait and a projected underbite dominated Gervais’ characterisation, to the show’s detriment. And, indeed, to Gervais’s, for his broad strokes tended to distract from some genuinely tender moments that he was able to capture perfectly.
Elsewhere in the cast, Karl Pilkington’s dramatic debut as the nursing home’s janitor is unlikely to bother any supporting actor awards categories, and it’s hard to imagine he would have been cast by anyone other than Gervais. But he wasn’t bad at all, and his brand of down-at-heel disconsolation was an effective counterpoint to the title character’s optimism. Kerry Godliman as gentle and affectionate nurse Hannah was the true star, though — an actress and comedian with a small broadcast CV at the moment, but of whom I’d certainly like to see more.
Incidentally, the same journalist who wrote the two articles linked at the top of the piece also interviewed Gervais about Derek and attitudes to portrayal of disabled people in general on her own blog, which is well worth a read.