The new Ricky Gervais Channel 4 comedy Derek is enjoyable apart from when Ricky Gervais takes centre stage, says Steve Day.
Watching the Ricky Gervais comedy Derek was like watching two distinct entities. On the one hand there was a touching, bittersweet comedy about life in and around Broad Hill care home for the elderly, and on the other hand there was Ricky Gervais hamming it up as himself putting on his ‘mong’ voice and seemingly giggling to himself about how he was getting away with it.
Not that Derek’s part was badly written, on the contrary there were some achingly funny and truthful lines that had they been spoken by an actor with learning disabilities, and there are many, would have made this a truly great comedy.
Even having a better actor, and not someone so obviously being Ricky Gervais, would have made my enjoyment so much greater, though I did laugh out loud and mostly enjoy it.
I mention the learning disabilities label on purpose because it has caused some controversy around the programme with some saying you shouldn’t use learning disability as a basis for comedy and Gervais claiming that Derek is not disabled at all. Neither claim feels right to me.
Derek’s innocence and joy of life are true of the learning disabled people I have worked with in comedy workshops over the years, whose performances can be both funny and inspiring. How I wish this program had given someone a chance to demonstrate their abilities. Julie Fernandez was terrific in The Office, what would people have made of a non-disabled actor playing her part? It just wouldn’t have been the same. That is also true of the Derek character.
And yes, Derek is learning disabled. So what? I don’t find that in itself anything to be offended by. Where there is truth there is comedy and that applies as much to learning disabled people or old folks in a home as anywhere else.
Derek’s world is a valid starting point for a comedy, I’m more offended that anyone should be excluded. The comedy shows I helped organise by a group with a range of learning disabilities contained some of the funniest things I have ever witnessed, an infectious joy at the performances and in the simple act of telling a joke and getting a laugh.
Many of our performers’ family members came to watch and most were in tears of pride, of joy, but mostly of laughter. Learning disability itself isn’t funny, but learning disabled people themselves frequently are.
Elsewhere in the programme, there were some brilliant performances, especially Kerry Godliman as under pressure head carer Hannah as she wearily batted away the forces of uncaring and uncomprehending officialdom. Karl Pilkington was a surprisingly good deadpan caretaker too.
Having had recent experience of working in a care home, again doing comedy workshops and getting the residents to put on their own comedy shows, I know this world and it was brought to the screen very well.
With our ageing population and the seemingly unstoppable march of dementia, more of us will end up somewhere like this. It will also, somehow, have to be paid for and all of it administered by people in suits who haven’t got a clue beyond the figures. In this respect Derek scored a direct hit.
Old age and disability are not something we should shy away from and I was a bit disappointed we didn’t hear anything from the residents, everything seemed to be owned by the staff and helpers of Broad Hill. But this was the first episode I’ve seen, so that may change. Just like learning disabled people, old people don’t stop being funny when they get old, they just get hidden away somewhere so you don’t realise it.
Overall, Derek was enjoyable except, rather ironically in a Ricky Gervais comedy, the bits which Ricky Gervais featured in.