Friday 13 December 2019

Abandon all preconceptions: Derek is a heartfelt tribute

Derek, Wednesday. Channel 4.

Derek, starring Ricky Gervais and Karl Pilkington is a heartfelt tribute, according to Ian O'Doherty.
Derek, starring Ricky Gervais and Karl Pilkington is a heartfelt tribute, according to Ian O'Doherty.
Ian O'Doherty

Ian O'Doherty

The problem with many of Ricky Gervais's programmes, as far as his critics were concerned, was the very presence of Gervais himself. In fact, given some of the bile and venom directed towards him, there were times when it wasn't so much his presence on a programme they resented, it was his very existence. That, and of course, the way Hollywood seemed to embrace hm with as much ardour as he embraced it.

His massive success in America simply provoked more angry teeth grinding and anyone who casts their mind back to his interview with Larry David will remember a man who appears to be delighted not only by the fact that he had now arrived, but also by the fact that it was driving so many people mad.

Jealousy and rancour are a staple of the entertainment world, of course. And nowhere more than the murky, dank waters of comedy, which is comprised largely of people whose entire career is based on what a loser they are in real life.

But while Gervais gleefully mugged for the cameras as he hung around with his new Hollywood mates, it quickly reached the point of overkill — he had vanquished his enemies and now gave the impression that he was intent on dancing on their corpses — and we all know how he dances.

However, just when it looked like he was going Full Connolly and seemed one step away from developing a Valley twang, he disappeared for a while and came back with Derek, a story about a guy who may or not be developmentally challenged who works in a care home for the elderly. With Karl Pilkington as his sidekick.

When you consider that the pilot episode of Derek happened in the midst of him being involved in a ridiculous micro scandal over his use of the word ‘mong' and his insistence on pulling, shall we say, funny faces on his Twitter account, there was auto-outrage that the most casually offensive comic this side of Frankie Boyle was turning his sarcastic, ironic and occasionally mean spirited gaze towards such a delicate subject.

The pilot seemed to take many by surprise and with that surprise came, as is often the case, righteous anger — his portrayal of Derek Noakes, the big hearted but emotionally vulnerable 50-year-old with an unfortunate hair cut and strange, shuffling gait, was deemed a cruel and lazy caricature by those who had made up their mind before they had seen it. But here's the interesting thing — what many of them seemed determined to either ignore or forget was that if anyone else had been behind the series, they would have been far more receptive towards a show brave enough to make comedy out of this topic.

As it it turned out, it's not even really a comedy. Instead, it's about the travails of the hopelessly lonely and broken care workers, along with their genuine sense of duty towards the elderly in their charge and is a strangely — or not so strangely, when you think about it — powerful and moving tribute to those members of society we prefer to ignore.

It's no surprise that several of his family work as care nurses and it's an area that's close to his heart. But people were so determined to see no further than the mugging expressions and facial tics that they stubbornly insisted Gervais had finally gone too far — now he was just taking the piss out of the wrong people.

I must admit I'd approached that pilot not expecting much more than that and found myself throwing my preconceptions out the door. After I watched it the first time, I watched it again. This was the class joker, the irritating little shite who had spent the previous few years shamelessly ingratiating himself with Hollywood royalty. So, who was the butt of the joke here? Who was he ripping on? He couldn't have written something as...well, something as grown up as this, could he?

He could.

The debut season contained some wickedly funny moments, with a kind of fury at how old people are treated — by the institutions they find themselves in and the families who left them there.

Bill Hicks used to scream with rage at musicians who sold out that they should: “Play from your fucking heart!”

And that's the one, unexpected word that Derek brings to mind — heart.

Catch the new season on Wednesday — you may just change your mind about him.

Because this time, he's playing from his fucking heart.

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