I’m not sure if there
is a single epithet that hasn’t been overused about Ricky Gervais in the decade
since The Office,and all that followed in it’s wake, took the self proclaimed
“fat bloke from Reading” to Hollywood and maverick host of the Golden Globes.
The words genius,
innovator, record breaker, award winner and more have been bandied about and
his work has been discussed, debated and decried.
Last October on his
return to twitter a darker epithet for Gervais was used. Bully.
Since the twitter spat, I spoke to Ricky
Gervais in October 2011. The word that I’d use to describe him now, no doubt
unexpectedly, is patient.
We’re not friends but
since we spoke initially I’ve challenged him privately and repeatedly in a
friendly way. I do it, not because he’s a bigoted bully but precisely because
in my opinion, he isn’t.
What I’m trying to say
is that for a man often publicly perceived as arrogant and intractable, he is
politely receptive to challenge and questioning, whilst remaining resolute that
above all, he wants his work to speak for itself.
After speaking to him
in October, he 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've campaigned against people “playing
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 7 years in and out of my
mum’s nursing home until she died in December from Alzheimer’s.
There are already some
mutterings, from people who haven’t seen the pilot, along the lines of “here we
go again I suppose he’s laughing at vulnerable people”. I didn’t find that to
be the case.
Instead of it being a
mocking disintegration of a learning-disabled man, paraded for the amusement of
comfortable unaffected people, it’s the story that really needs to be told at
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 warmth. It’s a comedy, in
my opinion, which shows the reality of a life of otherness.
With Derek Noakes the
hero of the story, Ricky Gervais replaces the attributes of a person which
society seemingly most values, with the attributes that ostensibly we don’t.
Derek is not bright,
he’s good. He’s not sophisticated, he’s kind. He’s not beautiful, he’s
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
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.
photo credit: rickygervais.com
In anticipation of the pilot of “Derek” being
screened on C4 in April 2012, I asked Ricky Gervais a few more questions.
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 Dept 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".
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
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.
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
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?
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.
You’re often 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
you know I campaign against disability hate crime. Studies have shown hate
crime always begins with verbal abuse, which has risen by 70% 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.
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. You have
to remember, this is a man who thought that Anne Frank was just avoiding paying
rent. He believes that Dinosaurs coexisted with cave men, and that a seal is a
cross between a fish and a dog.