On Wednesday 11th April Channel 4 aired the highly anticipated Ricky Gervais one-off comedy drama, “Derek”, the story of a slightly awkward care worker in an old people’s home.
The timing of Gervais’ latest vehicle, was a gamble, coming relatively soon after the hideously embarrassing “Mong-Gate” given that the show’s eponymous anti-hero was felt by many to represent someone who himself had a learning difficulty. Tanya Gold, of The Guardian, felt that the character of Derek was “…clearly loitering somewhere on the autistic spectrum”, whilst Tom Chivers, writing for The Telegraph, speculated that he, “…seems to suffer from some sort of mild learning disability”. Ricky Gervais, it should be said, denies that Derek is meant to represent a disabled person stating, “If I say I don’t mean him to be disabled then that’s it”, but is this the “Get Out of Jail Free” card that Ricky needs right now?
For me, “Derek” is not Ricky Gervais’ best work and considering his poor acting, especially when he is playing anyone other than himself, that is some statement. But is the programme actually offensive? I’m not sure, and if you are actually offended then you really need to be clear as to why exactly you think this way.
Let’s start by considering whether we should be offended if the character of Derek were to have an unstated diagnosis? I would suggest not, if this is your only objection, as media exposure helps to normalise once marginalised groups.
In recent years once stigmatised issues or groups such as ‘gay marriage’, ‘Tourette’s Syndrome’ and ‘the travelling community’ have all been shown on programmes of vary quality, but without doubt this exposure has lead to greater acceptance and understanding .
Hell, it was only in the 1970’s & ‘80’s when we were regularly presented with characters on tv that would today be considered racist, with white actors “blacking –up” for the BBC’s “It Ain’t Half Hot Mum” and terrible stereotypes being portrayed in, London Weekend Television’s “Mind your Language”. Since there were very few, if any, alternate views of minorities groups on television at the time, these images leeched into the public conscious and formed “the norm” for many white people’s perceptions within this country.
But what of Derek and his possible diagnoses?
Sure, the character was clumsy, possibly due to dyspraxia. He was socially awkward with hints towards obsessive behaviour, suggesting an Autistic Spectrum Disorder. And he struggled with his understanding enough to imply that he does have the mild learning disability suggested by Tom Chivers but, in my opinion, none of this necessarily means that Gervais is, either deliberately or accidently, being offensive.
Ricky Gervais specialises in the comedy of social awkwardness, so is this the reason that people are uncomfortable with the existence of this character? If the same part had been played by a more competent thespian then maybe there would have been a different reception for this piece.
There have been some fine portrayals on film and television of people who have a learning disability, or who are on the autistic spectrum. Dustin Hoffman’s portrayal of Raymond Babbitt in “Rainman” is always the first to spring to most minds, but Leonardo Di Caprio’s Oscar nominated Arnie Grape in, “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” has to be the outstanding performance, in my opinion. But should characters of this sort be limited to these “laudable” and “serious” dramas? I personally think not as this limits the exposure of this already marginalised section of society and establishes them firmly as a group worthy of only our sympathy or pity.
In 1981 Joey Deacon became the unintended shorthand for disability. Playgrounds across the country rang out with mocking mimicry for years after he was featured on Blue Peter as an example of what was meant to be someone who had overcome great adversity. In relation to Ricky Gervais, more recently, Stewart Lee, has been quoted as having concerns that Gervais has blundered his way into a potentially similar situation, in that he fears young people may turn to “Derek” as a new insult to mock and tease. In contrast to Lee, however, I actually welcome this character as being someone who adds to representations of non-mainstream characters. For me, the jokes were not at the expense of the person and whilst I am not suggesting that the Derek character is an attempt at campaigning comedy I do feel that all sections of society can be legitimate characters in comedic settings, if handled sensitively. As long as we can laugh “ALONG WITH”, not “AT” then this can be a positive thing.
As someone who has worked directly with people who have learning difficulties or who are on the autistic spectrum for over 16 years now I have a fairly good idea as to how the media can influence the public’s perception of this group. Over my career I have interviewed dozens and dozens of people for jobs working in the care sector and it is clear to me that limited exposure within the media leads to a perpetuation of stereotypes and misinformation. That people who are on the autistic spectrum can all count really quickly and solve maths problems in the blink of an eye, or are amazing artists who can draw in stunning detail any image that they have previously only glimpsed are oft repeated labels that get stuck on people. The same must be true for more negative views that people do not want to openly express.
“Derek” wasn’t perfect, but it did have some sweet moments and I would like to think that I can see what Ricky Gervais was aiming to do. I did find the show to be an occasionally touching look at unrequited love, loss and friendship, rather than an opportunity to laugh at the silly man on the tv who has special needs.
I, for one, was happy for the character to exist, within this setting at least. It will be interesting to see whether Ricky Gervais feels that the “Derek” is worthy of spending any more time and effort on, given the lukewarm reception, however.
This was recorded for episode 132 of The Pod Delusion – a podcast about interesting things.Follow @steveleedale