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Helen Moorhouse: There is something in that Ricky Gervais cackle that makes me want to switch off


Derek: Ricky Gervais stars in the new one-off comedy drama

Derek: Ricky Gervais stars in the new one-off comedy drama

Derek: Ricky Gervais stars in the new one-off comedy drama

WHEN I hear him cackle I search frantically for a convenient blackboard down which to run my nails to create a preferable sound. Along with Cheryl Cole and Mad Men, I cannot understand the appeal of Ricky Gervais. From his radio persona which ridicules 'producer' Karl Pilkington in a way that makes your average schoolyard look like the Algonquin Round Table to his 'An Idiot Abroad' persona where he ridicules 'idiot' Karl Pilkington in a way that makes Jeremy Beadle look like Noel Coward, to his stand up persona ...you get the picture.

I approached 'Derek' with trepidation. What a minefield - a comedy show about a person with disability. Was mocking people of restricted height not enough? Did he have to go and start making fun of the people he's called 'mongs'? Cue moral outrage. I felt even more uneasy when I saw Gervais in character, with Hitler's haircut and the gurn of a museum neanderthal.

When I finally watched the show, however, I found it an ultimately sympathetic piece, with a lot of heart and good intentions but one major design flaw. Ricky Gervais in the lead.

Some surprises then. But he isn't without a track record at character creation. Remember Tim's burning humiliation when his colleagues tossed his shoe over the roof in The Office, and then filed back inside, leaving him alone, shoeless and taunted by pack runt Gareth Keenan? Or when David Brent himself was on the receiving end of a Chris Finch volley? Ashley Jensen's Maggie in 'Extras' - alone in her fairy-lit flat, ashamed by her much-loved golliwog toys? His tender moments are small, but Gervais has a hidden line in poignancy that's hard to beat.

What Gervais was trying to achieve with Derek, I imagine, was a tragi-comic character like, say, The Fast Show's Rowley Birkin QC or Peter Kay's Leonard – the oldest paper boy in the world. Rowley Birkin was such a classic because Paul Whitehouse is an incredible actor as well as a comic. I suspect that Gervais fancies himself in a similar class, but that's where he's wrong.

He shone as David Brent. The defining character of the comedy-of-cringe genre was new and revolutionary when he smarmed his way onto our screens back in 2001 and Gervais made his best judgement yet when he packed Brent off across the Atlantic. At that point, however, maybe it was time that he not only stepped permanently behind the camera, but behind the pen.

Extras had a host of stars that would leave Professor Brian Cox feeling faint and the show, for the most part, lived up to expectation – its strengths again the underdogs – 'Barry from Eastenders', a brave turn by a broken Les Dennis. But who can even name Gervais' character?

Cue Life's Too Short. Gervais wasn't centre stage this time. He didn't need to be. Warwick Davis's character was essentially Gervais/Brent-by-numbers – quite literally a mini-me for an ego that that had gotten too big, too fast, on the back of the proverbial one-trick pony. A pony that's controversial, nasty and likes to humiliate. Or does it? Is it in fact a lovely pony underneath? Who knows? All that we're sure of is that pony needs sugarlumps and praise - and lots of it.

The Gervais brand as we know it is surely a dying star. The Americans will only tolerate for so long the unfunny 'insults', the 'daring to say what others won't'. It's time for reinvention, to go back to basics. Could 'Derek' be his chance?

“I've never thought of him as disabled”, his creator says. “He's not that bright...he's cleverer than Baldrick and Father Dougal and he certainly hasn't got as big a problem as Mr Bean”.

There has been much debate about Derek, much bandying about of the word 'appropriate' but instead of getting het up about the portrayal of disability, we should maybe see Derek for what he is – a character, made up of pure kindness and the innocence that Gervais creates so well. What Derek needs is simply someone new to play him – getting Gervais to do it makes him a caricature, like casting D'unbelievables in Rain Man. An unknown, perhaps? Remember Leonardo Di Caprio in What's Eating Gilbert Grape?

'Derek' was just a pilot – there's still time. Pilkington in his 'first acting role' complete with his medieval hair, has to go, as does the over-used mockumentary style. But to my surprise, I liked Derek Noakes and I'd like to see him again (although care must be taken not to go to mawkish extremes). Gervais says that he doesn't care what people think of him or 'Derek'. But we know that's not true. That other people's opinions are his oxygen.

And for all of his show as the bully-with-a-heart-or-is-he, this is still the man who brought Dawn back to the Christmas party with her paints under her arm and a tear in her eye, the man who cried when presented with a kitten on a chat show.

And reluctantly I have to admit that a man who's done that can't be all bad.